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Friday, October 30, 2009

Adrian Belew: Mr. Music Head


1) Oh Daddy; 2) House Of Cards; 3) One Of Those Days; 4) Coconuts; 5) Bad Days; 6) Peaceable Kingdom; 7) Hot Zoo; 8) Motor Bungalow; 9) Bumpity Bump; 10) Bird In A Box; 11) 1967; 12) Cruelty To Animals.

This is the first in a sequence of four records in a row on which Belew's main goal was to exor­cise his inner pop demon; from 1989 to 1994, he intentionally displaced his avantagarde Crimso­nian schtick to backstage status and tried to be all four Beatles at the same time instead. Serious fans paying serious attention to Adrian's career already knew that one day it would come to this, of course, given his pop contributions to King Crimson's albums and the playfulness of Lone Rhino, but perhaps some of them still prayed to the Great God of Weirdness about not letting it happen — to no avail.

Come to think of it, serious fans had probably already heard Adrian's previous two records with The Bears, their eponymous album of 1987 and Rise And Shine from 1988, both of them essen­tially a bunch of tight retro-power pop songs modernized by Belew's guitar; but The Bears could have been thought of as a lightweight side project, a little bit of "divertissement" or maybe even a red herring. That Belew would go on in the same direction after parting ways with the Bears was somewhat sensational all the same.

And yet, nevertheless, I have never come across any major ac­cusations of "selling out". Perhaps it's because, technically, Belew never managed to really sell out: the funny video for 'Oh Daddy' got some MTV rotation and earned him a single hit, and so did the Bowie duet for 'Pretty Pink Rose' off the next album (arguably, just because of Bowie's name attached to it), but that was it — he never made that much money from this stretch. Perhaps, also, it's because this whole stretch took place in the interim between two major rocket launches for King Crimson; you can't really accuse a guy of "selling out" if the "selling-out" is clearly sha­ped as a bit of self-indulgent hobby in between "serious work".

But I would say that the main reason these albums are viewed, even by Belew's strongest critics, from the "weird man overdoes the weirdness" angle, rather than the "weird man loses honour and goes straight" angle, is that, for 1989-1994, they are, when judged by their own value, decidedly uncommercial. For one thing, Beatlesque pop has ceased to be of immediate commercial value ever since the Beatles broke up — Belew did not have any more chances of firing up the public-at-large's attention than Big Star and Badfinger two decades earlier. For another thing, his records, although clearly "tributary", were still Adrian Belew records and nobody else's. His lyrics, his vocals, his rhythmics, his guitar tricks — he may not be playing in 13/8 all the time, and he may go easier on the whammy bar, but this is by no means "commonplace" pop music.

Most of the instruments are played by Adrian alone (Mike Barnett is credited for string bass on a couple of tracks), meaning that, as in all such cases, you will not get a "live feel" for the procee­dings; this is technically admirable, but I think the record would have seriously benefitted from a few more overdubs, as well as better drumming (I hate beat boxes, especially on non-beat-box oriented albums); the lack of smoothness detracts from being able to fully appreciate Belew's in­ventiveness and songwriting talent. This is a serious drawback, I think — but, essentially, the only one, because the songs are all very strong.

Some are still molded in the old "paranoid" tradition that Belew carries over from the New Wave style of 1980's King Crimson and Talking Heads — such as 'Motor Bungalow' and 'Hot Zoo'; they are, however, mixed with post-psychedelic anthems to serenity and tranquility ('Peace­able Kingdom') and fun, lightweight pop-rockers and ballads that cast Adrian in a nostalgic or sentimental mood, wearing his heart on his sleeve or at least pretending to ('One Of Those Days', where he could be mistaken for a modern day Jerry Lee Lewis; 'Bad Days', with a gorgeous vocal part). On most of these numbers guitar trickery is reduced to a minimum — you'll have to look for classier guitar work on the grittier rockers, e. g. 'Coconuts' with its bee-sting tones, or 'Bum­pity Bump', one of the more authentically Crimsonian displays of grimness on the album. But these are exceptions: Mr. Music Head will not go down in history as a guitar-lover's paradise.

Disregarding the CD-only bonus sonic collage ('Cruelty To Animals', only there to further satisfy Adrian's faunistic fetish), the record's two most memorable tunes are the ones that bookmark it. 'Oh Daddy' is a sweet, heart-warming, but highly sarcastic take on the "I wanna be a star" syn­drome, cleverly structured as a dialog between Adrian and his now-11-year-old daughter (who can sing backup vocals even better than she could play piano as a 5-year-old) — all the more iro­nic seeing as how this "lament" about not being able to make it to the top was the closest Belew ever came to becoming a real pop star. And the mini-symphony '1967', almost completely acous­tic, is usually recognized as cast in the vein of the Beatles' mini-sequences, although melodically I do not spot any direct Beatles influence — but it is a very interesting piece nevertheless, alter­nating between a little vaudeville and a little blues and a little folk-pop, and all the time you can't really tell whether it's got real soul or if it's just a hollow exercise in genre-hopping without chan­ging the guitar around your neck, but it's interesting all the same.

In short, Mr. Music Head is an album tailor-made for that little middle-of-the-road segment of the audience who like their pop music weird, and their weirdness poppy. Unfortunately, experi­ence shows that we live in an age of extremism, so that the Simple Guy will find this too jarring and twisted, and the Complex Audiophile will dismiss it as "pop-slop". Since I never subscribed to either stereotype, I happily award this a thumbs up, with the brain in the lead (marvelous, un­predictable design) and the heart catching up (on the strength of 'Oh Daddy' and 'Bad Days' as already in the bank, and quite a few other songs poised to get there eventually).

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