Maneuvering through the quality-starved desert of this summer’s cinematic and televised options, I find myself turning to music again. My tastes, while wildly varied, don’t change all that much. I don’t think I’ve bought a new record (excluding several original film scores) since Tribe’s new record came out. Then I saw that Roger Waters and Blondie had put out new albums in the past month or so. And, as a result, I did that every-so-often search of new music from old favorites…and wouldn’t you know, Mark Eitzel and Alison Moyet dropped new music, as well, right under my nose! I should probably look away from the screen now and again…
Blondie is, of course, one of the most iconic bands coming out of the American punk/post-punk, CBGB’s stable of 1976-1982…or as I like to refer to it, my high school years. While I was never a huge Blondie fan at the time (preferring the Talking Heads, Fleshtones, Cramps, or any one of a number of their too-numerous-to-name British peers), I have come to appreciate them more in my dotage. Whether it is out of nostalgia or a new understanding of their anger at the time, I’m note sure, but ‘Plastic Letters’ finds its way on to my player quite a bit these days. Possibly because the very first song my very first high school band (ECCLES) ever tried to play was “One Way Or Another” (which we butchered).
Now, Roger Waters brings out an immediate and visceral response in most people when I bring him up. You either think of him as the genius behind some of the most important and universal music in the lives of Baby-Boomers (and beyond), whether via Pink Floyd or in early solo works, OR as an overly-loud anti-Semitic aging hack. But there can be no doubt, he is one of the five or six seminal figures of the sixties/seventies rock scene.
It’s MUCH less likely you know, remember, or have even heard of Alison Moyet or Mark Eitzel (who we’ll get to in a second). But you DO know Alison Moyet…more likely as the singer of the 80’s synth-pop band Yaz (yes, this Yaz). But she began a solo career in the nineties, retired for a time, and has released only her second album in the last decade. And while I haven’t kept up with her solo material at all, I figured she belonged in this examination if, for no other reason, then that she played a part in my growth as a musically-aware lad. It was tough being a punk rock kid in Long Island in 1979-82, since we had to go to Sweet Sixteens, and getting deejays at these fiascoes to play anything to which we could remotely relate was almost impossible. If it wasn’t for “Rock Lobster”, “Psycho Killer” and “Don’t Go”, we’d have melted in the incessant disco beat of Donna Summer and The Weather Girls.
Mark Eitzel, whose career has been as obscure as it has been artistically successful, gained what little fame he has from being the main artistic force behind one of the great American song-focused bands of the mid-80’s, American Music Club. Their seven albums released between 1986 and 1994 are about as good a run as you’re going to find, culminating in what I consider their masterpiece, ‘San Francisco’, an album located squarely in my Top Ten all time records. His solo offerings, while often hit or miss, nonetheless contain songs imbued with the kind of ache and loneliness that connect deep inside of us, in the same way that, say, Glen Hansard’s music does (alas, or maybe luckily for us, Eitzel never starred in a beloved film about music…nor does he possess the beloved accent).
So, how do they size up? Let’s take a look at them individually…
Blondie – “Pollinator”
(BMG – Infectious Records)
The first two songs on “Pollinator” are, pardon the phrase, killer! “Doom Or Destiny” brings us RIGHT back to 1979’s ‘Eat To the Beat’ Blondie. Driving, infectious, angry…old school (and, I mean old school) Blondie – and one of only two Chris Stein/Debbie Harry penned songs on the album. This is quickly followed by the 1978-punk-meets-disco-soulfulness-Blondie, “Heart of Glass” sound-alike, “Long Time” (written by Harry with Dev Hynes). And then…well…there is some other stuff. Some of it good, much of it…not. BUT, Blondie, taken as anything other than an early Post-Punk-New Wave hit/single machine, is to be disappointed. They never made great albums…or rather, they never made consistent records, at least not after ‘Parallel Lines’. But they always added a good half dozen or so GREAT songs on each record.
Perhaps this explains why Chris Stein took a step back and allowed some of the bigger names in th current rock world to have a collaborative stab. And to be fair, there are some real gems here. Once “Already Naked” gets going, it’s pretty damned good. Johnny Marr’s contribution, “My Monster” has a terrific Blondie intro, and while it doesn’t persist, it is a very good facsimile of what would have been a hit for Blondie wannabe’s, The Go-Go’s. And the album finishes extremely strong with the driving punkish dance tune “Too Much” (which would have been a huge 12″ single, back in the day), and “Fragments”, an anthemic, jump-up-and-downer penned by Adam Johnston.
But let’s take a moment to acknowledge the staying power of Debbie Harry. Her voice only betrays it’s years of use occasionally, while still very much proclaiming it’s Blondie-ness. And John Congleton, the album’s producer, obviously understands exactly what Blondie was and should be. Yet “Pollinator” NEVER verges in to the nostalgia lane. Whether the songs on it work, or don’t, the album as a whole could have easily been released in 1980. In fact, if it had followed up ‘Autoamerican’ instead of ‘The Hunter’, the band’s actual success might have continued on. Worth downloading a couple songs for your “Songs To Drive To” playlist, for sure.
Mark Eitzel – “Hey Mr. Ferryman”
This feels, sonically, much more like a long lost American Music Club record with melancholic reminiscences as its guiding principle, rather than the emotionally-sparse, angst-filled loneliness conveyed in his previous solo efforts. Most likely this is because he’s now looking back at a life (having survived a heart attack five years ago), rather than traversing through it. And, production wise (thanks, in no small part to producer, and Suede guitarist, Bernard Butler), it pretty much showcases everything he has to offer.
The disc’s opening two songs (“The Last Ten Years” & “An Answer”), as well as “Just Because,” recall a different time… a Burt Bacharach-like quality…hearkening to a time when sadness in song could still be conveyed via pleasant production – major chords mixed with minor. It is an immediate surprise to hear it from a songster of Eitzel’s reputation…and extremely pleasant.
Then there are the songs that sound the most like AMC
- “The Road”, with its counter-intuitive and heavily effected guitar solo.
- “An Angel’s Wings Brushed the Penny Slots”, a bitter treatise on the nature of suicide via alcohol, and those that come to the rescue, is counterpointed with a melotron as it’s musical bed, leading to a sound not unlike something from Bowie’s first two records.
- “In My Role As a Professional Singer and Ham”, continuing Eitzel’s love affair with ridiculously long song titles, seems to be the singer’s inner monologue as he looks out at a world judging him…his musicality, his sexuality, his public persona. It’s an astonishingly honest song…it is almost too personal to sit through. A true piece of songcraft and production excellence.
Finally, there are the quiet songs that more closely emulate his previous solo work, the highlight of which is “Nothing and Everything”, a beautiful, yet excruciating song about how we (don’t) deal with the everyday moments of violence within our relationships…both big and small…wrapped up in a Swell Season-esque production.
This is easily his best solo record since ’60-Watt Silver Lining’ released over twenty years ago. It is a fine introduction to Eitzel and AMC, and if you’re already an AMC fan, this is required downloading.
Alison Moyet – “Other”
(Cooking Vinyl Records)
So…uh…where did THIS Alison Moyet come from?! Now in a more mature place, her voice has dropped in timbre, and, given how her vibrato and phrasing almost exactly mirrors his, you could be pardoned for thinking this is a newly found David Bowie record from a time before his voice dropped to its depths toward the end – eerily reminiscent, in fact, of ‘Heathen’ in its songwriting, and occasionally venturing, ever so closely, to the Reznor-produced qualities of ‘Earthling’.
While the other albums in this review are notable for how closely they emulate their artist’s prior recordings, “Other” seems to be pushing Moyet in to a totally new place, save for the one dance offering on the record, The Time-like, infectious, and very nostalgic, “Happy Giddy“, which I’m sure is getting playing time at Berlin Nightclub, here in Chicago, where, along with the long-gone Medusa’s, I did my dancing in the mid-eighties.
That song aside, this is a thoughtful record for contemplation. Written VERY specifically from the point of view of a British woman in her fifties, setting her gaze squarely on the present, while contemplating the past. From the albums opener, “I, Germinate“, through “The English U“, and, especially, “Other“, the well of feeling Moyet exudes is palpable, sonic-ally rewarding, and relevant in its message.
Listen, I think this is a GREAT record, made all the more amazing when you find out it was produced by Britney Spears’ go-to producer, Guy Sigsworth. But none of the sparkly gloss of Spears’ records is present here. Only Moyet’s observations, emotions and appropriate musical accompaniment. If Ray Davies were to write a definitive solo record with this much self-examination, I’d be in heaven. I’m now on my fourth listening of the album, and I continue to find hidden gems throughout. Please give this a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. And at the very least, you can dance around your living room to “Happy Giddy” like it’s 1983.
Roger Waters – “is this the life we really want?”
So, let’s say you assemble a killer band of musicians to, in effect, act as an extremely high-level Pink Floyd cover band…and you’ve played the seventies output of Pink Floyd albums in their entirety on the road for over twenty years. Now, throw that band in the studio sporadically over the course of the last seven years…and, lo and behold, the musical aspects of Waters first new album in TWENTY-FIVE years, sound a whole lot like seventies Pink Floyd. If that seems like a bad thing to you, then you probably won’t like the sound of the record. It’s a decidedly good thing to me, as I’ve loved that sound since I was a wee lad discovering the true purpose of headphones, and here, the orchestration – the emotional sum of the music, are to me, quite affecting, if not as lingering.
“But what is the focus of the record? Is it another concept record? Is there a narrative,” you ask? Well, a conceptual and/or narrative album would require even a modicum of analogous content…something to represent a deeper meaning. Waters, in this go’round, says, “fuck it! Let’s just call it all what it is”. This might not be the first protest record of the Trump-era (that distinction probably goes to Drive-By Truckers), but it is certainly the angriest and most explicit in meaning. No “If I were a hammer,” here. Instead the cry is, “if I was a drone…”. This is not ironic stuff. It is dead serious.
But who does he rail against in a forty-five minute album? Those of you who saw “The Wall” concerts a few years ago, will recall that at intermission, he illuminated each brick with a small bio and photo of those killed in various wars or as the result of brutal actions by those in control. And, while the death of the little person/innocents continues to be his focus, “Is This the Life…” pushes past the individual and goes after both the power bases of the societies that continue to cause war – and the members of those societies who do nothing to stop them – presumably, us. And it’s a pointedly, and often poignantly, powerful message if you’re able to hear it.
But there must be hope in there somewhere, right? Even the doomsday-based “Radio K.A.O.S.” finished with a resounding anthem of hope. But not this record. Not one second of optimism exists in this record. It’s as if he wrote the entire record on November 7th, 2016, when most of us were feeling helpless, depressed and outraged. And the current President is all over this collection of feelings, both figuratively and literally. No, the only goal of this album seems to be to wake us up…to do more than be “woke”, and to do more than #resist. He wants us to be engaged in the process. (And for those of you who care, Israel is not directly mentioned in any lyric by name, only Trump, so, you can listen without fear of “betraying” your country.)
And, thanks to the aforementioned musical attributes, that challenge is couched in luscious orchestrations (written by the album’s producer, Nigel Goodrich), much like “The Wall”, which means you’ll either connect with it immediately or groan and roll your eyes at the similarities. Neither of which makes the music any less beautiful. Waters’, in the hands of a talented producer like Goodrich, knows how to craft a record, and he might be one of the last “big” acts to get away with something this…well…big. That it took seven years to cobble together makes its consistency all the more impressive. The first song on the record, “Deja Vu“, which is an almost note-for-note musical tribute to ‘The Wall’s’ “Mother”, is fantastic, and a terrific setup for what follows. “Picture That“, one of the less successful songs on the album, nonetheless, recalls the angrier bits from the epic, “Sheep”, off ”Animals’. “Broken Bones” recalls the song “Wish You Were Here”…if you were writing it while heading to jail after a protest. And, finally, “Smell the Roses” gets the “Have A Cigar” treatment – complete with a “Welcome to the Machine”/”Dogs” breakdown.
It’s not ALL musically derivative, however. There are moments of originality, and, with only a couple exceptions, these songs also serve the album very well, most notably, “The Most Beautiful Girl“, which sounds as if Rachael Yamagata co-wrote it. A stunning song, and the only lyric which comes close to using personal memory as a song’s base. The final three songs which act as a suite, are also fairly devoid of Floyd influence, and are also fairly good.
So, I guess to sum up, its not new Floyd, though it kinda sorta sounds like it, and it’s devoid of conceptualization, like every other Waters solo record. But it is quite good, and it is very, very angry. Not bad for a twenty-five year wait.
I don’t believe in a star or grading system. It serves a purpose to be sure, but it’s not the kind of reviewing I like. But I can safely say that the surprise stand out here is the Alison Moyet album. Eitzel and Waters deliver as much of themselves in their respective discs as you would expect, and often hope for. Only Blondie’s record disappoints, but, as stated, the individual parts are certainly greater than the sum total.
Written on 6/26/17