ALAN PARSONS PROJECT: THE TURN OF A FRIENDLY CARD (1980)
1) May Be A Price To Pay; 2) Games People Play; 3) Time; 4) I Don't Wanna Go Home; 5) The Gold Bug; 6) The Turn Of A Friendly Card (i. Part One; ii. Snake Eyes; iii. The Ace Of Swords; iv. Nothing Left To Lose; v. Part Two).
The pooled brainpower of Parsons and Woolfson is admirable. This follow-up to Eve, skilfully crafted according to their continuously high standards, when dissolved into simple separate components, is just as «pop» as its predecessor — and yet, through subtle shifts of palette, a more distinct emphasis on conceptuality, and a correctly calculated touch of musical feng shui, it restores the «art-rock» feel of the band's first three albums that some fans had started missing on Eve.
The record is about gambling — look at the song titles. But, of course, it is not literally about gambling: we only take the art of gambling as a metaphorical pretext to reflect on the concepts of chance, luck, risk, etc., and their role in and effect on people's lives. Nothing way too deeply philosophical, but, just like with Pink Floyd, it works because the simple, age-old truths of the lyrics are well attenuated by new musical ideas.
«New», however, not in the sense that The Project pay a lot of attention to trends — The Turn sounded quite archaic in 1980 (one reason why it sounds surprisingly modern today). Sometimes the musicians resort to specific «25th frame»-style techniques — look, for instance, how surreptitiously 'May Be A Price To Pay' hops into a sort of Saturday Night Fever-ish dance groove for its instrumental break, then snaps back out as if it were only a brief dream; or the small out-of-nowhere reggae bit after 'Nothing Left To Lose' — but for the most part, this is the same classically or folk-oriented balladry, and the same funkified pop they'd been doing for ages. None of that New Wave shit for brainwashed kids. Serious adult music for serious adult people.
For me, it works. First, it works as a concept. These guys were born to lament the ills and misfortunes of humanity, and the gambling disease, taken both literally and figuratively, is right up their alley (besides, it's also a far safer topic for the critical eye than the «woman disease» of Eve). There may be only two basic moods explored — the ominous/angry/frustrated and the melancholic/pitiful/desperate — but, after all, those are the two basic moods of gambling, and they are interspersed well enough so that the record never feels monotonous.
Second, it works as individual songs. The hit 'Games People Play' is, composition-wise, probably one of the most trivial tunes on the album, a simple keyboard pattern expanded into a simplistic dance number whose main source of inspiration almost seems to have been ABBA's 'Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!' (classy smooth guitar breaks, though). However, the other hit, 'Time', is one of the best Pink Floyd songs that Pink Floyd never wrote (probably because they already had a 'Time' of their own, har har). There is no presumption of innocence for pretentious artists that name one of their songs 'Time', letting us mortals know that they have a better existentialist grasp on the issue of chronospace than every one of us; and this is exactly why this combination of sweet McCartney-like vocals, Harrison-like slide, and Parsons-only synth backdrops works so much better than simply «well».
Among those who take great care to separate the «intelligent» bits of The Project from the «sellout» bits, 'Time' has garnered a fair amount of hatred — for its silly clichéd lyrics (indeed), and its monotonous melody with no sense of development. Not everyone thinks that it was a good choice to let Eric Woolfson, first time ever, step up to the mike, either. I beg to disagree: 'Time' is no more a pop sellout than something like Floyd's 'Us And Them' (whose verse melody it brings up very vividly in my mind), and Woolfson has a sweet, sensitive, charming voice — which he also puts to great use on 'Nothing Left To Lose' — that should have been used much earlier. It may not be more complex in its melody than quite a few Styx or Journey ballads that we are trained to despise, but the important thing is that it assumes far less: nobody is ripping his shirt off and sticking his sweaty, smelly heart right under your nosdrils. So to speak.
The entire second side is one big song... nah, not really. It is four completely distinct songs (one of them in two parts), joined together with brief interludes and, sometimes, instrumental reprisals. But, hey, artistry on the rampage. 'Nothing Left To Lose' is the band's finest exercise in the folk pop genre, a song that would be an unusually high-standard attraction on a Barclay James Harvest album, perhaps, or, come to think of it, on a Baby James Taylor one as well (although, the way I see it, spoiling the spoils with cheesy Bee Geesy backup vocals was not a good thing). 'Snake Eyes', getting us back into angry mode, has the most memorable guitar riff on the album. And the title track has us witness more of Parsons' skill in brass arrangements, as its second part gradually transforms from a medievalistic ballad into an all-out apocalyptic romp (last time they did it so well was four years earlier, on 'Cask Of Amontillado').
The only thing that is somehow devoid of interest are the instrumentals: 'The Gold Bug' is a decent sax-dominated «fusion» romp that really just works as an interlude, and 'The Ace Of Swords' is, by all means, just an interlude, fairly well lost in between the big guitar sound of 'Snake Eyes' and the folksy prettiness of 'Nothing Left To Lose'. As with Eve, this is not a good sign: clearly, the band is investing most of its powers into the vocal hooks, neglecting the harmony exploration that used to be such an integral part of their sound. But all you have to do to stop worrying is just accept that, ever since Pyramid, maybe even since I Robot, The Project had been an «adult pop» band — leaving only the more anally-obsessed ones to argue about the exact prog-to-pop ratios of each of their albums. And Turn Of A Friendly Card, with all of its songs ranging from tolerably decent to openly beautiful, is one of the best «adult pop» albums ever recorded. Thumbs up.
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