Sunday, March 1, 2015

CD Odyssey Disc 711: Concrete Blonde

It has been a busy weekend. I took in an event at the art gallery on Friday and last night was a celebration of song with my fellow music buddies. Today is chores day, and I’m currently bleaching my shower curtain while I write this.

Disc 711 is…. Concrete Blonde (Self-Titled)
Artist: Concrete Blonde

Year of Release: 1986

What’s up with the Cover? Three people, standing in completely natural poses at a street corner. Ha ha ha…no.

I can forgive Johnette Napolitano for her ‘dangerous waif’ posing because she makes a very fetching dangerous waif. Not so much the shirtless drummer beside her who appears to be channeling Val Kilmer, if Kilmer had gone into porn.

Weirdly when I first saw this picture I thought the pattern on guitarist James Mankey’s shirt was actually him holding a sombrero.

So to summarize – it is not as cool an effect overall as the band was going for.

How I Came To Know It: This particular album was me drilling backward through their collection after already buying “Free” and “Bloodletting.” I think I got this CD used at a local record store for $5, so a pretty good deal.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Concrete Blonde albums. I’d put their self-titled debut in second place.

Rating: 3 stars but close to 4

Concrete Blonde’s debut record was made for walking alone in the dark of winter, so I’m glad I was able to do just that while listening to it for the CD Odyssey. The music doesn’t make the walk any warmer, but it makes you appreciate the cold.

The beginning of that experience is Johnette Napolitano’s voice. Sometimes Napolitano sings in a seductive whisper, sometimes it is smooth and low like a vampire lounge singer and sometimes it is almost like she’s delivering a spoken word poem about the sad revelations of human frailty.

The band wisely recognizes Napolitano as their main asset and they let her vocals dance and shift across the top of the mix. James Mankey’s guitar work is a lot better than his choice in shirts. He keeps it mostly atmospheric, letting gently played chords add depth and colour to the songs, which are heavily bass driven.

I like Concrete Blonde best when they are being introspective, and this album is them at their most self-examined. The songs are often about human doubt and uncertainty.

Song for Kim (She Said)” is a song about mental illness and (I believe) suicide but like most of the album, there is always a core of resilience growing out of the sadness:

“Oh Kim
Your diary said
The voices calling you from the edge
They finally called you
Away –
You know I hear them too,
They’re telling me to stay.”

Song for Kim” is just one of many where the band lets the listener peak into the intimate corners of a relationship. “Little Sister” is a touching love song that made me wishing that more bands would do songs about their siblings.

The most up-beat song on the album is “(You’re the Only One) Can Make Me Cry” which despite its title is a touching love song. Naturally the people we love the most are the ones that can hurt us the most. That they don’t is what makes the power they hold that much more beautiful. This is a ‘don’t ever leave me’ song, but the stripped down guitar strum keeps it from descending into the maudlin.

The album isn’t perfect, and at times it feels like the band is looking for “The Hit Song” such as on “Still in Hollywood” which the band thinks is so good that it needs to appear on the record in two iterations (the second one called “It’ll Chew You Up and Spit You Out”). Maybe I’d like this song more if I was more familiar with the sights and sounds of Hollywood’s underbelly, but isn’t that what the song is supposed to accomplish?

Fortunately, that experience is few and far between. For the most part this album is an intimate examination of the dark parts of our souls. “Beware of Darkness” sums it all up with a song about the fears closest to the band’s heart. Fear of artistic failure, fear of greedy record execs, fear of confidence men. OK, greedy record execs aren’t specifically noted, but I’m sure they’re lurking out their somewhere.

For all its warnings, “Beware of Darkness” feels like a journey right into that darkness. You can’t defeat the darkness until you let yourself be surrounded by it, recognize it for what it is and walk through it wary, but unafraid.

1986 is not a good year for production values and this album can be a bit fuzzy in places but it suits the tone of the music perfectly. Kind of like when a fog rolls in on a dark night. You can’t see as well, but you’re ears prick up at every note in the gloom.

Best tracks: True, Dance Along the Edge, Song for Kim (She Said), Beware of Darkness, Little Sister, (You’re the Only One) Can Make Me Cry

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