It's pro forma in the world of rock that whenever a band reforms after a long absence, the band members always claim that working together felt like they'd never been away, that they've picked up right where they left off. The good news surrounding No Exit, the first new album from Blondie in 17 years, is that in this case such a claim is actually true: Blondie has picked up where it left off.
The bad news is that Blondie left off in 1982 with its artistic and commercial nadir, the aimlessly pretentious The Hunter, an album that was the inevitable consequence of a band straddling two sensibilities: the sassy power-pop it excelled at, and the pan-cultural explorations that seemed to provide its biggest hits.
Although Blondie is widely remembered as the band who broke new-wave to the masses, none of the group's big hits had any connection to the punky garage-pop sound it perfected at CBGBs. When the group dabbled in disco ("Heart of Glass," "Call Me"), rap ("Rapture") or reggae ("The Tide Is High"), it connected with middle America in a way that it never could with its own sound. Unfortunately, it also tended to come off as a bloodless popularizer, particularly with something like "Rapture," which was to early Grandmaster Flash as Pat Boone's "Tutti Frutti" was to Little Richard's.
By The Hunter, Blondie was confused and tired, and the intervening years haven't fully recharged those dead batteries. While No Exit has a level of commitment and enthusiasm absent from The Hunter, it suggests that the band still doesn't know its own strengths. Lunging from ska to fake-rap to lite-jazz to Caribbean techno, Blondie attempts to go around the world in 14 songs, but it can't help sounding like a gang of musical tourists.
When she's not trying to rap (on the ultra-lame title song), Debbie Harry is as endearing as ever, but the material seems almost sadistically aimed to make her sound foolish. The country waltz "The Dream's Lost on Me" makes about as much sense from these New Yorkers as having Merle Haggard cover X-Ray Spex. The self-important ballad "Night Wind Sent" reduces one of pop's great purveyors of vocal brattiness to dull sincerity on a track that's oddly reminiscent of Mister Mister. The few tracks with any melodic appeal--the No Doubtish "Screaming Skin" or the single "Maria"--lack the old razzle dazzle.
Maybe the problem is that maturity simply does not suit this band. Harry and Co. always subscribed to the die-young, leave-a-pretty-corpse ethos. Harry was about attitude, not about singing from the heart; and attitude is harder to muster when you're in your 50s. If the Debbie Harry of 1976 saw this dreary band, she'd know what to do: rip 'em to shreds.
Because the Cardigans were the first band on America's moon to score a hit with this cocktail-jazz dance mix, people might view Saint Etienne's fourth album as the sincerest form of flattery. In truth, it's the other way around, but this suave English pop trio (named after a French football team) return the compliment by jetting to Sweden, using Cardigans producer Tore Johansson and many of the same session musicians for that eclectic aromatic blend.
The results make for arresting sound collages, like the jazzy psychedelia of "Goodnight Jack," which sounds as if the music were composed with samples, and then live woods and strings were substituted. Layer over that the sleek chanteuse Sarah Cracknell, whose Diana Ross-with-an-overseas-delivery adds the right touch of odd exotica. On the disco-percolating "Sylvie," she casts herself as the older and wiser sister ("Sylvie girl, I'm a very patient person/But I'm gonna shut you down if you don't stop you're flirting/You know he's mine").
Cracknell's sensuality is rare in pop these diva days, one that draws you in by keeping its distance ("Behind the wheel of my Capri, no one seems to notice me"). If there was any justice in the world, the ultra-cool "Lose That Girl" would be blaring out of Capri car radios right now but you'll probably have to make the first move (i.e., buy the dang thing and tape it) for that to happen.
(Smells Like Records)
What makes the Geraldine Fibbers one of the best bands practically no one has heard of is their ability to marry beauty and chaos so seamlessly.
Scarnella is the product of Carla Bozulich and Nels Cline, the creative nucleus of the current Fibbers incarnation. The only problem is that they seem to have forgotten the formula on this self-titled release. It is a document of noise for no reason, a messy, half-baked confusion of sounds.
The songs that are truly good--and there are about three-and-a-half--belong on an EP. For some reason, the bad songs are longer and more prominently featured, little musical masturbations that never flesh out. Scarnella even has the chutzpah to include three improvisations, which are, in order: okay, kinda scary, and virtually unlistenable. The worst of the three, "Improvisation #1 (the bag of hair)" feels like a soundtrack to an incredibly bad experience. It could probably be tolerated for a minute or so, but it rambles for a self-indulgent 15:31. Think Psychic TV at its most repugnant.
Why Bozulich and Cline refuse to use the assets at their disposal (e.g., her amazing cornered-cat-cry vocals and his otherworldly guitar playing) is anyone's guess.
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What is most frustrating, though, is that the few strong songs are truly great; they perfectly exemplify what these two can and have done together. "Release the Spring" is a spare moody manifesto of a broken life, concluding with a painful spoken-word rant: "My own failed attempts to live an honest life/are illuminated perfectly/clearly/and without judgment."
Unfortunately, three or four songs do not an album make. Perhaps it is a sideways compliment to this pair's track record to say that this record is so surprisingly bad. In any case, most of it should have been reserved for personal use, like a photo montage of an uninteresting drug experience.