Roxy Music, AVALON

avalon

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #18 – released May 1982)

Track listing: More Than This / The Space Between / Avalon / India / While My Heart Is Still Beating / The Main Thing / Take A Chance With Me / To Turn You On / True To Life / Tara

Ah, Avalon: music for Friday afternoons where the promise of a weekend’s clean slate beckons; for flawless first dates with all chemical synapses of both participants firing away; for driving the streets your hometown, everything cast in an absurdly nostalgic, comforting glow; for walking through thickly-settled woods only to suddenly arrive at a scenic, dramatic coast; for high rise balconies with a view of millions of twinkling lights below and beyond; for middle-of-the-night epiphanies; for Saturday nights that you never want to end; for languorous, cozy Sunday mornings at home; for moments stuck halfway between despair and desire; for all that is beautiful, majestic, romantic, exquisite.

We last encountered Roxy Music on their fourth album, Country Life, where vocalist/songwriter Bryan Ferry balanced transcending the ordinary and the mundane with a sense of longing for an unattainable ideal. Eight years later, he arguably came closest to obtaining the latter on this, the band’s eighth album. However, the road from Country Life to Avalon was hardly straightforward. After the band’s fifth album, Siren (1975) gave them their only top 40 hit in the US (“Love Is The Drug”), they took a four-year hiatus. The records that followed, Manifesto (1979) and Flesh + Blood (1980) downplayed Roxy’s experimental side for an evidently more smoothed-out sound, which might’ve angered some fans at the time but seems logical and inevitable now—for all their greatness, the first five Roxy Music albums are all of their time, and to continue that exact approach at the dawn of the 1980s would’ve turned the band into an anachronism. While not as excitable as, say, “The Thrill of It All” or “Prairie Rose”, songs such as “Dance Away” and “Same Old Scene” were no less passionate; they also bespoke a newfound maturity that suited Ferry’s ennui very well.

What makes Avalon endure and cohere more than the previous two albums is Ferry’s willingness to push that suaveness and warmth as far as he can (before it would peter out into mood music) and sustain it. The edgy, hyperactive nature of earlier Roxy has entirely vanished; the guitars and saxes remain vital to the band’s soundscapes, but here they’re buoyed by such contemporary instruments as period synths and the occasional drum machine. The arrangements are at once simple, but distinctly layered—on headphones, one gets a keener sense of such flourishes as the sleigh bells on “India” or the juicy synthesized bass on “The Main Thing”. Avalon is lush but not busy, sumptuous but not opulent, delicate but not fragile, tranquil but not boring.

You could say the band lays all its cards on the table with the album’s opener and biggest hit, “More Than This”: a two-note clarion call memorably kicks off this anthem of sorts, which succinctly sums up Ferry’s philosophy. In response to the song’s title, he concludes, “There is nothing.” He doesn’t let on as to what “this” is, only that it’s unsurpassable. Whatever it is, it allows him to be “as free as the wind” and he concludes, “who can say where we’re going?” After years of searching and scrutinizing, Ferry’s found something profound. Is it love, peace, wisdom, happiness? Well, who can say? The lengthy instrumental outro suggests there are no more words, only feelings—a key to understanding Avalon as a whole, for it gets by on sensations and abstractions rather than specifics. Ferry will never tell us exactly what “The Main Thing” is, but that’s okay, because all one needs to hear is how important it is to him.

The album’s other best known song is its title track, a slow, enigmatic meditation on making contact with that ideal, the sublime, or whatever you want to call it. A prime example of Ferry communicating meaning through sound more than the actual words, “Avalon” gets by mostly on Ferry singing the song’s title, his croon sweetened by some prominent female backing vocals. It’s a pleasant tune and an undeniable standard for sure, but it lacks an urgency present in much of the rest of the album. “Avalon” was an easy hit—you can imagine thousands of listeners appreciatively utilizing it as a seduction tool. “While My Heart Is Still Beating”, on the other hand, doesn’t lend itself so neatly to such a task, and for that is infinitely more interesting. Paced at a slow crawl and enhanced by sax triplets, piano trills and a suitably pulsating bass, the song finds Ferry deliriously heartbroken, pleading, “Where’s it all leading?” like a man who knows the clock is ticking. In other words, Ferry at his best.

Elsewhere on Avalon, both “The Space Between” and “The Main Thing” are spacious, immaculate and somewhat funky, repeating their melodies on endless loops, featuring call-and-response choruses between Ferry’s vocals and Andy Mackay’s sax riffs (providing a template INXS would take to the bank as the decade wore on). “Take A Chance With Me” is more musically adventurous, beginning with over a minute of seemingly free form improvisation before locking into its accessible groove, complete with crystalline, ringing guitar hook. “To Turn You On” tempers a well-sculpted wall of sound with Ferry’s most direct and euphoric chorus. However, in the album’s context, it’s merely buildup to “True To Life”: singing of an undisclosed “Diamond Lady”, Ferry muses on, well, everything, I suppose. He distills any number of thoughts or queries to a few phrases that scan poorly when isolated (“Dancing city / now you’re talking / but where’s your soul?”) but sound terrific as verses that all lead to the same conclusion: Ferry sighing the song’s title and evoking so much with those three little words.

Closing track “Tara” is more of a grace note than an actual song: a brief, lovely instrumental with Mackay’s soprano sax playing over a mélange of orchestral synths and the sound of crashing waves. Like Avalon as a whole, it feels like a conclusion and for Roxy Music, it was. Although the band reunited to tour in 2001 with rumors of working on new material, they never released another album. Ferry focused on his solo career, although nothing he did ever matched Avalon’s popularity or achievement. And yet, as much as Avalon plays like the culmination of a decade-long quest, there’s enough optimism and renewal in it to suggest that it’s also an album about beginnings. Just because Ferry has presumably found what he’s looking for doesn’t mean the quest itself is over—life goes on and Avalon is really a forward-looking album, which may explain why, despite having reached only #53 on the charts, it remains Roxy Music’s sole Platinum-certified album in the US and arguably its most iconic one.

Up next: Madness (not the band).

“More Than This”:

“While My Heart Is Still Beating”:

Roxy Music, COUNTRY LIFE

Roxy_Music-Country_Life

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #12 – released November 15, 1974)

Track listing: The Thrill of It All / Three and Nine / All I Want Is You / Out of The Blue / If It Takes All Night / Bitter-Sweet / Triptych / Casanova / A Really Good Time / Prairie Rose

As previously noted here, the best pop music is transformative—it can alter moods, color one’s surroundings and sometimes, even change minds. Naturally, the effects vary from artist to artist and from one listener to the next. I can single out music that makes me alternately feel contemplative or nostalgic or beatific and peaceful or cathartic, among other emotional states. As for music that rarely fails to fill me up with giddy, euphoric joy, well, Roxy Music is the first of many artists we’ll be encountering here who do just that .

Not everything the band recorded is necessarily joyous (and you wouldn’t want it to be—too much of any one thing will prove detrimental in the long run), but much of their best music reverberates with a swagger and a joie de vivre that hits one with an ecstatic, adrenalin-like rush. Just listen to the first measures of “The Thrill of It All’, where a riff repeated on both piano and keyboard becomes more urgent and relentless as the bass and guitar appear. You sense something bold and game changing will soon reveal itself, and you can’t help but get caught up in the anticipation and excitement of it. Then, the drums kick in and you hear singer Bryan Ferry’s drawn out, descending wordless moan over the full-bodied arrangement, and you can no longer sit still. Once he gets to the actual lyrics, strings come in, echoing the piano riff. Both the beat and tempo never waver, keeping up their steady, relentless drive. In his inimitable, enthusiastic, exaggerated, debonair croon, Ferry as usual offers abstractions more than specifics, feelings rather than ideas that he spits out in clipped phrases: “Every time I hear / the latest sound / it’s pure whiskey / reeling round and round.” You give yourself over to Ferry without a fight—you even forgive him the moment where he sighs, “Oy veh!”, for the pleasure he sings of is so expressive and tangible you can feel all of it simultaneously with him.

If “The Thrill of It All” does this for you, Roxy Music’s first five albums (recorded in less than four years!) are essential. Even with a major personnel change after the second album and a continual evolution in the band’s sound throughout all five, they are of a piece and perhaps the era’s most consistent album run next to Led Zeppelin or Steely Dan. And yet, whenever I’m in the mood to listen to Roxy, I gravitate towards their fourth album, COUNTRY LIFE, simply because it’s packed front to back with great songs. “The Thrill of It All” would be extremely high on a playlist for pumping myself up to get ready to leave the house and take over the world. “All I Want Is You” is not far behind, propelled by a similarly glam-tastic beat, only with Ferry in yearning heartbreak mode, pleading with his lover not to leave him and making a hell of an urgent case for it. Guitarist Phil Manzanera’s cathedral-like wall of chiming feedback and piercing interjections thoroughly support him without drowning him out. “Out of the Blue” immediately follows, dreamily fading in as if entering our orbit from another star, Andy Mackay’s winding saxophone gracefully softening/preparing us for the inevitable sharp impact when the primary melody emerges at full force and volume. The song then alternates back and forth between these swaying and crashing states until the coda, where Manzanera erupts into a furious, multi-tracked solo, buoyed into the stratosphere by the intense rhythmic foundation underneath.

Ah, but as I mentioned earlier, not everything about Roxy Music is euphoric. Ferry often balances this idea of transcending the ordinary and mundane with a whiff of longing for an ideal that cannot possibly be attained. In his lighter, less tortured moments, he’s an observer and a critic of the very thing he often celebrates. He’s mysterious and abstract when musing on nostalgia (“Three and Nine”) or spirituality (at least I think that’s what “Triptych” is about), saving his most astute observations for matters of romance and desire. On “A Really Good Time”, he lends a sympathetic but shrewd glance at a figure who is more of a taker than a giver. The strutting “Casanova” finds him dressing down a lothario (“Now you’re nothing but second hand / in glove with second rate now”) who could either be a scheming rival or perhaps a mirror image. This self-awareness also plays into the epic, lovesick ballad “Bitter-Sweet”, where he ruefully dismisses a soon-to-be ex (“Lovers, you consume, my friend / as others, their wine”) while he himself seems “quite amused” to see love “twist and turn” and taste “both sweet and dry.”

If the album’s more upbeat tracks are in line with categorizing the band as glam rock, the moodier stuff suggests that Roxy, like their closest contemporary David Bowie, isn’t easily pigeonholed. The haunting, forlorn “Bitter-Sweet” proceeds as one would expect, until the middle-eight, where the rhythm shifts to an oompah march and Ferry reels off a whole chorus in German. “A Really Good Time” oozes tension from how the relatively genteel arrangement gets repeatedly punctuated by intense blasts of a deliberately Eastern six-note motif which both complements and opens up the song’s melody. The baroque instrumentation of “Triptych” (seething with harpsichord and oboe) serves as a reminder of Roxy’s art-rock origins, coming off more as hymn or a tone poem than a pop song. Conversely, “If It Takes All Night” is unapologetically pop, a 1950s rock and roll homage that avoids mothball nostalgia partially because Ferry sounds so modern, but mostly because it just sounds like the band is having a really good time.

And, for all of Roxy’s pretentions and ambitions, they often temper their arty side with camp, good humor and fun (as if the scantily-clad-models-made-up-like-male-drag-queens album covers didn’t already tip you off.) “Prairie Rose” is one of my favorite album closers ever—returning to the sheer joy of “The Thrill of It All”, it finds Ferry at last abstaining from analysis and any hint of cool reserve. A lustful paean to his then-new girlfriend, model Jerry Hall (she’d eventually leave him for Mick Jagger) and her home state of Texas, it’s purely celebratory—the rare Roxy love song with a happy ending in part because it’s all about the beginning. It’s nearly disarming to hear Ferry falling unabashedly in love (his “you’re tan-TAH-lizing me!” is for the ages) and to also hear the band eagerly reciprocate: the song’s wicked slide riff, the extended guitar and sax solos, the massive yet lithe percussion all complement and enhance Ferry’s delirious happiness. It’s a stunning example of pop music’s transformative power; it’ll resurface in many different shades from other artists throughout this project (including, eventually, Roxy Music themselves again.)

Up next: the yang to Bryan Ferry’s yin.

“The Thrill of It All”:

“Prairie Rose”:

5 Things: Album Closers

Introducing an occasional new feature where I dissect examples of various pop culture phenomena and, um, basically, it’s a top five list (in no particular order). For years, I’ve also wanted to write about my favorite album closing tracks (because the “side one, track one” thing has been done to death); here’s five out of many I could have chosen.

Sam Phillips, “Where The Colors Don’t Go” (from Cruel Inventions)

At best, a strong album closer encapsulates everything great about the whole record while also feeling like an ending, providing some sense of closure. This track at the end of Phillips’ second secular LP lyrically reads like a career-defining manifesto, while Van Dyke Parks’ stirring string arrangement sweetens what could have risked sounding like a mere diatribe in a plainer setting.

Roxy Music, “Prairie Rose” (from Country Life)

Often, the best album closers are songs you never previously knew existed. Take Roxy Music’s fourth album, whose singles were “All I Want Is You” and “Out of the Blue”–both great tunes, but “Prairie Rose” is better. Everything about it showcases the glam Brits at their peak, from its propulsive, sly groove to Andy McKay’s frenetic sax solos to vocalist Bryan Ferry’s inspired interjections (“you’re TAHN-talizing me!”).

Portishead, “Glory Box” (from Dummy)

Most great album closers seem tailor-made for that slot in the sequence–you couldn’t imagine it placed in any other position (consequently, it runs the risk of sounding really out-of-place on a compilation). This trip-hop primer’s finale is a grand one indeed, slo-o-o-w-l-y fading in until it reveals itself as a declarative anthem in its chorus. Then, it goes even further than that (Beth Gibbons sounds on the brink of a violent death as she loudly sings the line that begins with “THIS IS THE BEGINNING…”) before slowly fading back out into the ether.

Belle and Sebastian, “Stay Loose” (from Dear Catastrophe Waitress)

The last track on an album is often reserved for its most atypical song: it could be an experiment, a deliberate stylistic departure, or simply a weak throwaway (on occasion, it can be all three). This Scottish group’s shiny, happy 2003 album is, in its entirety a departure from their earlier, moodier work and a generally successful one at that; this six-minute closer goes further afield, sporting an acerbic new wave influence never present before, but splendidly executed in service of an excellent melody and gleeful dueling guitar solos.

Sparks, “Suburban Homeboy” (from Lil’ Beethoven)

I mentioned album closers that aptly summed up the songs that preceded them; I also talked about ones that pivoted towards something new. Ladies and gentlemen, this one does both simultaneously and although it serves as an exquisite jumping-off point for this venerable duo’s eccentric melding of operatic/classical embellishments and pop music, it also perfectly caps off an album full of similarly themed and arranged songs with its most outrageous and inspired idea: a Gilbert and Sullivan-like testimonial to white boys who act like they’re black.