Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - B-Sides and Rarities (2005)

Okay, I have to apologize. My goal was a post a week, minimum, and I haven't posted for something like three weeks. I do have excuses: 8 long days of Orientation training, 3 days of University Center training, four very, very long days of actual Orientation, five days of classes, student government work, homework, and work at the UC, and two days of hanging out with friends. Now I'm here. Time to move on and write a review.

This is a triple album, but it is a compilation. I won't go in-depth into every song like I often do, since that would take forever. However, the tracklist is going to be huge. Sorry. I'm really obsessive about finding out exactly when and where every track of a compilation was originally released, and since it does require a lot of research sometimes, I figure I may as well present my findings. Also, note that I bought the album for like $22, which is really cheap for three and a half hours of music.


Artist: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Album: B-Sides & Rarities
Release Date: March 22, 2005
Label: Mute
Producers: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Flood, Tony Cohen, Gareth Jones, Victor Van Vugt, Nick Launey

Tracklisting:
Disc 1:
01. Deanna → Oh Happy Day [Acoustic; partial Edwin Hawkins Singers cover; outtake, 1988 / The Good Son bonus 7", 1990]
02. The Mercy Seat [Acoustic; outtake, 1988 / The Good Son bonus 7", 1990]
03. City of Refuge [Acoustic; outtake, 1988 / The Good Son bonus 7", 1990]
04. The Moon Is in the Gutter [In the Ghetto b-side, 1984]
05. The Six Strings That Drew Blood [Tupelo b-side, 1985]
06. Rye Whiskey [Traditional cover; Reflex magazine flexidisc, 1989]
07. Running Scared [Roy Orbison cover; The Singer b-side, 1986]
08. Black Betty [Leadbelly cover; The Singer b-side, 1986]
09. Scum [Flexidisc sold at concerts, 1986 / Your Funeral... My Trial bonus track, 1986]
10. The Girl at the Bottom of My Glass [Deanna 12" b-side, 1988]
11. The Train Song [The Ship Song b-side, 1990]
12. Cocks 'n' Asses [The Weeping Song b-side, 1990]
13. Blue Bird [Straight to You / Jack the Ripper b-side, 1992]
14. Helpless [Neil Young cover] [The Bridge tribute/charity compilation, 1989 / The Weeping Song b-side, 1990]
15. God's Hotel [KCRW session 1992.08.12; Rare on Air Vol. 1 compilation, 1992]
16. (I'll Love You) Till the End of the World [Until the End of the World soundtrack, 1991 / Loverman b-side 1994]
17. Cassiel's Song [Faraway, So Close soundtrack, 1993 / Do You Love Me? B-side, 1994]
18. Tower of Song [Leonard Cohen cover; I'm Your Fan tribute compilation, 1991]
19. What Can I Give You? [French Henry's Dream bonus promo, 1992]

Disc 2:
01. What a Wonderful World [With Shane MacGowan; Louis Armstrong cover; single, 1992]
02. Rainy Night in Soho [With Shane MacGowan; originally recorded by The Pogues; What a Wonderful World b-side, 1992]
03. Lucy [Version #2] [With Shane MacGowan; What a Wonderful World b-side, 1992]
04. Jack the Ripper [Acoustic Version; Straight to You / Jack the Ripper limited 7" b-side, 1992]
05. Sail Away [Do You Love Me? B-side, 1994]
06. There's No Night Out in the Jail [Chad Morgan cover; unreleased Australian country music covers compilation, 1993]
07. That's What Jazz Is to Me [Red Right Hand b-side, 1994]
08. The Willow Garden [Traditional cover; Where the Wild Roses Grow b-side, 1995]
09. The Ballad of Robert Moore and Betty Coltrane [Where the Wild Roses Grow b-side, 1995]
10. King Kong Kitchee Kitchee Ki-Mi-O [Traditional cover; Henry Lee b-side, 1996]
11. Knoxville Girl [Traditional cover; Henry Lee b-side, 1996]
12. Where the Wild Roses Grow [Unreleased version with original guide vocal by Blixa Bargeld, 1995]
13. O'Malley's Bar [Part 1] [Mark Radcliffe session, 1996.02.26]
14. O'Malley's Bar [Part 2] [Mark Radcliffe session, 1996.02.26]
15. O'Malley's Bar [Part 3] [Mark Radcliffe session, 1996.02.26]
16. Time Jesum Transeuntum Et Non Riverentum [Featuring the Dirty Three; Songs in the Key of X compilation, 1996]
17. O'Malley's Bar [Reprise] [Mark Radcliffe session, 1996.02.26]
18. Red Right Hand [Scream 3 Version] [Unreleased version recorded for Scream 3, 1999]

Disc 3:
01. Little Empty Boat [Into My Arms b-side, 1997]
02. Right Now I'm a-Roaming [Into My Arms b-side, 1997]
03. Come into My Sleep [(Are You) the One That I've Been Waiting For? b-side, 1997]
04. Black Hair [Band Version] [(Are You) the One That I've Been Waiting For? b-side, 1997]
05. Babe, I've Got You Bad [(Are You) the One That I've Been Waiting For? b-side, 1997]
06. Sheep May Safely Graze [Outtake, 1996]
07. Opium Tea [Outtake, 1996]
08. Grief Came Riding [No More Shall We Part limited edition bonus track, 2001]
09. Bless His Ever Loving Heart [No More Shall We Part limited edition bonus track, 2001]
10. Good Good Day [As I Sat Sadly by Her Side b-side, 2001]
11. Little Janey's Gone [As I Sat Sadly by Her Side b-side, 2001]
12. I Feel So Good [J.B. Lenoir cover; The Soul of a Man soundtrack, 2003]
13. Shoot Me Down [Bring It On b-side, 2003]
14. Swing Low [Bring It On b-side, 2003]
15. Little Ghost Song [He Wants You / Babe, I'm on Fire b-side, 2003]
16. Everything Must Converge [He Wants You / Babe, I'm on Fire b-side, 2003]
17. Nocturama [Rock of Gibraltar limited 7" b-side, 2003]
18. She's Leaving You [Nature Boy b-side, 2004]
19. Under This Moon [Breathless / There She Goes, My Beautiful World b-side, 2004]

Analysis:
This will be a bit interesting, since this album covers the entire career of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, from the first to the latest single. Every b-side (but one) is contained here, plus rarities and some unreleased material. I'll mention the standouts and discuss some in generalities. I won't do too much lyrical analyzation, since most of Cave's lyrics aren't anything special, but a few are. The album is mostly chronological, and I'll attempt to follow the flow.

The album starts with three acoustic renditions of album tracks (and a fourth follows later). None are really revelatory, but they are interesting, particularly the version of "Deanna" which, although merely labeled as such, is really more of a cover of "Oh Happy Day". Apparently the band would play the songs together live, but this version is basically just a couple verses of "Deanna" and repeated parts of "Oh Happy Day".

Then we come to the earliest b-sides, including several covers. "The Six Strings That Drew Blood" typifies some of the darkness (and weirdness) of these songs (and Nick Cave's early career in general), but it is actually a Birthday Party song. The Birthday Party was Nick Cave's previous band, and they recorded a version of the song that went unreleased until 2000. I like the Birthday Party version better, as it feels more structured, more driving, more No Wave, which is exactly what that band was (No Wave, that is, not structured). "Rye Whiskey" is a traditional foolish tune about booze, but the melody is oddly catchy. "Running Scared", a Roy Orbison cover, is far better – it starts calm but gradually builds up to a dramatic, all-too-soon finish.

"Black Betty" and "Scum" are two more examples of Nick Cave's more abrasive side. Those who know Cave know that he has a very beautiful, tuneful, melodic side, often accented with strings and piano, as opposed to harsh guitars and heavy percussion. Both sides are often sexual, with often seems to reveal a certain lack of lyrical creativity, but Cave can strike upon novel thoughts here and there. These songs fail at that, but "The Train Song" is worth noting. It is the first song here to be noticeably pretty, with the aforementioned piano and strings, with that certain Nick Cave nostalgia about the whole thing. (Note the irony of the a-side of the single, "The Ship Song".) The song is merely a lament for missing a departing train with a presumed lover on board – nothing really new, but it works anyway.

Don't get too offended by "Cocks 'n' Asses" – it's just a long instrumental with barnyard sounds and a heavy piano riff. Typical Cave humor. "Helpless" is a pleasant cover of a Neil Young song, but just like Patti Smith's more recent cover (see my recent post), it doesn't really take the song anywhere new. It's a hard song to take anywhere new, though, as it is just three chords, a slow rhythm, and nostalgic lyrics about "a town in north Ontario". However, I'm a total sucker for Neil Young, so I like it anyway.

"God's Hotel" is a pretty obscure rarity, but it's pretty funny. It fits another Nick Cave mold, that of the uptempo, mostly-acoustic, sing-song-y, maybe humorous song. The song follows a structure of Cave singing, "Everybody's got (insert something)", the rest of the band repeating the something, and Cave singing his part again, adding, "in God's hotel" and then explaining why. It starts off normal with a bit of Cave-humor, but gets funnier/weirder as it goes along.

"(I'll Love You) Till the End of the World" is from the similarly-titled Wim Wenders film, and alternates between spoken-word semi-apocalyptic verses and plea-for-help singalong-y choruses, all the while loaded with sweet violins. "Cassiel's Song" is from another Wim Winders film, and although also slower and more melodic, it lacks the scope and larger vision captured by "Till the End of the World".

"Tower of Song" is a Leonard Cohen cover and perhaps the weirdest cover I've heard of the song. The original is a long song about growing old as a musician, and it pulses along with a sweet Cohen vocal. The Jesus & Mary Chain did a cover in their typical style (loud, driving, droning guitars, drum machine or close enough, and a vocal delivery with a sort of sleazy snarl), but the Nick Cave version is far more abstract. It simply breaks down all over the place: the instruments stop or spaz out, and Cave more or less keeps singing. It alternates between doing the song justice and being almost annoying destructive and weird. (Fittingly, Cave changed Cohen's lines of "I said to Hank Williams, 'How lonely does it get'? / Hank Williams hasn't answered me yet" to "I said to Leonard Cohen...") Cave is a clear Cohen fan, but this is a strange tribute that's a bit hard for even me to take.

Disc two starts with the entire "What a Wonderful World" single. This includes the sappy, over-sugared, over-played Louis Armstrong title track, done as a duet with the lead singer of the Pogues, Shane MacGowan. The thing about Shane, though, is that although he is fairly well-known as a good musician and songwriter, his singing is notably bad. Maybe it's an acquired taste. It doesn't bother me overmuch, but it is weird. The single also includes a Cave-sung shortened version of the Pogues' "Rainy Night in Soho" and MacGowan-sung version of the Bad Seeds' "Lucy". Both are of a similar style to the a-side: kind of over-sweet and lyrically devoid of true creativity, but far from worthless.

"There's No Night Out in the Jail" is an Australian country tune recorded for an unreleased covers album of the same national genre. It is light, lilting, and one of the first b-sides to feature organ, which becomes more and more of a continual theme in the Bad Seeds. "That's What Jazz Is to Me" is one of two improvised b-sides of "Red Right Hand". (The other, "Where the Action Is", remains available only on the single.) Its thoroughly-explored theme is jazz, but the music is a deconstructed, loose jam sort of based on jazz structures and sort of not.

"The Willow Garden" is a traditional cover but sounds suspiciously similar to the Kylie Minogue duet "Where the Wild Roses Grow". Several other similar originals and covers all appear together, as they were released as b-sides to singles from the Murder Ballads album, a fantastic album with a eponymous theme. My favorite of the selections from that time period is the guide vocal version of "Where the Wild Roses Grow". Apparently, the band had Blixa Bargeld (the band's German guitarist, also the singer of Einstürzende Neubauten) sing Kylie's parts before she recorded her parts. It's hilarious to hear Bargeld's spidery voice singing about being a lovestruck and murdered woman.

Much of Disc 2 is devoted to a four-part radio session version of "O'Malley's Bar". The normal, uninterrupted version is available on Murder Ballads, and this version is only mildly different. It is a long sort of storytelling piece, which can make it uninteresting to listen to if you aren't listening to lyrics, since the music barely changes over 15 minutes. The disc finishes with "Time Jesum Transeuntum Et Non Riverentum", a string-laden, semi-apocalyptic spoken-word piece recorded with the Dirty Three (who share violinist Warren Ellis with the Bad Seeds), and a version of "Red Right Hand" recorded for Scream 3 (but unused), with alternate lyrics (which I find a bit poorer than the original version, since the original's tell more of a story).

Disc 3 contains songs mostly of the more melodic, fuller sound typical of the albums released later in the Bad Seeds' career. It works almost as an album itself, since the themes and general sound flow fairly well together. Many are slower, more moody and peaceful songs, like "Little Empty Boat" or "Grief Came Calling", but a few groove ("Come into My Sleep") or rock ("Babe I Got You Bad") a little more. "Sheep May Safely Graze" is an interesting slower piece whose lyrics seem to warn against destroying the threats to a lazy life: "All you can hear outside / Is the roar of a city being razed / That's just the powers that be / Making it safe to graze". "Good Good Day" carries along with a bit of rocking, but then a cover of "I Feel So Good" breaks the mood and throws out some loud blues. I really like a lot of these songs, like the philosophical "Everything Must Converge" and the gradual build-up and dramatic refrains of "Swing Low". The last two tracks, b-sides of the less precise, louder, simply put, punkier Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus fit the mold of the album(s) whose singles they were recorded for – they break the peaceful mold of Disc 3 with a louder, clearly rocking drive.

Review:
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds have evolved over the years, but Cave's lyrics haven't really. He likes what he likes – love and murder (so clearly described by his mid-90s albums Let Love In and Murder Ballads), and the band often selects covers that fit the mold, especially traditional songs with a dark slant. The Bad Seeds have evolved over the years – both in personnel and in sound. The earlier songs tend to be more dissonant, harsh, heavy, guitar-laden, and dark, while later songs are often melodic, peaceful, strings-laden, and a bit slower. That is a generalization, and the latest album pair breaks that mold. The band has always used both elements throughout their career, but favoritism has emerged and changed over the years. The use of piano and the lyrical themes have remained constants.

These things apply directly to the b-sides presented here, since these b-sides (and rarities) span the entire career of the band. There are quite a number of really good songs here, although some (especially on Disc 3) tend to blend together, for better or worse. The four segments of "O'Malley's Bar" strike me as a low point due to their lack of difference from the regular album version despite extended length. The version of "Red Right Hand" also contributes to the same feeling, making the end of Disc 2 feel a bit dry.

B-Sides & Rarities is worthwhile for even mild fans of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds due to its high value per song, but the quality does hold up. Not every song in the band's entire catalog holds up to the same high standard, but most do, and the same can be said for this collection. It is very much an alternate summarization of the band's career, which is very interesting both as an alternate version and a summation. The choice of covers, improvisations, and otherwise weird pieces shows the band's more strange side, something typical of b-sides and outtakes, but nonetheless always fun. I think Siouxsie Sioux, in the liner notes to the Siouxsie & the Banshee's b-side box set, said something to the effect that she always liked buying singles almost more for the b-side than the a-side, since the b-side would show the band's true side – what they sounded like when having fun, experimenting, under pressure, or just being weird. Such is likely the case here.

Score: B

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Polyphonic Spree - Live 2007.08.04

The Polyphonic Spree are quite likely the craziest band I have ever seen. If nothing else, they are undoubtedly the craziest 21-member rock band in existence. Actually, apparently the band comprises an occasionally-changing cast of characters around a central trio, so the numbers can vary. But for now, it is 21. There's also the fact that they were all dressed identically – in black near-military-style uniforms. Now, since I've never heard anything by the band before, and most of the songs weren't introduced (they sometimes just segued from one into another while one instrument would sort of provide the change in key), I won't be able to produce a setlist today. The date, though, was August 4, 2007, and the venue was The Pageant, right in my current hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.


As I said, there were 21 members, all put to good use. Tim DeLaughter is the sort of director and lead singer, but also on the front of the stage were two keyboardists (one of whom had a laptop to sometimes add some effects), a flutist, and a three-piece horn section. Behind them were a cellist, a violinist, two guitarists, and a bass guitarist. (One of the guitarists looks a lot like me, without red hair... so weird.) Behind them were two drummers (one on a set and one with a huge variety of percussion instruments, including tubular bells and a timpani), a harpist, and a six-piece female choir. In addition to DeLaughter and the choir, the flutist would often sing into her flute's mic (but from a distance, so it may not have even appeared in the mix), and the keyboardist with the laptop sang into a mic too. There's a lot going on all at once.

The Polyphonic Spree's music is all very upbeat, just very sunny. Incidentally, references to the sun appeared all over the lyrics, when I could catch them. There was so much going on that it wasn't always easy to catch the lyrics, and with so many instruments to try to pick out of the mix, and a video screen on top of that, I had plenty of distractions from the lyrics. The video screen seemed to blend input from two people on the sidelines with cameras and clips from all sorts of sources, including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which is appropriate, since the band appeared on the soundtrack). Effects were mixed in live, so it made for an interesting display.

The songs tended to be mid-tempo or a bit faster, and every musician played on every song. It's truly symphonic rock. DeLaughter was clearly the most prominent member, but everyone was active. The choir frequently backed him up. The drummers would do snare or timpani rolls all the time, and crash cymbal hits abounded. The keyboards provided several tones, be it normal 80s string-synth sort of stuff, more atmospheric Eno-esque sounds, Radiohead Kid A tones, or a good old piano sound. The horns, perhaps the least utilized, nonetheless appeared all the time and high in the mix. The bass was quite discernible and the guitars kept rocking (although it was hard to pick apart which guitarist played what). The guitarists usually played clean-toned electric rhythm parts, but sometimes they turned up the distortion, played lead bits, and/or traded for acoustics. The flute was mic'd well and easy to hear in the mix – it seemingly was the lead instrument. Unfortunately, the violin, cello, and harp were near impossible to distinguish. I rarely could pick out their input.

Earlier, I said this band was crazy. Well, they're really good and make really driving, dramatic songs that just feel really good, but they match their sound with great enthusiasm. DeLaughter ran all over stage and had a little box to climb on to kind of elevate himself as what nearly looked like a cult leader. (The box was the same shape as a good-sized monitor speaker but was visibly hollow.) The band was really in to it all, too. The flutist ran around, danced, and sang whenever she wasn't playing. On one song, she played a melodica, but when finished with it mid-song, she just tossed it up fifteen feet in the area to someone off-stage. The harpist and cellist rocked their instruments back and forth vigorously. The choir danced their hearts out. It must be hard not to have a good time when this band comes together.

I was a bit disappointed when after just barely over an hour into the show DeLaughter said they were about to play their last song. The song was even more upbeat and dramatic, even a bit anthemic. It ended by continually repeating a long segment while bandmembers one by one got up, waved, and ran off stage. It ended with just the harpist playing, which was a nice conclusion.

I knew there'd be an encore, but I wasn't expected what I got: the band came through the front doors of the venue, walked through the crowd, and climbed on stage. Now they were all wearing white robes, apparently the traditional garb of the band (see the above album cover). The encore lasted well over an hour, making it a bit longer than the actual set was. The band would play a song or two, and DeLaughter would say something like, "Should we keep going? Come on, it's Saturday night! Let's do another!", and sure enough, they would.

Things only got crazier during the encore. DeLaughter's son came out and just kind of hung out on stage for the whole encore. He suggested songs now and then and at one point told a story about buying the mask he sometimes wore. He had a drummer-boy sort of drum that he would sometimes play (right in rhythm), but he mostly just kind of walked around. I still didn't recognize any of the songs except for one. DeLaughter started talking about audience participation and excitement, and partway through his talking, one of the guitarists started playing a strangely familiar riff. When DeLaughter was ready, the band launched into a fully-arranged version of Nirvana's "Lithium". It was awesome. (Better than Patti Smith's cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on her latest album.)

During another song, the entire band except for DeLaughter (and his son) froze, and stayed frozen for a good three minutes (at least). One of the keyboardists stayed frozen with his hands playing a synthy chord, but all the while DeLaughter walked around, moved the string-players' arms to bow their instruments, played the keyboard upside-down, strummed one of the guitars a bit, and then sang some words before the band finally came back in. I was hoping they'd do something really big, but they just kind of did a little thing before halting briefly and then starting what sounded like a different song.

The band was only all the more excited and enthusiastic during the encore. Not only were the guitarists and horn-players joining the singer and flutist in running around on-stage, but the violinist and cellist did too. The violinist would jump up and down really excitedly at times, but the cellist really cracked me up. She was fairly short, but she somehow managed to pick up her cello and walk around while still playing. I was impressed.

The band just kept on going and must have endless reserves of energy. The music was all so bright and positive, and although those sounds like potentially dangerous adjectives, I assure – this was good stuff. I had no idea what to expect, but it was a great show. This was a fantastic introduction to the band.

Score: A

P.S. If that wasn't enough, check out my friend Gabe's review at Playback STL.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Ultravox - Vienna (1980)

Ultravox is a relatively new favorite of mine. Like the Human League, they've been on the fringe of my awareness for years but I've only recently begun really listening to them. It started when my sister Meredith bought me a 7" of "The Thin Wall" b/w "I Never Wanted to Begin". Both are fairly good tracks, but it didn't immediately inspire me to buy an album. I'd listened through my dad's The Collection (a collection of the singles from their fourth through seventh albums) on vinyl, but it wasn't until about a year ago that I bought Quartet (1982) on cassette.

Then I went to Vienna. While I was there, I always wanted to go record shopping but never did until Meredith came and visited me halfway through my time there. I'd looked up a dozen or so stores, but we spent so much time at the first one that we didn't bother going to any others. (A couple of weeks before I left I started finding the others.) While at that first store, the only record I bought was Ultravox's Vienna. It was just too appropriate. I bought the album on vinyl, and I didn't have a record player, so I took the technically-cheating route of downloading mp3s of the album. Don't cast your eyes down too far – I do own the album, after all, fair and square. I fell in love with the album and listened to it, and the title track in particular, all the time. It felt so quintessentially Vienna. I later learned the song was written in reaction to the film The Third Man (1948), which itself is set in Vienna. Upon learning that, I quickly found a theater downtown that plays the movie weekly and attended a screening.

When I got home and finally played the record on my dad's turntable, I was blown away.


Artist: Ultravox
Album: Vienna
Release Date: June 30, 1980
Label: Chrysalis
Produced by: Ultravox and Conny Plank

Tracklisting:
01. Astradyne
02. New Europeans
03. Private Lives
04. Passing Strangers
05. Sleepwalk
06. Mr. X
07. Western Promise
08. Vienna
09. All Stood Still

Reissue (2000) bonus tracks:
10. Waiting [Sleepwalk b-side, 1980]
11. Passionate Reply [Vienna b-side, 1981]
12. Herr X [Vienna 12" b-side, 1981]
13. Alles Klar [All Stood Still b-side, 1981]

Analysis:
Vienna is a grand album. It starts with a tinking synthetic drum beat, and slowly various synth lines come in. Then a bass drum kicks, the drums start, more keyboards fill in, and a melody begins. The album is so dramatic and epic... it has such a big sound, which is why playing it on vinyl seems to only help. I should note that there are two versions of the tracklisting, but my German vinyl copy and the reissued CD version I've seen online use the version I gave above. I think the original US vinyl messed things up – it just doesn't work as well. The way the standard sequencing works makes things flow so well.

"Astradyne" is the opener I had begun describing above. It is a seven-minute instrumental, full of pitch-bent synthesizers and a full sound. Like the Human League, three of the four members of the band are credited as performing synthesizers, but each also plays a "regular" instrument, too, be it bass, guitar, or Billy Currie, who performs piano, viola, and violin. And there's the drummer, too, credited with "Drums, Electronic Percussion, Vocals". These guys loved to experiment and find new sounds – but they weren't as concerned as other bands were about being wholly synthetic.

"New Europeans", in fact, opens with a crunchy guitar. Bass, drums, and vocals enter, and it isn't until the chorus that weird synth washes enter the mix. Through the second verse, there is what sounds either like an e-bow or a good old synth line. That actually happens a lot, where it's hard to tell how "real" or synthetic a track is. The song even has what is essentially a guitar solo (backed by synthesizers), which is of course followed by a synth-dominated third verse, complete with vocals that sound processed to sound distant or through a telephone. The lyrics of the song are very interesting – the title is also the chorus, but the verses tell a story of an elderly man, quietly and passively sitting and reminiscing. It feels so European, though – and suddenly the third verse (the one with a synthesizer instead of a guitar as primary rhythm) declares "... he puts his headphones on / His modern world revolves around the synthesizer's song / ... / He's a European legacy, a culture for today". The clash of Old World culture with the "synthesizer's song" seems so fitting for Ultravox, a band that combines classical string instruments with rock instrumentation and synthesizers. If this is today's culture, I'm in. I love that brand of postmodernism. But it is confusing how this relates to the old man. I find it odd that "New Europeans" wasn't a single, considering that I like the song better than a few of the other four tracks picked as singles.

"Private Life" begins with a pleasant little piano intro, perhaps in direct opposition to the preceding track. Then comes in the full band, rocking with synths. Piano and synth lines swirl in and out of the song, and the dominating bass is fuzzed warmly to good effect. The lyrics begin what seems to be a continuing theme: waltzing along happily but being vaguely aware that someone is watching or following, or that something bad is to come: "Close your eyes and use the melody / Who cares who stares under the light? / See the shadow tailing me again". For a nice finishing touch, the song dives into a sudden stop, only to break right back out into full rock mode for a reprise.


"Passing Strangers", also released as a single, is also very good but has less obvious distinguishing elements. There's a great synthesizer solo near the end that's cool. It fades out and the bouncy "Sleepwalk" (another single) begins. It alternates between slightly eerie bridges with a buzzing synth and whispered repetitions of the title and the major-key verses. This song also has a great synthesizer break, only it's even better than the one in "Passing Strangers" since this one is longer. The lyrics, happy as they sound, are rather dark and desperate: "Rolling and falling / I'm choking and calling / Name after name after name / Naked and bleeding / The streetlights stray by me / Hurting my eyes with their glare".


Thus ends side one of the vinyl, and side two opens with another long synth-dominated song, only this side's opener is even better than "Astradyne". "Mr. X" is a very spooky-sounding piece, loaded with classic string lines and synth washes in a sort of droning, eerie manner. The drum machine adds to the mood. The lyrics are spoken and further the weirdness. The narrator explains that he found a "perfect picture of a perfect stranger" and that he is "still searching" for the subject; "He could be a killer or a blind man with a cane / Perhaps he died in a car crash years ago / Right now, it's impossible to tell." The strange Mr. X could be anyone, and the band claim that he is an actual person, but the lyrics do not elucidate. The lyrics continue their weirdness: "I saw him in an airport, while he was sitting on a wing / And I waved to him, but I don't think he noticed me / I've got a funny feeling I know who he is". Who!? Oh, the pain.

"Western Promise" opens with a quickly-arpeggiated synth bubble before a lead line enters. The band follows, complete with violin or viola. Like so many of the songs, it sounds so big and full and epic, or at least at first, because it then gets darker, with crazy noises and that distant/telephone vocal effect. The lyrics seem to lament the domination of the East by Western culture, only that the lyrics seem to be from the point of view of a conquistador proud of his conquest of the East, but ready to help rebuild in the Western style: "My Western world gives out her hand / a victor's help to your fallen land". Then comes the real bite: "Your Buddha Zen and Christian men / all minions to messiah Pepsi can".


Now, on my vinyl copy, the synthesizer fades while the memorable drumbeat of the next song begins, but the digital copy I have has a clear separation. "Vienna", a number two single, and awesome, starts simply: a steady one-note synth warble that later moves a bit to serve as an instrumental melody, a steady and repetitive (but unique) drum beat, and a distant synth shine. The singing begins, eerily detailing walking around. Somewhere lies "a man in the dark in a picture frame" (Mr. X?), and "a voice reach[es] out in a piercing cry". Then things open a bit, and singer Midge Ure belts, "The feeling has gone, only you and I", and a dramatic piano (and bass) enter, floating around the words, "it means nothing to me / this means nothing to me / Oh...., Vienna!" The piano plays some more notes and the next verse begins: "The music is weaving". An image is described and then "it fades to the distance / the image is gone, only you and I" and the super-dramatic chorus comes back. Then we are treated to a string-dominated bridge, with slowly ascending chords with descending basslines. It leads right into a final chorus, even more dramatic than before. It's just so grand, with all the synths, the piano, the drum crashes, and the almost-over-the-top singing. The song was written in response to the film The Third Man, as I said before, which takes place in post-WWII divided Vienna, hence the subject matter. The movie is a classic, just like the song.


"All Stood Still" (another single) closes the album. It contains some great guitar workouts, weird noises, a pulsing bassline, and great synths. The last verse has the guitar doing a more 60s sort of thing, only strumming on the off-beats and quickly muting, giving a strange but fitting feeling. The lyrics are sung call-and-response and describe something between a power outage and the apocalypse: "The lights went out (The last fuse blew) / The clocks all stopped (It can't be true)", and by the end, "Everyone kissed (We breathe exhaust) / In the new arcade (Of the holocaust)". Then there is the sentiment of the bridges: "Please remember to mention me / in tapes you leave behind". Okay.

The bonus tracks and other non-album b-sides are a fairly good lot, but a step behind the songs on the album proper. "Waiting" has a nice fade-in with weird sounds, a processed repetition of the title, and snare drum rolls. The song in general sounds a bit simpler, but still fairly dramatic and full. The lyrics aren't anything too new to the album: "Looking back as you head for home / Unsure if you walk alone". "Passionate Reply" also has some great bits but ultimately feels less finished than the album tracks. "Herr X" is "Mr. X" with German lyrics; supposedly it's the same backing track (and it sounds that way) but is somehow forty seconds shorter. As best as I can tell, the translation is accurate. "Alles Klar" (German for "everything clear" or (sort of) "okay") is a synth-tastic instrumental soundscape.

The CD reissue fails to include three further b-sides. There's the b-side to the "Passing Strangers" 7", "Face to Face", a nearly synth-less, guitar-based live recording about something like the apocalypse, but also the b-side to the 12" version, a live cover of Brian Eno's "King's Lead Hat", a fast-paced rocker fairly faithful to the original. (Note that the title is an anagram for Talking Heads, who Brian Eno loved. Eno also produced Ultravox's first album.) Last is the b-side to the "All Stood Still" 12", "Keep Talking", another weird synth-happy instrumental soundscape, this one including some muted screaming.

Review:
Ultravox is a great New Romantic band. The fit the bill so well: stylish, dramatic, synthy, intelligent, classical, and modern. Vienna was their fourth album, but their first with Midge Ure – on the first three, John Foxx sang, but he then left to pursue a solo career, and Ure was drafted in. The band melds a very good knowledge of music theory with rock awareness and very dramatic, full production. And synthesizers. The album is enormous and epic. It's all very driving, but it's decidedly weird and eerie. There are strange noises to be found all over the place, sometimes prominent in the mix, and the mood is always dark. Multiple songs mention being followed and feeling that sinking, foreboding feeling. "Mr. X" catches that mood best and has perhaps the best lyrical rendition of those ideas. At the same time, there is the sort of nostalgic European thing – namely in "New Europeans" and "Vienna", two of my favorite tracks.

"Vienna" is simply an amazing song. There's a video, too, that just fits in with the atmosphere all the more. It was shot on location around Vienna sights and features plenty of night-time fog-ridden shots. A very appropriate video. Now, I'm aware how close the song is to cheesy, but I don't care. It's so majestic. I fully intend to cover it, as to me it encapsulates this amazing, grand feeling I still feel about the city of Vienna, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to get over that. It reminds me of this picture of Stephansdom that I took on my third day in Vienna, which just looks unreal and to me has that same wonder:


Score:
Original album: A+
Bonus tracks: B
Obscure non-reissued b-sides: C+