Tag Archive | synth pop reviews

“Niagara Falls” by Greg Hawkes

Welcome to…the 80’s!

Bleep. Bloop. Bow bow bow…bow buh bow bow…fwee…zip zoooooo…blip blip…Bah bah bah! Bah bah bah!

That’s my interpretation of “Niagara Falls,” the first solo album by The Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes.

This might be a hard review to write (and read, for that matter).

Okay, so you’ve probably heard a few songs by The Cars, right? “My Best Friend’s Girl”? “Just What I Needed”? Maybe even “Let’s Go” or the super duper hit “Drive.” Drive by The Cars. Heh Heh HEH.

The Cars were an amazing pop band led by the super tight pop smarts of Ric Ocasek and featuring the amazingly underrated lead work of Elliot Easton. Ocasek was a solid rhythm guitarist who could compose a great pop song in his sleep.

However, when you think of The Cars, do you think of the ultra clever lyrics? Or the blazing guitar solos? Maybe you think of Ric’s detached vocals or ugly mug crooning out backing vocals for “Drive”?

You probably do. I know that I do. But the thing that stands out the most for me and which always brings me back to The Cars is the keyboard work of Greg Hawkes.

Hawkes was probably the most talented member of the group, instrumentally: he was not only a great keyboard player but he could also play bass, a little guitar, some drums and even saxophone. He later recorded an album of all ukelele covers of Beatles tunes with the uke taking up every single instrument part.

Mostly, however, Hawkes was a master of weird keyboard textures, layering his synths creatively and creating independent melodies and counter melodies that almost always served as the song’s main hook.

For example, sing “Let’s Go” in your head. Right now. Did you sing the vocal melody or the rhythm guitar part? Or did you start singing “bow bow bow…bow buh bow bow”? Of course you did! That weird little keyboard melody is a perfect hook and it combines with the tight melodies and harmonies of Ocasek to create an unforgettable tune.

Maybe every single note Hawkes played was dictated to him by Ocasek: I’ve never heard any Ocasek solo albums and couldn’t really tell you. However, listening to this 1983 solo album (released at the height of Cars mania (which didn’t exist)) I get the distinct feeling that Hawkes had a lot more to do with the keyboards parts and general arrangement than most people realize.

Basically, this sounds exactly like the Cars but with almost no vocals and a lot more keyboards. Hawkes plays every instrument on the album (except for a brief flute part by his wife, Elaine). Instruments include thousands of keyboards, some rhythm guitar and programmed drums.

I mean, it sounds EXACTLY like The Cars circa “Shake It Up” and could perhaps be an album of outtakes for all I know.

As a result, it sometimes sounds like slightly cheesy keyboard pop but without the amazing pop songwriting gift of Ocasek. Hawkes is smart enough to avoid singing and lyrics (only blathering out “Jet lag, it’s a drag” and “Voyage into space, check out some other place” into a vocodor on “Jet Lag” and “Voyage Into Space” respectively.

The album definitely sounds good while it plays but as mentioned Hawkes is no songwriting: none of these songs feature a real distinctively, instantly memorable instrumental melody to guide you. Yes, they all do have melodies but they aren’t exactly…the best.

That said, the album does feature a barrage of interesting and well arranged keyboard parts and tones that show off a lot of imagination, talent and playing skill.

It really gives you a great insight into the band, especially around the time of “Heartbeat City”: by the evidence of this album, Hawkes was definitely arranging and probably completely playing at least 80% off the music on that album by himself.

But it’s lack of good melodies means it can’t really sit on the same podium as the best Cars albums or probably even the best Ocasek albums. Instead, it serves as fun piece of background music that should instantly transport you back into the 80’s and may even make you get up and dance…

Or not; after all, it has yet to be released on CD. As far as I know, cept I saw an image of it in a CD case on Google while searching for an album cover…Intriguing.

“Upstairs at Eric’s” by Yaz

Weird.

“Yaz (or Yazoo in the U.K.) were a two piece synth pop duo consisting of keyboard player/songwriter/arranger Vince Clarke, formerly of Depeche Mode and singer/songwriter Alison Moyet. They released a few singles, made a minor splash with two albums of synth pop in the early 80’s but had broken up by 1983, lasting a little over a year. Clarke formed the much more successful and long lasting Erasure while Moyet had a successful solo career.” – a boring, uninspired reviewer reviewing a band that to them meant little and who is seemingly a footnote in history.

Yaz has been plagued by that kind of dismissive attitude for a few decades now. In spite of making a splash as the “Next Big Thing” upon their debut, they quietly faded away after their demise, victims of their own success.

Clarke found a much more compatible, long lasting partner in smooth voiced Andy Bell in Erasure, pumping out nearly a dozen albums of electronic pop that has gained in complexity of arrangements in a way which the relatively stark “Upstairs at Erics” simply can’t seem to compete.

Moyet, the bluesy voiced shouter on top of all of Yaz’s tunes, went on to a more appropriate blues oriented direction, finding her feet on material that featured more live instrumentation and which suited her vocal approach more effectively

Basically, Yaz has been forgotten as a stepping stone for Clarke from early Depeche Mode (who’s later success eclipsed even his own in Erasure) while also bringing the solid vocalization and songwriting skills of Moyet into the consciousness of the public.

Which is a shame because this album is honestly better than both Clarke’s early Depeche Mode album, “Speak and Spell,” beats out the vast majority of his work with Erasure and though I won’t speak for Monyet’s solo work, I can’t imagine it being as irrevocably quirky and interesting as this album.

There are a few reasons that I find this album to be so interesting: the first of which is the evolution of Clarke’s music.

In Depeche Mode, Clarke had three keyboard players to work with as well as a singer. “Speak and Spell” had solid songs but had a weird, thin sound that somehow suited the material. The album was ground breaking as well, so people could ignore the thin wisp of the sound.

Later productions by Clarke for Erasure would become more epic, with layers and layers of synthesizers, drum machine work and even guitar work coming into the mix to compete with layers and layers of harmonizing Andy Bells.

Intriguing, sure and well done but this style somehow seems more generic and less interesting (to me) when contrasted with the early Yaz style which was a direct continuation of the Depeche Mode line but updated.

Basically, Clarke had better learned how to layer his synthesizers while maintaining an atmospheric, minimalistic edge that makes the material darker and more serious sounding when contrasted with the pure pop joy that marks most of Erasure’s work.

And then there is Moyet. Her raspy, blues influenced singing may seem to clash with Clarke’s sing-song melodies (darker in tone than earlier melodies but always the insistently catchy style that Clarke always preferred): but that’s only because it does.

This contrast is a huge part of what drives Yaz and makes them a more intriguing band. Bell’s vocal style may have been more suited for synth pop but it often blends in (in a good and bad way) with Erasure’s music and arrangements in a way that goes down easy but doesn’t create any tension.

On this album, Moyet sounds like the worst possible choice for the singer (due to the contrast, not her abilities) and this creates a fascinating tension in the music I’ve rarely heard.

It’s true that later raspy blues singers would attempt to mine a “synthesizer plus bluesy voice” approach but Yaz was not only the first but the best due to their commitment to songwriting, creating a diverse set of songs and creating a strange, dark aura about the album.

Which is set immediately with lead off track “Don’t Go.” A trademark Clarke synth riff enters (the kind that makes you think “I’ve heard this before!” when you haven’t) and builds up slowly until Moyet enters.

She sings a rather harrowing (if cliché) story of heart ache while Clarke layers on slight but trademark touches, such as drum stabs, harmony riffs and simple but catchy synth chording.

The album then moves through various songs that vary in tempo (“Midnight”) style (“Didn’t I Bring Your Love Down” with a more upbeat approach) and even through strange avant guard exercises (the indescriable “I Before E Except After C”).

Is it all good? Not always (especially the last track) but it remains solid, engaging and intriguing throughout. And never once loses the strange atmosphere created by the contrast between synthetic sounds and bluesy vocalization.

Yaz released another album “You and Me Both” which mines many of the same styles and approaches but in a more “pop” oriented direction. It has a solid selection of tunes but no real atmosphere which signaled the beginning of the end for the group.

It’s a shame the group lasted so shortly and became so obscure so quickly. They really had some great work which, for all the band members later successes, they never quite matched in terms of quality or intrigue.

Thankfully, you can get their entire discography on the box set “In Your Room” which features both albums, a CD of remixes (which isn’t that good) and a DVD collecting all their performances. Nice. Pick it up if you like off putting, art minded synth pop.