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Thursday, October 22, 2009

ABBA: ABBA


ABBA: ABBA (1975)

1) Mamma Mia; 2) Hey, Hey Helen; 3) Tropical Loveland; 4) SOS; 5) Man In The Middle; 6) Bang-A-Boomerang; 7) I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do; 8) Rock Me; 9) Intermezzo No.1; 10) I've Been Waiting For You; 11) So Long; 12*) Crazy World; 13*) Medley: Pick A Bale Of Cotton/On Top Of Old Smokey/Midnight Special.

It is tempting to speculate, based on these album titles, that Ring Ring and Waterloo were just it — LPs hastily brewed around their imperial single, but the self-titled ABBA is where the band finally announces its explicit arrrival. (Or wouldn't that be until Arrival?..)

No matter; whatever the historical reality, ABBA is their first album where the force flows unin­hibited and the atavistic detours are all but eliminated. "All but" — meaning they still insert a few oddball tracks here and there that break up the pop bliss by simply standing there and being highly questionable in everyone's faces. I am speaking mostly of the Björn-led numbers: 'Rock Me' is awkward in its attempt to blend rock star pathos and sexist lyrics with a toothless music hall arrangement (well, any song that is called 'Rock Me' but fails to do so could be called awkward), and 'Man In The Middle', despite showing us that Benny really has a way with those Stevie Wonder-like funky clavinets, is equally unconvincing as a piece of social criticism — which, again, goes to show that ABBA are always at their worst when they're trying to imitate someone from the rock/funk idiom.

But if you just judge these innocent — still catchy, by the way — bits of fluff as inertia-born re­lics from the age of Waterloo, the rest of the songs are power pop heaven. Or "Europop heaven", provided the reader takes offense at the "power pop" label being applied equally to the likes of ABBA and, uh, Big Star. Then again, no: ABBA is quite a few steps away from what we typical­ly call "Europop" and equate with some generic canzone Napoletana played on cheap keyboards in a disco arrangement. It is, in fact, Benny and Björn's biggest achievement that they managed to step over that limitation, and instead produce a brand of pop that would only superficially be "Euro" (mostly when it came to guitar and keyboard tones), but, in fact, be based much more on a unique synthesis of American mainstream pop, classical influences, and such modern trends as glam and art-rock (later, alas, to be substituted for disco).

None of these songs have any deep meaning — in fact, they're all rose-colored and tailored so as to appeal to the most undemanding segments of the market, and I love this, deeply. I love this because if all mainstream music that appeals to undemanding audiences were like this — yester­day, today, tomorrow, doesn't matter — the world would have been a far more interesting and far less irritating place to live in. Few songs of the Seventies convey the pure, simple, naïve feeling of overwhelming joy better than 'Bang-A-Boomerang' or 'Mamma Mia'; few display operatic, but sincere emotion sweeter than 'I've Been Waiting For You'; and fewer still make the heavy riffage of glam rock put on such a cheery attitude as the slow-moving 'Hey Hey Helen' or the fast-bop­pin' 'So Long'. And then there's 'S.O.S', which even Pete Townshend is known to have praised as a great piece of music.

Where, normally, a typical pop song waits for the chorus to deliver its main hook, Benny and Björn have explicitly set themselves the standard of around three main hooks per song, so that no one has to wait for thirty seconds of mediocrity to be awarded with fifteen seconds of prize value. 'S.O.S.' is perhaps the best illustration to this approach — Benny's simple, instantly recognizable keyboard intro would be enough on its own to make the tune somewhat worthwhile, but then there's the plaintive verse melody, played out by Agnetha with the most rueful countenance, the acoustic guitar-led first part of the chorus, and the dark, almost Gothic-like key change for the second part. None of this is technically difficult, but genius shouldn't be.

Thus, after two false, if promising, starts, ABBA firmly establishes the formula and shows that the men in the band have finally attuned their antennae in the 100% perfect position, while the women have blossomed into the perfect vocal surrounding for these antennae. And if the brain is, as usual, a little cautious about praising, without reservation, this kind of "safe", "glossy", "main­stream" music, the heart seems to have no problem with it whatsoever. Besides, what harm can a little ABBA-loving do to an organism that has already assimilated Zappa and Zeppelin? Cheer up and put your thumbs up along with me.

PS. The newest reissue of the album adds one uninteresting song of Ring Ring caliber ('Crazy World'), but also the oddest thing ABBA ever did — an ABBA-style medley of three old folk standards, including even 'Pick A Bale Of Cotton'. I hesitate to say it's good, but it certainly sounds like nothing else and deserves to be heard for that fact alone.

1 comment:

  1. Finally! This one's PERFECT! It has four songs in a row ("Rock Me", "Intermezzo", "I've Been Waiting", and "So Long", all at the end) that are among my favs of ABBA. It also has "Mamma Mia" and "S.O.S." (you know "S.O.S." is the only palindromic song by a palindromic band?) Great piano on almost every song. However, it DOES sag in the middle with the boring/childish/stupid trio of "Man in the Middle", "Bang-A-Boomerang", and "I Do". But it's great. Alright, I'm done. No, wait! The piano intro to the bonus medley is totally worth hearing! NOW I'm done. Juicebox, anyone?

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