soundstreamsunday: “If There Is Something” by Roxy Music

ROXY-2If in May 1972 the Rolling Stones defined and deified rock and roll (and themselves) with the release of Exile on Main Street, one month later Roxy Music’s debut album made splatter art of such ideas.  A galvanizing, glammed-out, punked-up masterpiece, Roxy Music is the first of a series of four albums (including For Your Pleasure, Stranded, and Country Life) that artfully engage a European, distinctly non-bluesy, approach to rock. Where a mere three years later Roxy would hit the disco with “Love is the Drug” and a decade on would make one of the great, soulful, chilled-out new wave records with Avalon, in 1972 the band was pushing in every direction, its self-defined non-musician Brian Eno creating on-the-fly soundscapes that turned Andy Mackay’s reeds into guitars and Phil Manzanera’s guitars into sirens, while Bryan Ferry ululated — more in the style of Roger Chapman than the smooth crooner he would become — loose, even free associative, lyrics rendered on a spectrum from oddball to heartbreaking. While their image and aesthetic fit into the cutting edge of the British glam music scene at the time (Bowie’s Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust was released just the week before), and their creation myth is inseparable from their influential visual audacity (for who could look more creepy in a feather boa and leopard skin than the be-rouged Eno?), it was the band’s intense musicianship and penchant for the melodic that was the core of its success and influence, and why you can hear this first album in everything from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Talking Heads. The sound is richly subversive, hooks are everywhere, songs use shifting dynamics to create emotional peaks. They challenge convention, but are fully wrought, they are all surface, but go deep.

Roxy Music on Amazon

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Bryan Ferry and The Jazz Age

Any of Progarchy’s Roxy Music or Bryan Ferry followers are probably already well aware that one of Britain’s greatest vocalists of the rock era has released an instrumental album.  A hot jazz album at that.  Ferry’s project was to recast a handful of his classics — for in addition to his distinctive voice the man is a fine songwriter — as Dixieland standards.  The improbable outcome of this ambition is that it works, and then some.  I think this is due to the soundness of the songs, Ferry’s deep feel for melody, and the rich layering that Roxy and his solo bands brought to the originals.  There are a lot of horizons these songs could veer off towards, and to hear “Avalon” and “Virginia Plain” receive a Hot Five treatment could make you think they were written for that type of performance.  “Love is the Drug” becomes a haunting Cab Calloway standard, and it’s possible to hear Ferry’s early influences — there is no way he could not have loved Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.”

Ferry brought to these interpretations the desire to emulate not only the arrangements of old jazz records but also their sound.  The band he put together recorded with one vintage microphone in the middle of the room — although he concedes each musician was also miked separately (which more easily accomplished the “stepping up to the microphone” of soloists of the jazz age) — with the entirety mixed and released in mono.  I supposed one could see affectation here, and there are plenty of Ferry followers who would rather the man write new songs or partner with Eno or whatever….  But Bryan Ferry has made a career and art out of affectation, and that he does it so well on The Jazz Age is a real testament, I think, to his talent as a songwriter and his skill as a performer.  I should emphasize, too, that this is not Rod Stewart reinterpreting the standards in front of a full orchestra, or “Pickin’ on Roxy Music,” but rather in its eery mono-ness conjures the craziness of Raymond Scott, the wooziness of the American swamp.  There is edge here.

Last month Bob Boilen interviewed Bryan Ferry on NPR’s All Songs Considered, and while I’ve been a fan of Ferry since Roxy’s Avalon came out, I found his thoughts on his new record illuminating of his career as a whole.  Check it out here.