ABC: ALPHABET CITY (1987)
1) Avenue A; 2) When Smokey Sings; 3) The Night You Murdered Love; 4) Think Again; 5) Rage And Then Regret; 6) Ark-Angel; 7) King Without A Crown; 8) Bad Blood; 9) Jealous Lover; 10) One Day; 11) Avenue Z.
After a two-year hiatus during which Fry was treated from Hodgkin's disease (a rather serious type of cancer, actually, which he was lucky to survive), ABC once again split their fans with an album that some thought to be their most boring and irrelevant so far, and others lauded as the only slightly inferior, long-expected sequel to Lexicon Of Love.
Dropping most of the goofiness, sarcasm, social critique (not too good), but dropping also the ornamental duo of «Eden» and Yarritu (pretty damn good compensation), Mark and Martin turn to Chic veteran Bernard Edwards for guidance, and record a slick, strictly commercial, but not altogether insubstantial set. I mean, personally, I hate bad or even average synth-pop with a vengeance, on an animal level, but I do not have any seriously negative feelings for Alphabet City at all. It really must have something to do with Fry's personality, because the arrangements are quite sterile (despite a welcome return from Anne Dudley to arrange some strings for a couple of numbers), and none of the humor, be it brilliant or annoying, of Zillionaire is to be found.
The real big deal are the hit singles. 'When Smokey Sings' is one of the decade's finest exercises in rose-colored glasses production: as silly as the chorus line "When Smokey sings, I hear violins" may sound, it is perfect in the context of this really silly, happy, but, somehow, quite intelligent tribute to the world of R'n'B (not only Smokey, but "Marvin", "James", "Sly", "Luther" are mentioned as well). And it is certainly a better song than whatever Smokey was singing at the time — I'd like to think that Fry is relying more on his childhood memories here than on an accidental glance at Smokie on some late-Eighties TV show.
Meanwhile, 'The Night You Murdered Love' and 'King Without A Crown' return us to more familiar territory, two similar, but equally memorable and convincing breakup tales, each based on a terrific bass groove and at least two different vocal hooks. 'The Night...', in particular, is structured like a well-calculated series of vocal blows, each one landing heavier than the former — as generic as the subject matter is, Fry's singing on it almost deserves a thorough note-for-note study from a psychological point of view. Not to be overlooked is Howie Casey's geometric wonder of a saxophone solo part, either (for the record, Howie Casey is quite a notorious session player in England; it is his sound you hear on Paul McCartney's 'Jet', for instance).
The non-singles are a lesser breed, and usually come across as paler recreations of the singles, with limper grooves and wobblier hooks. 'Bad Blood' is sometimes listed as a highlight of the LP, but I'm not sure about that: it just takes on a slightly more solemn, knitted-brow attitude than the rest, sacrificing tightness of groove for that purpose. 'One Day', however, with Dudley's strings guiding it as if it were some sort of Ravellian piece, is a fine, stately conclusion, breaking away from the basic synth-pop formula.
Altogether, Alphabet City should be commended: not everyone, after slipping into shock/goof mode with a post-modernist flavor, can return to «romantically serious» (in an Eighties dance style, no less!) and make it sound attractive once again, rather than end up with an embarrassing flop on one's hands. For its period of time, with its type of sound, against its superficial attractions, it's almost a masterpiece, even if nothing but the singles and 'One Day' really holds up after all these years. Thumbs up.
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