Tag Archive | Arrival review

ABBA “The Album” Review

“The Album” cover.

1) Eagle; 2) Take A Chance On Me; 3) One Man, One Woman; 4) The Name Of The Game; 5) Move On; 6) Hole In Your Soul; 7) Thank You For The Music; 8) I Wonder (Departure); 9) I’m A Marionette.

10+ out of 10

By 1977, ABBA was perhaps the biggest band in the world. Their list of top 10 hits was already endless and the band had undertaken several world conquering tours. After creating a perfect and a near perfect album, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the band had taken a little break or if the quality of their records suffered a little. After all, who has time to write, arrange and produce continually top of the line records in between television performances, concert tours and movie making?

Apparently, ABBA had time: the boys and gals marshal their forces and create another essentially perfect album. “The Album” is the culmination of all the work they’d done at this point and is the high point in their catalog. It’s such a beautiful, fully realized album that the band’s later immersion into a more synthesized and even disco based sound could only be a let down.

But where could the band go after this? It’s not like the band could really repeat the success by topping themselves. They push their fusion of classical, folk, rock, pop and funk style as far as humanely possible by fusing it with another genre they’d only lightly flirted with in the past: progressive art rock.

This isn’t to say that ABBA suddenly starts writing 20 minute progressive suites dedicated to armadillo tanks. Sad to say, ABBA’s lyrics are actually better than Greg Lake’s in that they actually do make some kind of concrete sense and aren’t just profundity for the sake of profundity. The band is still writing catchy pop. However, their arrangements and ambitions thicken up a bit, reaching near Beach Boy or Beatles level. This makes “The Album” this their most “serious” album and the album that is the easiest to take seriously in their catalog.

The first sign that the band has gotten more serious comes with the very first track. “Eagle” is perhaps the highest point in the band’s catalog as far as pure writing and arranging goes. Sure, it may not be as insanely catchy as their past works. But the song’s mid-tempo stomp is perfectly highlighted by beautiful acoustic guitars, soaring electric work, thick synthesizer landscapes and near perfect use of a flute. The lyrics are a little silly (singing about a soaring eagle) but the arrangements, melody and singing work in perfect unison to create a complete atmosphere of flying. ABBA isn’t known for their atmospheric abilities but this track shows when the band wanted to, they could create a near perfect atmosphere within a pop song format.

However, the very next track on the album is the rather light weight “Take a Chance On Me.” However, while past albums would have been content to focus on the stomping beat and the incredible melodies this song layers on so many arrangement details that the song becomes head spinning. The first and most obvious genius arrangement detail is the acapella introduction: when the boys start chanting “take a chance take a chance take chika chik chance” it becomes impossible not to be enthralled. Then the beat kicks in with layers of keyboard hooks (the hook after “it’s maaaagiiiic” perfectly creates a ‘magical’ mood) and a commanding vocal performance that bulldozes over the listener.

Basically, the album is simply the band completely perfecting their approach and shoving so many hooks and arrangement details into their songs that they transform into mini-art-rock-suites while still maintaining a pop atmosphere. Another great example of this is the song “The Name of the Game.” The song moves through three or four seemingly unrelated sections at will and completely seamlessly. I used to kind of look down on the song when people talked about its complexity. That’s because it doesn’t flaunt it’s complexity: it simply makes it part of the song. Try to explain how the band moves from the clavinet dominated first section to the “doo dooo doo doo” acapella section and watch your head explode: you aren’t genius enough to do it on your own.

And the band can, of course, hardly resist adding another “rock and roll” song to their catalog: “Hole in Your Soul” is perhaps the weak point of the album as it does flirt with silliness. How else can one feel about those basso profundo pronunciations of “there’s gotta be rock and roll…to fill the hole in your soul”? However, the song has a true drive to it and great melodies. The complex introduction is almost worth the price of the song.

All of these songs move by so quickly and are so rich in melodic and arrangement details that the head spins. Luckily, the band slows down a few times on the album. “One Man, One Woman” is a gorgeous ballad that sounds as deep as a valley without really commanding too much real emotion. However, the arrangement details make it sound as serious as an opera aria. “Move On” is another slow song but the its genre is hard to touch: what’s up with those stern sounding Bjorn monologues? How come they don’t sound ridiculous when by all right they should? Perhaps it’s because they’re so perfectly contrasted with the equally stern but incredibly majestic vocal harmonies and melodies of the chorus.

Of course, the biggest sign that the band has gotten “serious” is the “mini-musical” (that’s how it’s labeled) that makes up the last three tracks on the album. Bjorn and Benny would, of course, move on to musicals with their epic (and slightly failed) “Chess” musical with Tim Rice. This first attempt is much more modest and simple in comparison: it tells the story of a young girl seduced by the music business and becoming enslaved to it.

A bit cliché perhaps but the storyline is easily ignored. The musical begins with “Thank You For the Music” one of ABBA’s most loved and well known songs. It has such a potential to be cheesy (just listen to the Doris Day or Carpenter’s version to understand that) and so nearly crosses the line at times. But the melodies are truly heart felt and the vocals are full of such warmth and humility that it somehow avoids cheese and emerges as a real and emotional tribute to music. That’s the magic of ABBA: at their best they were basically cheese epitomized without tasting of cheese.

“I Wonder (Departuer)” is a pure Broadway aria, filled with pianos and dramatic vocal melodies. Not really my cup of tea but I won’t cut the band points for my own taste: it’s obviously written fully in line with the Broadway tradition and still features solid melodies and good arrangements. It’s basically a “story” song in that it progresses the story.

“I’m a Marionette” is perhaps the song that departs the most from the typical ABBA formula and shows what the guys were truly capable of when they wanted to try a bit harder. Sure, the dance beat that kicks in during the introduction is pure ABBA but what of that opening bass riff? Isn’t that a bit too fiddly diddly for ABBA? Where did those thick, dense, depressing strings come in? What are all those dramatic, heart wrenching stops in the song coming from? And what the hell is that Kurt Weil-esque chorus stomp doing in an ABBA song? Why are the lyrics so depressing? “I’m a marionette, I’m a marionette, just a silly old clown.”

A perfectly odd ending to a perfectly odd album. The album remains obtensibly pop while delving into arty formulas the band hadn’t really tried. It’s perfectly catchy and beautifully written yet strange and off beat. That’s the beauty of ABBA: on one hand, they’re the most commercial oriented band in the world. On the other, they’re weird enough to close an album with something like “I’m a Marionette.” Those contrasts are what make the band truly unique and worth investigating and reviewing.

“Arrival” Album Review

“Arrival” album cover.

 

1) When I Kissed The Teacher; 2) Dancing Queen; 3) My Love, My Life; 4) Dum Dum Diddle; 5) Knowing Me, Knowing You; 6) Money, Money, Money; 7) That’s Me; 8) Why Did It Have To Be Me; 9) Tiger; 10) Arrival

10 out of 10

And finally ABBA truly “arrives.” The title here, of course refers to the helicopter picture on the front cover while also referring to the gorgeous title track. It also refers to ABBA finally reaching the state of perfection they would achieve for two albums and sporadically throughout their career. Benny and Bjorn’s songcraft has been perfected. Agneta and Frida’s voices are now fully utilized. The band is ready to take over the world.

Which they did with this album: the number of hit singles from this album is staggering. Nearly every song on this album was a hit somewhere in the world, with none of the songs getting bigger than “Dancing Queen.” In fact, this song was their biggest hit in America (their only number one in that rather ABBA skeptical country) and deservedly so.

“Dancing Queen” is their signature song and represents every thing good about the band: a great dancing beat, amazing melodies, beautiful arrangements, head spinning singing and a dozen different hooks. What is more memorable: the opening piano runs, the rising and falling choral parts, the verse melody, the chorus melody or all them combined? A nearly perfect pop song that sets the tone for the rest of the album.

Of course, the album doesn’t start with this song: instead, it starts with the rather “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”-ish “When I Kissed The Teacher.” Of course, Sting painted a portrait of an elderly pervert who got what he deserved: ABBA shows a giddy kid, giggling at kissing the teacher. A bit accidentally perverse perhaps, but the music is great: the opening 12 string riff, followed by a series of breath taking vocal melodies and backing vocal harmonies. The backing chants during the verse are probably the best hook on the whole song.

The band doesn’t stop there with the stunning hits: “Money, Money, Money” has the simply incredible and memorable opening piano and vibes introduction combined with a “loop” of cascading piano parts. Benny plays particularly menacing chords here, in slightly “Kurt Weil” manner. The lyrics, intoned dramatically, are perhaps a bit generic but they work. And the melodies and arrangements are perfect. “Money money money, must be funny, in a rich man’s world” is an undeniably catchy memorable chorus.

Again, ABBA sticks with an aggressively upbeat style of music throughout the album. “Tiger” is particularly aggressive: the drum parts in the verse pound like John Bonham while the girls shout out an aggressive, melody that fits the atmosphere of the track perfectly: the chorus has a disco or dance rock feel that contrasts with the pounding of the verses in a way that emphasizes the strength of both, making both instantly memorable.

However, the band doesn’t stick with just this aggressive style. “My Love, My Life” is one of the band’s most effective ballads. The operatic vocal introduction, the simple but genial string arrangements, the melody, the vocalization: I fear I don’t give the girls enough credit for their vocalization. They truly make each of these tracks come to life by the power of their lungs. The “third voice” effect is prevalent throughout this album. Their harmonies on this track are particularly effective.

The band also combines an aggressive and downbeat approach with “Knowing Me, Knowing You” perhaps one of their best known songs. The aggressive guitar parts of this song actually highlight the melancholy of the melody and the lyrics. The lyrics here are not embarrassing but aren’t great either. Fun fact: the song was originally known as “Number One, Number One” as the band predicted great success for the song.

I really hate describing every track like this because it begins getting a bit predictable; great arrangements, beautiful melodies, amazing singing. Each song has its own identity, this is true but each song is ABBA to the core and could never be anybody else.

For example, what other band could take a song called “Dum, Dum Diddle” and not only make it work but make it work so well? The odd synthesizer opening leads to an upbeat, simple but fun set of lyrics and melodies that are highlighted by the nursery rhyme choruse of “dum dum diddle dee dee dum diddle de dum.” Humpty Dumpty? Who knows: the song is hilarious.

“That’s Me” takes basically the same approach of that song meaning while it’s not exactly a highlight it’s a lot of fun and is well written. This album has no filler: even songs like this, which feel like filler are simply too much fun and too well written to call filler. The band put a lot of work into making the album as entertaining as possible.

For example, the Bjorn led “Why Does It Have to Be Me?” may seem like its out of place but it brings in a weird, roots rock feel that the band rarely flirted with in the past or in the future. Bjorn actually sounds good here, with his world weary tenor sounding 100% authentic for once. The band tries to sound “rock and roll” but fails: however, the song understands this and focuses on the campy aspects of the song to make it a goofy highlight instead of a failure.

Finally, the album ends with “Arrival” a piece of “ambient disco” (!) that has such a beautiful melody that the band simply repeats it over and over again, while adding supporting instruments and arrangement twists. But it has a “disco” feel due to the beat that goes throughout the song. Surely, ABBA were never so serious yet (a precursor of things to come) yet they pull it off by focusing on creating a mood and not spoiling it with their banal lyrics. Instrumental wizard Mike Oldfield does a perfect version of the song.

The lyrics on this album aren’t exactly an upswing from past lyrics, however. Yeah the band gradually gets better: starting with ABBA and continuing for the next few albums, they are simply banal instead of embarrassing. No more “King Kong Song” here. Instead, the band focuses on simple love cliches that sound okay with the melodies and the rhythms being exploited.

Basically, don’t come to this (or any ABBA album, bar MAYBE “Super Trouper” or “The Visitors”) if you want to experience some emotions. The band is always faking their emotions. This is not a crime to me, as pop lyrics are generally banal and ignorable. They’re especially ignorable if the band creates such beautiful pop music as on this album. The band’s first perfect album (out of two, alas) that helped set the stage for the band’s (well deserved and fully understandable) conquering of the world.