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Friday, February 19, 2010

A-ha: East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon


1) Crying In The Rain; 2) Early Morning; 3) I Call Your Name; 4) Slender Frame; 5) East Of The Sun; 6) Sycamore Leaves; 7) Waiting For Her; 8) Cold River; 9) The Way We Talk; 10) Rolling Thunder; 11) (Seemingly) Nonstop July.

This is good shit. It does not exactly light my fire, but it does not annoy me, either, and that is no mean feat for a mainstream pop album from 1990. This is where A-Ha first tried to become a «real» band, trading in some of their rusted synth gear for more traditional instruments — guitars, pianos, drums, even some brass and some strings. Electronica still provides the atmospheric back­grounds, but overall, this is definitely not «synth pop». Ironically, it also marked the start of their commercial decline — apparently, some of the old fans felt betrayed (indeed, what could ever be a more awful downer than hearing an actual boring old piano instead of a brand new Casio?), and new fans would rather dig in to groovier, trendier stuff emanating from the likes of Manchester.

But for me, this might just be the ultimate A-Ha experience. They may have betrayed the child­hood dreams of their oldest admirers, but they certainly have not abandoned the quintessence of their style. As usual, there is plenty of cool grace flying around, plenty of autumnal depression, plenty of old-style romanticizing, and plenty of pop hooks. And, in fact, the switch to traditional instruments makes them work harder for it: the arrangements have to be more complex, the melo­dies slightly less predictable, the singing more upfront. Like it or not, East Of The Sun is quite a masterful construction.

Some tracks are very easy to deride, particularly the ones where the band try to «rock out». Upon first listen, something like 'Cold River' feels like a highly stupid attempt at a «tough» sound that does not at all fit in with the band's personality. The obvious Beatles reference at the beginning ('Asked a girl if she needed a ride, she said, "sure babe, but I wanna drive"') may also seem irrita­tingly flat. But then you could throw the same accusation at the Beatles themselves, couldn't you? Wasn't 'Drive My Car' a stupid attempt at a «tough» sound? Hardly — it was a well-conceived pop-rocker that stopped at the exact borderline between «strong and catchy», something the Bea­tles did well, and «tough and aggressive», something they did not believe in with the same ease and, therefore, could not transmit all that well.

The same happens to A-Ha: they never overstep their boundaries, and even 'Cold River', with its thumping bass, bashing drums, flat lyrics, and Harket singing in a more rock'n'rollish manner than usual, is tolerable fun. Although, to be sure, I like the doom-laden 'Sycamore Leaves' a hell of a lot more — nothing beats its funereal organ rhythm and solo. Add an extra few dozen layers of gui­tars and keyboards, and one could pass it off for a lost Cure classic.

Most of the album's material continues, however, in a softer vein. 'Crying In The Rain' is their first attempt at covering outside material — and the selection of a Carole King/Everly Brothers number is more than appropriate and in very good taste, not to mention the symbolic gesture of placing it at the start of the album, as if to stress the straight line of development from the Everlys right down to A-Ha: sacrilegious for some, perhaps, but factually true. 'Early Morning' and 'Slen­der Frame' are minimalistic, catchy, inoffensive adult contemporary, elegantly woven around the denser, more evocative mini-worlds of the pompous 'I Call Your Name' and the dreary title track. And then, finally, the unpredictable ending: an intimate ballad, just a little acoustic guitar and a piano, with Harket crooning out the lyrics as sweetly and nonchalantly as possible.

Who knows: once the novelty of A-Ha's «classic» synth-pop era albums finally fades away along with my nostalgia-ridden generation of the Eighties, East Of The Sun may take its rightful place as the album to remember these guys by — it already sounds far more timeless than Hunting High And Low and even Scoundrel Days. In the meantime, I will do my own tiny part by adver­tising it with a straightahead thumbs up. Good, good stuff.

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