Up and Over: Mew’s AND THE GLASS HANDED KITES

MEW Kites
Such a hideous cover for such a perfect album.  What were these guys thinking with this cover?  It ranks up there with LOVE BEACH.

Many years ago now, I bought my first Mew album, FRENGERS, because of the recommendation of Big Big Train’s Greg Spawton.  Greg has impeccable music tastes (and book recommendations as well), so I was more than happy to learn of the Danish band.

I can state with no exaggeration that FRENGERS pretty much blew me away.

To a lesser extent, the same true of NO MORE STORIES.

Only very recently did I purchase AND THE GLASS HANDED KITES.  For whatever reason, it’s difficult to obtain in North America.  I had to order a used copy.

Whatever I thought of Mew’s other albums, this one is perfection itself.  It’s not only magnitudes better than their other albums (which are already excellent), but AND THE GLASS HANDED KITES is up there with PET SOUNDS, SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR, and SKYLARKING.

In other words, we’re now in the realm of prog-pop godhood.  Holy schnikees.  If you don’t have AND THE GLASS HANDED KITES, get it now.  Granted, the album art is simply terrible, but don’t judge an album by its cover!!!

A proper review is forthcoming.

A Guilty Pleasure: Blancmange’s HAPPY FAMILIES

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Happy Families (1982).

I have no idea what to call this type of music.  That is, how to label it or place it in a genre.  It’s pop, to be certain.   Very clever pop.  I suppose there’s some Talking Heads influence in here, but I don’t know either band well enough to say for certain.  Regardless, I love it.  I don’t pull it out of the CD rack as often as, say, CLOSE TO THE EDGE.  But, every once in a while, a cold, grey morning calls for the wonderfully cynical and yet simultaneously innocent sounds of Blancmange.  Utterly clever.

“He’s just been shopping!”

 

 

PET SOUNDS, 1966-2016: Fifty Years of Prog

pet-sounds
Arguably, the very first prog album.

Though I’m sure someone could make the case for either REVOLVER or SGT. PEPPER’s being the first prog album, I’ve always turned to PET SOUNDS by the Beach Boys.  I’m sure there’s a bit of the American in me that desires this to be so, so I can’t completely claim to be unbiased.  I know English proggers–understandably–think of Prog as one of their many national gifts to the world, somewhere above the Magna Carta.  And, it is!  Still, it’s conceivable that it came about in California but then was perfected by the English.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

 

As Brian Wilson has noted, he found his own inspiration for the album in RUBBER SOUL by the Beatles.  Is it possible the influence went both directions across the Atlantic?  Most certainly.

Regardless, PET SOUNDS is fifty years old.  And, what an extraordinary achievement it is.  Though one might regard it somewhat probably as a Brian Wilson solo album, it came out under the name of the Beach Boys, and it carries with it many of the trademark Beach Boy sounds and touches.

Continue reading “PET SOUNDS, 1966-2016: Fifty Years of Prog”

A Tears for Fears Book Proposal (Withdrawn)

As it turns out, I had to withdraw this (as I’d written two, and the press only accepts one submission at a time), but I was pretty happy with it.  I hope to expand it and try it elsewhere.

***

Bradley J. Birzer

progarchy.com

6 West Montgomery

Hillsdale MI 49242

progarchy@gmail.com

Dear 333Sound,

Please consider this a formal submission for your series, 33 1/3.  My proposal: a 30,000 word book, SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR, examining every aspect of this 1985 Tears for Fears album.  In many ways, it is THE album of the MTV generation and certainly one of the best albums of its decade.

It is also, interestingly enough, hard to categorize in terms of genres.  It clearly comes out of the Beach Boys/Beatles tradition of symphonic pop, but it also contains elements of theater, electronica, and progressive rock.

Part of the album’s charm, though, is not merely that it came out in the exact middle of the decade, but that it’s very intelligent—in terms of music and lyrics.  It captured, I think, the spirit of an entire generation: the John Hughes generation.

Biography

I am attaching a full C.V.  I’m 47, a full professor of history, author of five biographies, and founder of the music website, progarchy.com.

Projected Table of Contents

Introduction

A brief introduction to the themes of the book, outlining it, and offering some personal thoughts on why TFF and SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR matter.  I would also include a background to the album—that is a kind of “life and times,” a context.  In this, I will discuss the vital themes of the 1980s: its politics; the Cold War; the rebellion of the John Hughes generation; MTV; etc.

Chapter 1: Tears for Fears

This chapter would ask and answer the following questions.

Who are Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith?  What was their purpose?  What did they hope to accomplish?  Why were they so interested in psychology and angst?  What were their thoughts on religion, politics, culture, life?

Chapter 2: Ruling the World

Please see my sample writing piece (below) for a guide for this chapter.  In it, I will look, in depth, at the lyrics and music of SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR, Side 1.  I will especially focus on the recording process.  Though the two biggest hits from the album, “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” appear on this side, the other two songs are critical to the success of the side and the album, providing exactly the perfect atmosphere for the entire song cycle to work.

Chapter 3:  I Believe

The sequel to chapter two, chapter three will look at the music and lyrics of side two.  Again, please see the sample writing at the end of this proposal for a guide to this chapter.  This side, unlike the first side, is a complete story.  It begins with doubt, but it ends with resignation, acceptance, and, maybe, hope.

Chapter 4: Pharoahs

As with many bands of the 1980s, Tears for Fears wrote and produced a number of songs that did not end up on the album.  These b-sides would almost certainly have been included in the era of CDs and downloads.  But, in 1985, there were still rather serious restrictions on what vinyl could hold.  The songs that TFF wrote that didn’t make the album are every bit as interesting as those that did.  The standouts are Pharoahs (a very experimental piece, anticipating much of the electronica of the early 1990s), The Big Chair, Empire Building, and Sea Song.  This is TFF at its most creative, experimenting with every kind of genre.  In this chapter, I will also look at the other musicians who helped make the album.

Chapter 5: Past and Future

For chapter five, I’d like to explore the context of the album in the broader scheme of music history.  This album clearly descends from PET SOUNDS by the Beach Boys and SGT. PEPPER’S by the Beatles as opposed to the blues tradition of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.  It also anticipates XTC’s SKYLARKING.  In essence, SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR is progressive pop.

Conclusion

A summation of why all of this matters, and what it tells us about the history of music, about the 1980s, and about ourselves.

A sample of writing 

(placed at the end of this proposal—a piece I wrote for progarchy.com)

Concise summary of book

Along with XTC, Kate Bush, and Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears was the quintessential 1980s band/act for those who thought differently from the mainstream.  Their second album, SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR, became the anthem of an entire generation of Americans—those who came of age in the 1980s, watched the movies of John Hughes, suspected their elders might not be so wise, and wondered if the Cold War would go nuclear.  Combining elements of New Wave, electronica, jazz, theater, progressive rock, and Beatle’s-style pop, with a song cycle of intelligent lyrics and stories, SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR touched on the most important themes of the 1980s: power; honesty; integrity; love; confusion; and loss.

It is also one of the best-selling pop albums of all time, and remains just as relevant today as it did in 1985.

Competition

Amazingly enough, considering how many copies SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR has sold, there is no book specifically about it or Tears for Fears.  A solid piece of analysis, Mad World, does a nice job of explaining the appeal of New Wave.  This book, however, would be a help rather than a competitor.  Roland Orzabal has written an autobiographical novel, but, again, this will help rather than hinder a book on SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR.

Why me?

From a personal standpoint, I fell in love with SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR the day it arrived on the shelves of my local record store.  I’ve been playing it non-stop for thirty years, and I love it today as much as I did in 1985.  I have written five biographies and co-authored or edited two other books.  The biographies have especially done well—in terms of critical acclaim and sales.  I write weekly blogs for one major website (the site receives 150,000 reads/month), and I founded a popular website dedicated to music, progarchy.com.  I’m also quite active on/with social media.  I have a sizeable reading audience, overall, and I have connections with record companies, musicians, and publishers.  And, I’m obsessed with writing!  Hypergraphia.

Which 33 1/3 books?

I’m a fan of the series.  It reminds me very much of the types of books published in the interwar period—the books such as those in Essays in Order (ed. by Christopher Dawson) and in the Criterion Misc. Series (ed. by T.S. Eliot).  Short, intelligent, crisply-written books meant to be read in an evening or two.  Of the series itself, my favorite is ACTUNG BABY.  I think that the author does a perfect job of mixing his own ideas (theological as well as philosophical) and his own voice with the ideas and voice of Bono.

Audience

Any person who is nostalgic for the 1980s.  This means, of course, a whole slew of folks in their forties and fifties, each in the middle of her or his career and most with disposable income.  That Mercury has just released the definitive six-disk box set of SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR, overseen by master audiophile, Steven Wilson, will help as well.  But, also, anyone interested in good music—whether jazz, rock, or classical—will like the book.  My music website, progarchy.com, will promote this book as much as possible.  Progarchy.com has over 3,000 permanent subscribers, and we receive anywhere from an additional 500 to 8,000 reads per day.  Finally, Tears for Fears is about to release a new album, and this will add to the interest of SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR.

I also have an extensive background in public speaking and radio (some TV).  I will promote this book with a happy and professional intensity!

Date

I’m flexible.  I’m a fast writer (serious, though), and I could have this to you as early as January 1, 2016.  You set the date that’s best for you, and I will meet it.

Series

As mentioned above, I love the series.  I wish more publishers did this kind of series, and I would be deeply honored to be a part of it.

Sample writing

[N.B.  This is taken from a retrospective I wrote for progarchy.com.  It’s a bit more personal than I would make the book on SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR, but I think it will give you an idea of why I like the album as much as I do.  Also, it’s worth noting that PROG magazine (Issue 53; February 2015), used my piece as the basis of an article by Paul Lester, “How Prog Were Tears for Fears?”]

 

Title: About As Good as Pop Gets

As I finished my junior year of high school, Tears for Fears released its second album, the first to make it huge in the U.S., Songs from the Big Chair.

The first album, The Hurting, proved the sheer brilliance of Orzabal and Smith, but it also felt very, very, very, very (ok, I’ll stop–but, really, very) constricting.  As Orzabal and Smith released their primal screams and healed their own hurts, the listener entered into a sort of padded but rhythmic asylum for 41 minutes and 39 seconds.

Possibly the breath would simply disappear if that album went on 21 more seconds.  Imagine Andy Summers shouting “mother!” or Phil Collins begging for his “mama” but with serious prog sensibilities.  Well, you get The Hurting.

Enough.

In contrast, Songs from the Big Chair, though still thematically dealing with emotional and mental trauma, sends the listener into realms of openness and euphoria.  The entire album is full of possibilities, full of what might have beens–all of them good, a cornucopia of aural pleasures.  For the listener, Songs from the Big Chair is one huge intake of morning air in the Rocky Mountains.  This is pop at its purest, achieved, really, only by the Beatles and XTC.  Rarified.

 

Side one (yes, I’m old enough to remember sides).  Frankly, the two American hits, “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, are the weakest tracks on the entire album.  But, that said, they’re still brilliant.  “Shout” is righteous pop, filled with a soaring guitar that might fit nicely on a Big Country album.  “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is a clever dig at oppression and imperialism, dressed in a sunny tune.

Both of these songs played so often on radio and MTV in the mid 1980s in the United States that it’s impossible for me to avoid thinking about Apple Computer, Ronald Reagan, the Icelandic summit, or John Hughes when hearing even a few notes of either.

“The Working Hour,” track two, rings with jazz flourishes and an urgency lyrically and musically.  It begins with pure taste, as brass and keyboards gently dance around one another.  Though only one second shorter than “Shout”, the song has much more depth to it.  It’s Orzabal’s guitar work, however, that makes the song so beautiful.  That, and his voice–the depth and anguish of it all.  It all ends up being a song that never ages, never becomes tiresome.

Track four on side one, “Mother’s Talk,” has the percussive feel of much of The Hurting but without the claustrophobia.  Indeed, it feels far more Latin American and than it does European.  Or, perhaps, it has a bit of Peter Gabriel in it.  Whatever it is, it works wonderfully, a perfect way to end side one.  As with The Hurting, the lyrics are gut-wrenching and desperate, dealing with the fears of conformity and the inability to resist what is clearly dangerous in a community.  In the end, the weak person destroys not only his own soul but the very integrity of society as well.

 

Side Two, a dramatic tale from beginning to end.  Starting with ominous notes from a grand piano, Orzabal picks up lyrically from the previous album.  “I believe,” he cries in his best croon, an affirmation that the therapy expressed in The Hurting has accomplished something.  Well, at least that’s his hope. By the end of the song, however, Orzabal expresses nothing but doubt.  Who are you to think that you can shape a life?  No, too late.

The song slides perfectly into “Broken”–less than three-minutes long, but full of 80s production–with big and angry guitar, a relentlessly driving bass, and intricate keyboards.  “Between the searching and the need to work it out,” Orzabal laments, he deceived himself by believing all would be well.  Impossible.  “Broken.  We are broken.”Then, the haunting line: a moment only between being a child and being a man, seeing one’s life in continuity, all that is good and all that is wrong.  Tempus fugit.  A moment.

Back to full-blown, over the top, crooning pop: “Head over Heels.”  Sheesh, Orzabal explains, I just wanted to talk, to enjoy your company.  I didn’t realize this was going to get so deep, so quickly.  He then explains that his family desired so much of him and for him.  He.  Well, he just wanted some freedom to find his own path and his own creativity.  So hard to do.  “I’m on the line, one open mind.”

As the song fades out with a chorus of “la-la-la-la (repeat x20),” Orzabal’s voice twists and the album returns to “Broken,” ending, strangely, with a live audience cheering wildly.  As the audience’s applause dies down, swirling, psychedelic keyboard and hypnotic voices emerge.  Again, with the tasteful guitar of side one.  The final six minutes of the album seems like something that might have appeared on a pre-pop Simple Minds or a Tangerine Dream album.  Electronica not for dance, but for centering and psychic probing.

The lyrics to the final song, “Listen,” conclude nothing but add a certain mystery to the whole album.  Only a few lines repeat: Russia attempts to heal, while the pilgrims head to America.  Meanwhile, Orzabal chants his desire to soothe feelings and bring mercy.  Spanish voices cry in bewilderment.

The final noise of the album: percussion that sounds as though an ocean wave has overcome all.

*** 

For me, the album is the sound track to my senior year of high school.  My debate colleague and one of my life-long friends, Ron Strayer, and I listened to the album over and over again, adding the b-side “Pharaohs.”

Frankly, I think the overwhelming popularity of Tears for Fears in the 1980s and some of the pretentiousness of their lyrics has relegated them merely to 80’s status, locked in that decade as though a museum piece.  They deserve more applause and attention from those of us who love music.  I never particularly liked The Seeds of Love (1989), but I think Elemental (1993) and Raoul and the Kings of Spain (1995) are some of the most creatively crafted rock/pop albums ever made.

Though, the final Tears for Fears album, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, could be an XTC-style Dukes of Stratosphere paean to the Beatles, it works.  It has some of the best pop written. . . well, since Abbey Road.  “Who Killed Tangerine?” especially has to be one of the most interesting pop songs of all time.

But, these are topics for other posts.  For now, enjoy a rediscovery of Songs from the Big Chair.

Roland Orzabal is Our Greatest Living Pop Artist

imagesIn my post two days ago offering a twenty-year retrospective of RAOUL AND THE KINGS OF SPAIN by Tears for Fears, I made some bald claims:

Orzabal has never embraced the term “progressive,” identifying it with Pink Floyd, but he is certainly the most experimental pop musician alive—rivaled only by Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Robert Smith, Andy Partridge, and Peter Gabriel.  From my perspective, Orzabal is the greatest living pop musician, but I think this would be open to debate.  And, of course, the debate would demand a proper definition of pop.

A good friend of mine (a fellow music lover and a fellow Kansan), Derek, properly challenged this assertion of mine while also admitting how much he loves Orzabal.

the-ultimate-collection-540906693c1e4

I did my best to defend my claim.  Here’s the conversation:

Derek: “From my perspective, Orzabal is the greatest living pop musician…” Wow! I’m still trying to wrap my head around that statement. Not disagreeing necessarily, but wow. I love Orzabal’s work but also equally love Neil Finn’s work, especially with Crowded House (and double especially on the album “Temple of Low Men”).  Oleta Adams with Orzabal on “Me and My Big Ideas” is just sublime. I had forgotten how much she brought to the TFF sound. Hiring her was a stroke of genius on the part of Orzabal and Smith.

Me: Derek–it’s debatable, for sure. But, I think about Orzabal’s willingness to experiment–and his slow but excellent body of work over 30+ years. I’m excluding straight rock and prog musicians in the comment. I must admit, I don’t know Neil Finn’s work beyond a few wonderful songs he wrote in the 80s.  But, for example, Michael Stipe is good, but his music sounds dated to me in a way that Orzabal’s doesn’t.

Derek: All compelling points, ‪Bradley. The point about Orzabal’s “slow but excellent body of work over 30+ years” is well taken.  If you can, give Crowded House’s “Temple of Low Men” a spin. It is downright criminal that that album wasn’t a smash. The song “When You Come” should have been just as big of a hit as “Don’t Dream It’s Over” or “Something So Strong.”  Finn is hands down one of my favorite pop music lyricists, bar none. An example from the aforementioned “When You Come.”

When you come across the sea

Me like a beacon guiding you to safety

The sooner the better now

And when you come the hills

Will breathe like a baby

Pulled up heaving from the bottom of the ocean

The sooner the better now

When you come to cover me with your kisses

Fresh like a daisy chained up in a lion’s den

The sooner the better now

I’ll know you by the thunderclap

Pouring like a rain of blood to my emotions

And that is why

I stumble to my knees

And I haven’t even mentioned the other amazing songs from Temple of Low Men like “I Feel Possessed,” “Into Temptation,” “Sister Madly,” and “Better Be Home Soon.”

Me: The first master was Brian Wilson, in my opinion, but his career, for obvious reasons, faded quickly.

Derek: Agreed 100%.

Me: Andy Partridge is brilliant, but he’s so dark and cynical. It’s hard to take some of his music, especially when he’s not tempered by ‪Dave Gregory. Then, Paul McCartney, but, again, a career that was stunning but relatively short–though some of his best work was with early Wings.

Let me try to defend my claim that Orzabal is the greatest with a bit more gusto and in a larger space.  A few caveats, however.  Yes, I’m an American.  Yes, I’m prone to hyperbole.  Yes, I’m an American prone to hyperbole!  The kind of hyperbole that makes non-Americans uneasy.  Neil Peart is the greatest drummer who ever lived.  George Washington is the greatest American ever.  SPIRIT OF EDEN is the greatest prog album ever written.  KIND OF BLUE is the greatest jazz ever made.  The Aeneid is the greatest story ever written.  Etc.  Etc.  Etc.  I plead guilty to hyperbole.

I also plead guilty to wielding strong loyalties.

Reunion!  Beauty and success, too.
Reunion! Beauty and success, too.

So let me try to explain what I mean about Roland Orzabal.

First, he is experimental, and he’s more than willing to take chances, wherever those chances lead him.  He’s willing to embrace high pop (Sgt. Peppers), art rock, soul, gospel, rock, power pop, prog, minimalism, electronica, and dance.  His very output and his very life seems to transcend labels in the best way possible, just writing what needs to be written, when and where it needs to be written.  And, this is just within his individual songs.

His albums, each taken as a whole, are equally diverse:

  • THE HURTING: Minimalist New Wave
  • SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR: Progressive Pop (Art Rock)
  • SEEDS OF LOVE: Jazz, theatric soul and pop
  • ELEMENTAL: Atmospheric and moody pop
  • RAOUL: Autobiographical earnest pop
  • TOMCATS: Electronica
  • EVERYBODY LOVES A HAPPY ENDING: High Art Rock/pop; progressive pop
  • Orzabal’s B-sides: every thing and every genre imaginable.

Second, think about his competition, as I mentioned in the above discussion with my friend, Derek.  Brian Wilson was brilliant, but, for sad and obvious reasons, he has not been able to sustain his career.  Sir Paul McCartney had an amazing run with the Beatles and with early Wings, but, he too, wasn’t able to sustain it.  His pop became more and more bland as the mid 70s became the late 70s.  Robert Smith is a master as well, but, frankly, he’s so much better when he’s writing gothic rock than when he writes pop.  DISINTEGRATION is The Cure’s best album because it’s not pop in any way.  There’s no “Friday, I’m in Love,” to bring the album down.  Peter Gabriel is Orzabal’s greatest rival, but even his music has a sameness (relatively speaking), at least over time, that Orzabal has avoided.  At this point, Gabriel is simply offering (brilliant, of course) reworked versions of his music from the 70s and 80s.  And, as great as Andy Partridge is (my gosh, think about the gorgeousness of a song such as Bungalow), he’s so unremittingly dark and bitter.  He desperately needed a Dave Gregory to temper him.  Other candidates are out there.  Sarah McLachlan?  She made three great albums, then descended into blandness.  Sixpence None the Richer?  Again, wonderful, but lost it after three albums.  Michael Stipe?  So great at one point, but his music seems dated now.

Third, Orzabal’s lyrics.  Whether telling a story, railing against a politician, writing about depression, or simply stringing works together for the love of the words themselves, Orzabals lyrics are always very clever, and so very able to mixed note and/with meaning so perfectly.  I don’t always agree with his politics or religious views (I’m probably as libertarian and conservative as he is liberal; and I’m also a practicing (if poor) Roman Catholic, while I understand he is not only a lapsed Catholic but an atheist), but I always take him and his ideas seriously.  And, whether he’s writing about love, loss, redemption, physics, or anything else that matters, he’s very, very good!  His lyrics mix intelligence with whimsy, but they’re also just so beautifully constructed.

Fourth, his voice.  Granted, you always know when Orzabal is singing.  But, he can vary it in so many ways, and he can make the strangest, weirdest voices, when the music demands it.  For the longest time (well, for thirty years), I thought this was all just studio trickery.  I was wrong.  After seeing him live, I realize just how capable of goodness and weirdness(!) he is.

Fifth, he’s utterly sincere—whether its in his music, his lyrics, his views, his moods, or his first novel.  Whatever it is, it has meaning to him.  One of my greatest pet peeves is when an artist tries to mock his own success or mock those who adore him and his art.  It’s one thing to be humorous and self-deprecating (both of which are wonderful and necessary in this rather insane world).  It’s a completely different thing to mock one’s fans.  There’s nothing cynical about Orzabal’s art.  What you see is what you get, though, of course, always layered and nuanced.

One major admission.  I could not have written this piece a week ago.  As I mentioned in my concert review of TFF the other day, I had assumed for thirty years that TFF was at their best in the studio.  I’d dismissed their live performances as uninspired.  Granted, I did so out of complete ignorance, having never seen them play life until six days ago.

Seeing them perform in Denver last Sunday night made me realize just how wrong I was.  A year or so ago, I wrote about SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR as the best pop album ever written.  Now that I’ve seen TFF live, I can state with conviction and evidence that Orzabal is our greatly living pop artist.

And, I’ll make this prediction.  The forthcoming TFF album will be an unexpected and satisfying work of art that will take the pop and rock world by storm.  Orzabal and Smith aren’t living on or in the past.  They are at the absolute height of their game right now.  And, of course, they’ve earned every single accolade they will receive.

The Catholic Imagination of Roland Orzabal: Tears for Raoul

Review retrospective: Tears for Fears, RAOUL AND THE KINGS OF SPAIN (Sony, 1995; Cherry Red, 2009).

Twenty years ago, Roland Orzabal (born Raoul Jaime Orzabal de la Quintana to an English mother and a Basque/Spanish/French father) released the fifth Tears for Fears studio album, RAOUL AND THE KINGS OF SPAIN.

Overall, we should remember, 1995 was a pretty amazing year for music—really the year that saw the full birthing of third-wave prog.

Raoul's mythic mother.
Raoul’s mythic mother.

Not all was prog, of course, but there was so much that was simply interesting.  Natalie Merchant, TIGERLILY; Radiohead, THE BENDS; Spock’s Beard, THE LIGHT; The Flower Kings, BACK IN THE WORLD OF ADVENTURES; Marillion, AFRAID OF SUNLIGHT; and Porcupine Tree, THE SKY MOVES SIDEWAYS.

As the time that RAOUL came out, I liked it quite a bit, but I didn’t love it.  The first five songs just floored me, but then I thought the album as a whole fizzled in the second half.  Or course, when I write “fizzled,” I mean this in the most relative sense.  Even Orzabal’s weakest track is far better than most musicians will ever achieve in and with their best.

So, I’m judging one TFF song only with another by TFF.

There’s a bit of interesting history behind the release of the album.  This would be the second of only two albums that appear under the name Tears for Fears without Curt Smith.  Whereas the first, 1993’s stunning ELEMENTAL dealt with the breakup of the twosome, RAOUL tells a mythical story about himself.

More on this in a bit.

So, not only was this the last album without Smith, it was also the first album on the new label, Sony.  Previously, Tears for Fears had shared label space with Rush: on Mercury Records.  Mercury had gone so far as to release promo copies of RAOUL, complete with different artwork and a different track listing.  I’ve never actually seen a copy of the Mercury promo, but I’d love to get my hands on one at some point.  Instead of the tracks “Hum Drum and Humble” and “I Choose You,” the original listing had “Queen of Compromise.”

Since its official release in 1995, there have been three different versions of the album: the Sony 12-track original; a deluxe cigar box edition; and the 2009 Cherry Red edition—the original release remastered, five b-sides, and acoustic versions of the tracks “Raoul and the Kings of Spain” and “Break it Down.”

Not surprisingly, given Orzabal, the b-sides are every bit as good as the full-blown tracks, and the acoustic version of “Break it Down” is quite moving with its additional line: “No more walls of Berlin.”  My favorite of the b-sides is “War of Attrition,” a martial exploration of relationships that simply slide out of existence.

Though written and produced in a post-LP/vinyl world, RAOUL has, for all intents and purposes, two sides.  Tracks 1 through 5 make up the first side, and the seven remaining tracks, bookended by versions of “Los Reyes Catolicos,” make up the second side.  This isn’t surprising either, given that SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR and ELEMENTAL have the same structure.  Orzabal has never embraced the term “progressive,” identifying it with Pink Floyd, but he is certainly the most experimental pop musician alive—rivaled only by Paul McCartney, Robert Smith, Andy Partridge, and Peter Gabriel.  From my perspective, Orzabal is the greatest living pop musician, but I think this would be open to debate.  And, of course, the debate would demand a proper definition of pop.

Side one of Raoul is jaw dropping.  The first time I played the second track, “Falling Down,” for fellow progarchist, Kevin McCormick, back in late 1995, he replied, “Wow.  It’s just so earnest.”  I’ve never read or heard a better description of the song.  It is, utterly and essentially, earnest.  There exist both revelation and humility in the song, perfectly intertwined.

Some of us are free

Some are bound

Some will swim

Some will drown

Some of us are saints

Some are clowns

Just like me they’re falling down

All five songs of side one—again, as I’ve defined the sides—flow so readily from one to the other.  No break in sound.  Essentially, these are five parts of a single track.  While my favorite track is “Falling Down,” “God’s Mistake” is also a standout.

And, frankly, so is the finale of side one, “Sketches of Pain,” an obvious and intelligent allusion to Miles Davis’s “Sketches of Spain.”  As with “Falling Down,” this track is confessional without mere navel-gazing.

Side two, gives the listener snippets of what can really only be described as a mythic autobiography.  And, yet, despite the autobiographical nature of the entire album, side two seems to look at the life of the protagonist from a broader perspective than side one.  If side one is confessional, side two is almost historical and analytical.

What if, as family history has suggested, Roland had been Raoul, descendent of the Catholic kings of Spain?  Naturally, this side begins with a version of “Los Reyes Catolicos”:

When time is like a needle

And night is the longest day

A home is a cathedral

A place where a king can pray

Ghosts all gone

Ghosts all gone

The following track, “Sorry,” explodes into a bitterness that emerges every once in a while in TFF songs.  Accusations and questions fly.  “Do you love or do you hate?  Why do you hesitate?”

“Humdrum and Humble” begins with an experimental loop before transforming into a clever pop song.

“I Choose You,” a piano ballad of emotional depth follows.

Immediately after comes an up-tempo song filled song effects as well as some appropriate absurdities, “Don’t Drink the Water.”  This is pure pop sweetness.

The penultimate track, “Me and My Big Ideas,” sees the return of soul diva, Oleta Adams.  Much as they had on “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” she and Roland offer a meaningful—if not downright profound—duet, balancing the strengths of each other well.

The album ends with a softly building version of “Los Reyes Catolicos.”

My blurry picture of TFF in Denver, June 2015.
My blurry picture of TFF in Denver, June 2015.

Like all of the music of Tears for Fears, this album holds up very well, even after twenty years.  Indeed, the flaws I thought I perceived when this album first came out simply don’t hold up.  I don’t think the flaws have disappeared as much as I simply didn’t understand or appreciate what Orzabal was doing in 1995.

In hindsight, I appreciate the art and the choices he made to make this art.  Not that he needs my appreciation, but Orzabal certainly has it.

Friendship and Art at its Highest: Tears for Fears in Denver, 2015

Last night, my wife and I—just about to celebrate our 17th wedding anniversary—treated ourselves to a concert by Tears for Fears.

For those of you who read progarchy.com regularly, you know that not only do we as a website love the work of TFF, but I, Brad, have been rather obsessed with Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith since 1985.

Yes, 30 years—just four more years than I’ve been in love with Rush.  And, of course, what a comparison.  Can you imagine Peart and Orzabal writing lyrics together?  Tom Sawyer meets Admiral Halsey!

A blurry iPhone picture from last night's concert in Denver: Tears for Fears.
A blurry iPhone picture from last night’s concert in Denver: Tears for Fears.

I came to TFF in the same way almost every American my age did, from hearing “Everybody wants to rule the world” on MTV.  What a glorious song.  Here was New Wave, but New Wave-pop-prog.  Here were intelligent lyrics.  Here, to my mind, was music done properly.  Having grown up on Yes and Genesis and Kansas, I wanted my New Wave to be just a bit edgier than, say, that of the B-52s.  I wanted my New Wave artists to take themselves as seriously as Yes had done on “Close to the Edge.”

Well, as I’ve written elsewhere at progarchy, Songs from the Big Chair has remained in my top 10 albums of all time—ever since I first purchased it in 1985.  Of course, I worked backwards after discovering TTF, finding The Hurting to be a brilliantly angsty and claustrophobic look at the world.  I think I’m just about six years younger than Curt and Roland, and I could easily imagine them as schoolmates.

Since 1985, I have purchased every single thing TFF has released—every TFF studio album, every live album, every cover, every b-side (TFF’s b-sides are every bit as good as the Cure’s; the b-sides for each matter, a great deal), every remaster, every deluxe edition, and every solo album.  No matter the cost, I’ve happily paid the price.  When I switched to CDs in the 1990s, the first two I bought were The Hurting and U2’s October.  I also have Orzabal’s novel.  Yeah, I’m definitely a bit obsessed.

Have I revealed enough of my TFF street cred to move on?

***

So, despite loving TFF as one of my three favorite bands for thirty years (Rush, Talk Talk, and TFF), I owe the two Englishmen a rather large apology.  For thirty years, I’ve dismissed their live performances as much as I have lauded their studio work.  Not that I really knew much about them live.  I’d never seen them actually in the flesh.  Everything I knew of them live had been recorded, and it always felt a bit “uninspired” to me, with their vocals especially sounding weak.

Well, let me be blunt.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Last night, TFF played their hearts out.  I mean: Played.  Their.  Hearts.  Out.  Holy Moses.  Not only were they amazing live, they were even better live than on their studio albums.  I thought it must be just my excitement at the moment as I listened to them last night.  My very American enthusiasm—the kind that makes the Brits think me “over the top”—can sometimes get the best of me.  But, no.  Right after the concert, I listened to the brand new remastered (Steven Wilson) version of Songs from the Big Chair just to check myself and my impressions.  I wasn’t wrong.  They did sound better live than on Songs from the Big Chair.  But, for thirty years, I’ve been wrong!  So, my apologies.

From the first explosion of sound to Roland and Curt waving their final goodbyes to the audience, they performed flawlessly, with deep emotion, and with a complete (equaled only by Rush fans at a Rush concert) connection to the audience.

And, Roland and Curt loved every moment of the concert.  No English reserve here.  Just pure love of the art.

The show began with what I assume was a taped recording of a number of voices singing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”  In hindsight, I’m questioning whether this was taped or not, as the voices might very well have been Roland’s, Curt’s, and the guest female vocalist’s (I apologize—but I didn’t catch her name).  However it was done, it was done well.  From complete darkness and the disembodied voices floating around the venue, an explosion of light and sound revealed the full band, and they immediately played the opening song of “Everybody. . . .”

From that very first explosion and revelation, TFF held the entire crowd (about 18,000—there were no empty chairs or spots in the entire venue) in rapt attention.  I mean, that audience belonged to TFF: lock, stock, and barrel.

Though the band never took a break—expect for a minute or so before the encore—it would be fair to divide the show into two sets, broken by a cover version of Radiohead’s “Creep.”

The first set ran for 10 songs without a single pause in the music—with the exception of some very sincere and humorous banter from Roland, Curt, and the audience—Everybody; Secret World; Sowing the Seeds of Love; Pale Shelter; Break it Down Again; Everybody Loves a Happy Ending; Change; Mad World; Memories Fade; and Closest Thing to Heaven.

Set Two, coming after Creep, consisted of: Advice for the Young at Heart; Badman’s Song; Head over Heals; Woman in Chains; and Shout.

So, TFF played at least one song from every studio album except Raoul.  The first set emphasized The Hurting and Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, while the second set featured The Seeds of Love.

As a three-decade long TFF fan(antic), let me make a few observations—all of which were revelations to me last night, whether minor or major ones.

First, as noted above, Roland and Curt were in top form.  Not only did they sound simply perfect (Roland’s voice only gets better with age), but they were obviously happy and confident.  Indeed, I think they were fairly overwhelmed by the loving response of the audience.  At one point, Roland talked about a recent conversation with Curt.  Roland, remembering their performance at Red Rock’s in 1985, asked Curt when the “best days” were?  Curt responded: “now.”

Second, Roland is hilarious.  He loves adding weird voices on a number of his songs.  This, I knew.  I just assumed it was all studio fun.  What I’d never realized before—not yet having seen them live—is that Roland is very clearly channeling Peter Gabriel from his Genesis days.  No, Roland wasn’t wearing strange outfits, but he was definitely playing different characters throughout the songs, especially in the first set.  During “Break It Down” (featuring a very enthusiastic Curt, even though this song came from one of the two albums Roland wrote without him), Roland pretended to be Paul McCartney’s Admiral Halsey.  It was hilarious and quite true to the art.

Third, set one could’ve been none more prog.  It was just so artfully woven together.  Every song flowed into every other so beautifully.  Really, so TERRIBLY beautifully.  I was riveted.  Whether the songs were in the XTC vein of “Everybody Loves a Happy Ending” or the Steve Reichian vein of “Pale Shelter,” everything flowed together so perfectly.  Obviously, Roland and Curt had created, essentially, a whole new album with their choice of individual tracks.  What a tapestry of sound and texture.

Sadly, I never caught the names of the supporting band members, but they performed perfectly as well.  In particular, I was struck by how the band as a whole rearranged songs from The Hurting, changing out the brass for fascinating drum or guitar fills.  Again, it could get NONE MORE PROG!  The transition between “Memories Fade” and “Mad World” was especially powerful, with the guitarist capturing the attention of the audience with a really weird but compelling solo.  It could’ve been a 1972 Yes concert.

Fourth, the real friendship—whatever their past—between Roland and Curt was palpable.  Simply put, these two men belong together.  In a full-bodied Aristotelian/Thomist kind of way, nature meant these two to walk the earth together at the same time.  One of the most moving (of many moving) moments came when Curt sang “Change.”  As he sang the lyric, “What has happened to the friend I once knew,” Roland just looked at him with a knowing and satisfied smile.  All spontaneous, all beautiful.

Fifth.  This wasn’t a nostalgia tour.  This was real.  A real concert with real artists who have made art so well that it breathes freely and readily even after three decades.

What more to say?  13 hours after Roland and Curt waved goodbye to us, I’m still in a satisfied state of mind and soul.  That my wife and I got to share that evening—an evening of art, friendship, meaning, and creativity with one of my three favorite bands over 2/3 of my life—means everything.  I’m just basking in the afterglow.

If you have the chance, do not under any circumstances miss this tour.  I’m already planning on seeing Tears for Fears again in Detroit in September.  When I asked my wife if she’d want to go to see them again, she responded, “Of course.”

Vertica: Evoking and Melding the Spirits of Flannery O’Connor and Sixpence

Review of Vertica, The Haunted South (Radiant Records, 2014). Songs: Holding Smoke; Temperance; Ghost of Summer; Always; Obsidian; You’ve Been Warned; The Wind Has Teeth; Believing and Pretending; The Furthest Place; Open Water; Pearl; One Last Chance to Resurrect; Go North.

The band: Emily Brunson (Lead Vocals); Tyler Downey (Guitar, Vocals); Joshua Ruppert (Bass); James McCurley (Drums, Vocals, Piano).  Producer and Engineer: Jerry Guidroz

Verticals first album, the very gothic (southern gothic, that is) THE HAUNTED SOUTH.
Vertica’s first album, the very gothic (southern gothic, that is) THE HAUNTED SOUTH.

For quite a while in the 1990s, I thought pop couldn’t get much better than Sixpence None the Richer. The first album grabbed me, the second captivated me, and the third floored me. Absolutely floored me. I still think that third one (their 1997 self titled album) one of the best albums I’ve ever heard or probably ever will hear. It’s not at the level of Skylarking or Songs from the Big Chair, but it’s very, very close. Then, of course, came the fourth album, Divine Discontent. What a disappointment. Granted, it wasn’t the kind of disappointment I felt with Pure Reason Revolution’s Amor Vincit Omnia—which I discarded rather unceremoniously after only a few listens. What a piece of barnyard excrement that was. I’m honestly not sure how a band could fall so quickly and steeply.

Stop, Birzer! This isn’t an article about your personal rants or about the decline of PRR (though, The Dark Third is just so, so could—how could they fall apart so quickly. . . ).

Vertica's four members.
Vertica’s four members.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to praise a great (brilliant) new band. I’ve had a review copy of Vertica’s The Haunted South for a little over a month now. And, I’ve thought about writing this review ten to twenty times, at least. Today, I finally made myself write it. By made myself—I don’t want to suggest writing this is a burden. It’s not a burden in the least, though it is hard work. Why? The album is just so good, I owe it the very best review I can give it. The album is so good, writing a review of it somewhat intimidates me. On the good side. . . in the time I’ve had a copy of this album, I’ve listened to it at least thirty times. Probably once a day.

It’s not prog, but it is very fine pop-rock with lots of art and prog elements. If you could combine the best of Mazzy Star, Sixpence None the Richer, The Cranberries, and IZZ, you’d come very close to the excellence of this band. Some of it is folkish, some of it is simply poetic, some of it is gothic, some of it is pop, and some of it is very hard.

Yet, with nothing but excellence, The Haunted South all flows together.

There’s something distinctive about the voice of the lead vocalist, Emily Brunson. She does sound a bit like the lead singer of Sixpence, but without the coyishly girlish voice often employed on the poppier tunes of Sixpence. Brunson’s voice can be sweet, but it’s always utterly earnest and never saccharine. The lead songwriter, James McCurley, knows exactly how to write music to fit Brunson’s near perfect vocals as well. Anyway, no matter what style of music or genre Vertica is employing, Brunson’s vocals are so good and so distinctive, they essentially become the sound of the band.

This brings me to McCurley. This is a guy to watch over the next several years and even decades. He’s already proven his talent, now he will show us what a force he is. He can write music very well. I assume he’ll only get better. But, his greatest strength is his lyric writing. I’m always a sucker for great lyrics, and these are great lyrics. Poetic in a mysterious, haunting, fog-filled woods kind of way. Listening to this lyrics, I feel as though I’ve found a connection to the voice and soul of Flannery O’Conner, fifty years later.

If you order this CD, and you should, avoid the download. Not because the music isn’t wonderful—because it is—but because you owe it to yourself to own the booklet, complete with lyrics.

Oh, boy. Love finding new things. I’ll be following Vertica for years to come. And, the adventure has just begun.

To order (and you should; early and often), click either of these links.

https://vertica.bandcamp.com/album/the-haunted-south

http://www.radiantrecords.com/products/555-vertica-the-haunted-south.aspx

A Classic Album: SIXPENCE NONE THE RICHER (1997)

Sixpence None the Richer

The self-titled 1997 album.
The self-titled 1997 album.

Twenty years ago, the almost entirely unknown (then) and barely remembered (now) Texas-Tennessee band, Sixpence None the Richer, released its second album, a pop masterpiece, This Beautiful Mess. The cover, a picassoesque homage with eye-popping reds and yellows, captivates today as much as it did two decades ago. Imagine a southern American version of The Sundays crossed with Nebraskan, Matthew Sweet, and a little bit of the poppiest aspects of XTC, and you’ll start to get a sense of this album. The best tracks, by far, are the least poppy songs: “Within a Room Somewhere” and “Disconnect.” Each is existential and necessarily plodding. Each gorgeously develops organically with hardly a pop hook in audible range—at least relatively speaking.

Continue reading “A Classic Album: SIXPENCE NONE THE RICHER (1997)”