Saturday, February 22, 2014

My Kids and Music

One of the more pressing issues when looking to the years ahead with my daughters is: A. will they be big music fans, and B. if so, what will they be into? The massive implications of these matters are so obvious that I hardly need to spell them out for you here.

So far, I think my eight month old has more of a natural affinity for music than my 4 year old. She seems to get excited when I put on a variety of tunes in the house. Hard to tell, though, since she's still so young.

I've got a better idea with my 4 year old. She of course loves the music of the classic Disney films that she watches. She especially enjoys the 'Lady and the Tramp' soundtrack, which makes sense. That was a favorite film of hers for a long time. But I am more interested in her response to real music. Mozart worked well when she was younger to get her to sleep.

Honestly, she has been fairly indifferent to most of my music. It is on a lot in the house, and I don't see much response to it. There have been two recent exceptions, though. The other day I was listening to some Peter Murphy (singer for goth originators, Bauhaus. Although, we were listening to his more pop oriented solo work). She said "Daddy, this is scary music. Turn it off." I guess that makes sense, Murphy being the man who wrote "Bela Lugosi's Dead." On the other end of the spectrum, she absolutely lights up and starts dancing around the kitchen whenever I put on some Roxy Music (see post below). It is like a light switch. Her favorite non-Disney song seems to be Roxy's "Both Ends Burning." I put that song on and she gets up on a chair in the kitchen and dances like crazy. She will then jump down and run around the room. It seems to have the same effect of her eating two pounds of sugar. So far, that has been the only song to get that reaction. But almost any Roxy Music (even some of the artrock earlier period) will at least get her head bobbing.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Dez Record Guides: Roxy Music

You know, this is why I still get jazzed about music. No matter how much you think know, there is always more. I, of course, have heard of Roxy Music for some time. I've owned a hits collection for years. But for for some reason it just recently clicked, and I have been obsessed with their music for weeks. I cannot get enough and I've got that feeling of fresh musical discovery that honestly I have not had in a long time. It started when I got into Brian Eno's 70's solo work. After obsessing over some of those records for awhile, I remembered that he was in Roxy Music early on, so I decided pull out that old Roxy Music hits collection that I had never really cared for. Wow, these are great songs! Before I knew it, I had all of their studio albums and was delving into each of their considerable charms. It has been a steady Roxy diet ever since. After much listening and research, I think I've got enough of a handle on their material to present a good and balanced Dez Record Guide, but this is a first for the series. All of the others have been for bands or artists that I have been a fan of for years, this is a relatively new obsession. But I can deliver the same hard hitting objectivity that you have come to expect from the Dez Record Guides. And if it inspires any of you to pick up a copy of Country Life, then mission accomplished.

To understand the breadth of Roxy Music's stylistic changes over a ten year period of recording, just check out the genres that Wikipedia lists in their entry: "art rock, glam rock, protopunk, progressive rock, new wave, soft rock." Within one decade, the band can be categorized as "protopunk" and then "soft rock," and many things in between. They were one of the first rock bands of the 70's to focus on style and image as key components of their overall package, with singer/songwriter Bryan Ferry usually front and center. Fortunately, they also had some incredible music to make it worthwhile. Bryan Ferry is one of those great expressive singers, emotional yet cynical, and he developed a supercool croon in the later years. There is, of course, one Brian Eno, who was in Roxy for their first two records until leaving/being pushed out, due to creative tensions with Ferry. Phil Manzanera is a dazzling guitarist, capable of making those stylistic jumps with ease. Roxy Music can generally be divided into two eras: 1972-74 they were more experimental and art rock/glam. From 1975's Siren on, they began working more within the pop music of the time, albeit often brilliantly. Their influence is immense, whether on their contemporaries who also in turn influenced them (Bowie, Elton John) or their New Wave and early 80's progeny. The Cars, Depeche Mode and Morrissey all have cited Roxy as an influence, but none more than Duran Duran, who (successfully, I think) tried to pick up their mantle and carry it forward. Listening to Roxy Music, you can really get a better idea of what the often misunderstood Duran Duran were really trying to do, at least in the 80's.

Roxy Music (1972) ***
Some bands burst out of the gate fully formed on their debut, while others are still trying to find their way. With Roxy Music, I think, it is the latter. The raw talent of Ferry, Eno, Manzanera and the others guarantee that this is at least good and interesting, but they are still trying to find an identity. The creative tension between Ferry and Eno is present from the beginning, with Eno trying to pull the band into more experimental territory, but that tension would not fully (and often brilliantly) explode until the sophomore effort.

For Your Pleasure (1973) *****
Brian Eno's last record with Roxy Music, and it does present the intriguing question of what would they have done had Ferry and Eno been able to coexist for a couple of more records. But what is here is a thrilling creative tug of war (often within the same song: "The Bogus Man" and the title track) between Eno's desire for sonic experiments and Ferry's more grounded leanings. They manage to experiment with sounds but still, for the most part, keep it very listenable. The nine minute groove of "The Bogus Man" is fantastic, and I wish they had done more of this later, although it is probably heavily Eno.

Creative tensions between Brian Eno (ABOVE) and Bryan Ferry became too much to bear, so Eno was pushed out. He's done alright since, releasing his own pioneering records and helping to create entire genres of music, collaborating with giants such as Bowie, U2 and Talking Heads, and becoming one of the premier producers in the business

Stranded (1973) ***1/2
I know that critical consensus would have this rated much higher (even Eno, although he had just been booted from the band, feels it is their best), I just haven't been able to connect with a lot of this material. Opener "Street Life" rocks hard, "Amazona" is a mini artrock/funk fusion masterpiece, and of course "Mother of Pearl" is one of Roxy's greatest songs, featuring Ferry at his lyrical best. But "Song For Europe" and the eight minute "Psalm" sound over-wrought to me, even by Ferry's standards.

Country Life (1974) *****
The culmination of everything great about Roxy Music’s arty/proggish early period. The playing is dazzling, it is their strongest single set of songs, and the ability that they have to play in a multitude of styles and moods is impressive. What really stands out to me, though, is the artrock/progressive ambition that is grounded by an almost savage rock and roll energy at times (“Out of the Blue,” “The Thrill of It All”). “Bitter Sweet” would sound at home on Lou Reed’s Berlin. Overall, a remarkable record and one of the standout records of the 70’s.

Siren (1975) ****
I’ll use the word “remarkable” again, but this time regarding their stylistic shift. What they lose in their experimentalism (although they never completely drop it), they gain in a full embrace of some of the pop sounds of the day. That may not sound as appealing as their daring arty days, but in the hands of Roxy and especially with Bryan Ferry’s evolving cynical romantic sophisticate persona, it works beautifully. It also helps that this is a killer set of songs from start to finish. Singles “Both Ends Burning” and “Love Is the Drug” (“Love is the drug and I need a fix” croons Ferry) stand out as two of the greatest pop/rock singles of the era.

ABOVE: The album cover for Siren is typical of their arty and racy artwork. That is model Jerry Hall, who dated Byran Ferry for awhile before running off with Mick Jagger. Ferry was romantically linked with several supermodels and centerfolds throughout the 70's.

Viva! (live) (1976/1973-75) ***
Roxy was about to go on an extended hiatus so members could explore various solo or other group projects, so in one sense this is clearly a placeholder release, a live hodgepodge covering about a three year period of performances. But if you just take it at face value, it is an awesome live record. While only “If There Is Something” and “Pyjamarama” can really be said to have improved upon their studio counterparts and the back-up singers caterwauling on “Both Ends Burning” kind of ruin an otherwise burning version of the song, the whole thing has a driving energy and the song choice is interesting. My only complaint is that making it a double would have allowed it to really be a definitive statement of the band up to this point. As is, it is just a kick-ass live album.

Manifesto (1979) ***
I don’t get why this record is generally so disliked (although critic Robert Christgau is a noted fan). It essentially picks up where Siren left off, albeit with lesser compositions and it has much slicker production. But it captures the disco pop times pretty well, I think, while still maintaining some rock and roll spirit.

Flesh + Blood (1980) **
Rather bloodless and is the most overproduced sounding record in their whole catalogue, this is where Roxy sounds, for the first time, uninspired. The record as a whole is not good, but the three singles stand apart and are fantastic, especially “Same Old Scene,” whose spirit and mood Duran Duran made a career out of trying to replicate between about 1981-88.

Avalon (1982) *****
Bryan Ferry perfects his sophisticate cynical/romantic croon and also sets the template for his solo career, although he never came close to matching Avalon on his own. It is a subtle record, one that can easily fade into the background if you let it. But it very much rewards close listening. Avalon sets a late night mood that is unrivaled, and every track reveals additional charms within the sonic details upon repeated listening. For what it is trying to do, I find it flawless.

ABOVE: After Roxy Music's demise, Bryan Ferry continued on with a successful solo career, further developing his suave crooner shtick

Heart Still Beating (live) (1990/1982) **1/2
Concerto (live) (2001/1979) NR
Roxy Music Live (live) (2003/2001) NR

Since breaking up after Avalon, they have released some archival live records, including one chronicling the 2001 reunion tour. Heart Still Beating contains some interesting Roxified covers (Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”) and features some inspired playing from Manzanera, but it doesn’t really add anything to the legacy and considering it is from the Avalon tour, it has some curious omissions.

Roxy Music has quite a few compilations out there, many of which combine Roxy Music with Bryan Ferry solo tracks, doing neither full justice. Roxy Music is rather unique in that while their albums all are cohesive and in some respects are greater wholes than their individual parts, they were also a killer singles band and individual songs can stand alone. So, a very good compilation could do them justice. I just haven’t come across a satisfactory one yet.

Solo work:
Many members have had substantial solo careers or other projects. Brian Eno, of course, is BRIAN ENO and deserves his own entry so I can’t really delve into him here. Bryan Ferry released a lot of solo material as well, and while I like some individual songs of his, overall I think it pales next to Roxy’s output. Phil Manzanera was also quite active outside of Roxy Music.