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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Alex Harvey: Roman Wall Blues


ALEX HARVEY: ROMAN WALL BLUES (1969)

1) Midnight Moses; 2) Hello L.A., Bye Bye Birmingham; 3) Broken Hearted Fairytale; 4) Donna; 5) Roman Wall Blues; 6) Jumping Jack Flash; 7) Hammer Song; 8) Let My Bluebird Sing; 9) Maxine; 10) Down At Bart's Place; 11) Candy.

After several years of relative inactivity, during which Harvey's main bit of public visibility was working with the original team for Hair, Alex tried to revive his fortunes and assembled a full rock band to produce his first true "formal" album as a solo artist. Considering that these days, you're lucky if you even come upon it in an old pile of recycled vinyl, you can imagine just how successful it was. Thank God for the digital era.

Then again, maybe not. The more I listen to Roman Wall Blues, the better I understand just how much of a difference The Sensational A. H. Band really made. Roman Wall Blues has it all — Harvey's genius-madman image, the post-modernist lyrics, the inventive and deconstructive song­writing, the stylistic diversity — but it doesn't have the one ingredient that really matters: well-played music. Maybe if you make a serious effort and evaluate this on its own, forgetting all about the tremendous musicianship of the aptly titled Sensational Band, it will be easier to warm up to the tunes. But there is really no need to: in the light of Framed and all that followed, Roman Wall Blues is just a prelude, a rehearsal, a weak demo version of the delights to come.

Alex himself must have known that, because he took the trouble of re-recording some of the best songs on this collection — such as the blues-rock rave-up of 'Midnight Moses', or the dark quasi-folk of 'Hammer Song' — with the Sensational Band. This is very laudable, but in the meantime it does not excuse the limp blues-and-brass backing on this record, and I am not even mentioning cases when it ceases to be backing and starts to be fronting — as on the exquisitely boring four-minute jam 'Down At Bart's Place'.

The worst problem, though, is that with poor musical backing, Harvey continues to sound annoy­ing rather than exciting. Depending on your constituency, you can think of his take on 'Jumping Jack Flash', for instance, as a masterful exercise in deconstruction, or as a silly clownish parody whose aims and goals are uncertain and whose effects range from neutral to negative. I prefer 'neutral', but that means the track simply has no reason to exist. They even re-record one song from Hair ('Donna'), but it doesn't go anywhere serious either.

I certainly understand why the record bombed — it's one of those albums you don't really know what to do with. It doesn't rock hard enough, it isn't nearly as funny as it could be, the hooks aren't tremendous, and the mood is neither heartily sincere nor explicitly insincere. It sort of slips through your fingers and through your ears, and few of us like records that slip through, so it's a thumbs down, from both the heart that finds itself offended for not being offered any emotional food and the brain that does not feel intellectually satisfied, either.

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