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Friday, February 26, 2010

A-ha: Memorial Beach


1) Dark Is The Night For All; 2) Move To Memphis; 3) Cold As Stone; 4) Angel In The Snow; 5) Locust; 6) Lie Down In Darkness; 7) How Sweet It Was; 8) Lamb To The Slaughter; 9) Between Your Mama And Yourself; 10) Memorial Beach.

A-Ha's last album before calling it quits for the rest of the decade is sort of a mixed bag — a fai­lure by most objective standards, but very possibly a success by certain subjective ones. The big­gest problem is that, having lost their original face, they were still experiencing difficulties about finding a new one. On East Of The Sun, they at least tried several possible directions, and came out with a relatively diverse and talented collection. Memorial Beach, on the other hand, seems to pool most of the band's resources into a fierce competitive effort with the 'Madchester' scene — not only about two years too late (by 1992, the Stone Roses were no longer the hottest thing around), but also with no hope whatsoever.

Could anybody ever hope to believe that the sweet teen idols of yesterday would be able to stand their ground next to the biggest, weightiest «alt-dance» bands of the era? That Mor­ten Harket could come off as cool as Ian Brown? Obviously not. For a bunch of Norwegian nearly-has-beens to make a serious new impact on the British dance scene, the music had to be a real rocket; Me­morial Beach is more likely to be compared to an antique choo-choo train, slowly grumbling its way through the night.

Critics hated it, the public ignored it, and it was pretty obvious that the world simply had no need for more A-Ha product unless it ceased to be A-Ha product and became something else. A predi­ctable disaster. But the more we look back on Memorial Beach, the more it turns into a veritable memorial beach, one that may be worth paying a lonely visit for no particular purpose, but abso­lutely risk-free.

A-Ha's brand of modern funk is, of course, tremendously derivative, but the songs themselves are not altogether boring or pointless — 'Move To Memphis' has a catchy chorus; the eight-minute monster 'Cold As Stone' puts its two cents on «atmosphere» and more or less pockets a solid win­ning; 'Lie Down In Darkness' has swell vocal harmonies; and on 'How Sweet It Was', Harket lays down his best vocal performance on the album. No masterpieces, but still a soft touch of class on each of these things (and from a purely technical point, they are unassailable — these guys may not have the inventiveness or the freshness of the fathers of 'Madchester', but they have definitely studied the scene to perfection).

The ballads are shakier, as the band descends deeper into the pits of adult contemporary, with the required lack of focus, cheesy harmonies, and lyrical triteness — but there is no denying the sin­cerity of 'Angel In The Snow' (or the nice fact that its keyboard accompaniment is provided by a snowy winter electric organ) or the unusual otherworldliness of 'Locust', the band's only song written in «hypnotic lullaby» mood and deserving it. The choice of the album opener 'Dark Is The Night For All', which some critics have sneeringly compared to U2, for the single, was, however, unhappy — its anthemic strife is not well supported by its hooks, and its exaggerated idealism is an entirely false preview of the things that follow, which are really much better, but which may seem like a bored disappointment after the grand sweep of 'Dark Is The Night'.

Do not believe the one-star reviews when you meet them: no sane person had a good reason to listen to this record when it came out, but today, when no sane person has a good reason to listen to music at all, and what we are left with is either insane people or bad reasons, one-star re­views like these are hopelessly obsolete. A little bit of thumbs up is in order here, and if you are intere­sted at all in seeing A-Ha's career as reflecting the inner emotional journey of Morten Harket and his vocal tract, Memorial Beach is indispensable, if only to hear him sing 'The mirror sees you — so alone — cold as stone... yeah!' and still be able to admire his cool.

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