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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Bee Gees: To Whom It May Concern


BEE GEES: TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN (1972)

1) Run To Me; 2) We Lost The Road; 3) Never Been Alone; 4) Paper Mache, Cabbages & Kings; 5) I Can Bring Love; 6) I Held A Party; 7) Please Don't Turn Out The Lights; 8) Sea Of Smiling Faces; 9) Bad Bad Dreams; 10) You Know It's For You; 11) Alive; 12) Road To Alaska; 13) Sweet Song Of Summer.

In an older review, I seem to have been a bit unfair to this record — probably because, next to the concentrated, concise, and conceptual grandeur of Trafalgar, this one seems to lack focus so much that its throwaways, unlike Trafalgar's, lack the chance to be «saved by the frame». In other words, where Trafalgar was «the bomb», To Whom It May Concern is «the shards», a chaotic collection where old outtakes, surprising new experiments, and intentionally commercial, sometimes «dumbed-down» productions are mixed together without a clear plan. Obviously, this generates a feeling of «faltering» and «insecurity» — even the album title seems to suggest some­thing like, «well, naturally, we don't insist that you listen to this, unless you are a Bee Gees vet fan or something...».

What must have happened was that the recording of Trafalgar, much like the recording of Odes­sa two years earlier, left the band out of breath, yet, instead of taking a recommended break, they decided to plough on quickly, while the new wave of popularity, caused by the success of ʽHow Can You Mend A Broken Heartʼ, was still high. Hence, three more singles in 1972 — all of them lush ballads for sure, although not a single one came close to replicating their biggest US success so far. Unfortunately, this time around these songs are just that — lush sentimental ballads with relatively simple, easily understandable content, not particularly distinguished through any ex­quisite «aristocratism» or baroque flavors. Where ʽHow Can You Mend A Broken Heartʼ not only works on its commercial own, but also easily fits into the general puzzle of Trafalgar, a song like ʽRun To Meʼ is simply ʽRun To Meʼ, no less, no more.

At least ʽBroken Heartʼ had an introspective component to it, a trivial philosophy that was non-tri­vially expressed through music — the lead-in number on this record is sheer candy for the cry­stally clear teen­age heart (and I do stress «teenage», given the line "now and then, you need some­one older" — considering that Barry was twenty-six at the time, it would be a stretch to ac­cuse him of grandfatherly instincts). At least it is well-written and beautifully sung candy — just a good song, whatever — but, as a greeting, it clearly states that a second Trafalgar is not to be expected: the boys are running up the Sentimental Hill again.

And yet it actually helps that the band has «lost the road» one more time — this suspended state of «where to now?» results in an unexpected return to diversity. In fact, one distinguishing feature of To Whom It May Concern is that it is all over the place, easily their most diverse record since 1st. See for yourself: in addition to sentimental tear-jerkers / heart-breakers (ʽRun To Meʼ, ʽI Can Bring Loveʼ) there is a philosophical Trafalgar outtake (ʽWe Lost The Roadʼ); a loud, glammy pub-rocker with screechy electric guitars and big fat basslines (ʽBad Bad Dreamsʼ); a blues boogie (ʽRoad To Alaskaʼ); some acoustic folk- and country-rock; a hilariously absurdist Brit-poppy «mini-musical» (ʽPaper Maché, Cabbages & Kingsʼ); and a moody psychedelic piece dominated by a moo-moo-mooing Moog melody (ʽSweet Song Of Summerʼ) that almost echoes the Gregorian somberness of ʽEvery Christian...ʼ.

Not all of these ideas may work, but the important thing is that they are all there — this makes the Bee Gees album the equivalent of the Stones' Goats Head Soup: nothing seriously new, not all of it ringing true, and no particular idea of where we are going to, but give it time to grow, and once you have had enough of all the acknowledged «classics», you may be in for a bunch of sur­prises. ʽPaper Machéʼ, in particular, had always struck me as a fairly «risqué» piece for a band that seemed to have left sheer silliness way, way behind them in the past, yet here they are did­dling away on banjoified mandolins, making parodic fun of their own «soulfulness» in the bridge section, and winding it up with a jolly good chant of "Jimmy had a bomb and the bomb went bang, Jimmy was everywhere". Australian childhood memories?

ʽWe Lost The Roadʼ and ʽSweet Song Of Summerʼ are the other two «lost gems» off the album — the former was indeed recorded for Trafalgar, but was excluded from the final abridged ver­sion, judged as one anthem too many; as one of those «where have all the good times gone» ser­mons that the Gibbs are always so good at, it is beyond reproach. As for ʽSweet Songʼ, it is actu­ally one of the most «disturbing» codas to a Bee Gees album ever — brewing up an atmosphere of ominousness and impending doom with its unhurried pace, torture chamber echoes, and Moog-from-hell passages, but you never really know what sort of impending doom that is. It just im­pends, that's all. For the record, Mike Vickers of Manfred Mann is credited for mann-ing (sorry) the synthesizers on that track — apparently, getting just the right sound for the song was a top priority for the brothers.

ʽBad Bad Dreamsʼ, the album's lonely and risky venture into hard-rock territory, is also surpri­singly decent — mainly due to Maurice's choice of a thick, brawny, but melodic tone for his bass, and to the brothers' new working partner Alan Kendall's aggressive style of lead guitar playing (Kendall actually jumped on board ship as early as Trafalgar, but flashy electric guitar was very much not a priority for Lord Horatio «Barry» Nelson and his crewmates). Of course, with the Bee Gees and hard rock, the question is always «will they or will they not embarrass themselves?» rather than «will they or will they not come up with a hard rock classic?», but a good hard rock number on any Bee Gees album, provided it's really credible, is always welcome — at least, for an important psychological reason.

The «sweeter» part of the deal, always aided by Shepherd's tasteful arrangements, still strives for seriousness occasionally — Barry's ʽAliveʼ, for instance, is genuinely grandiose, unlike the much schlockier ʽRun To Meʼ and ʽI Can Bring Loveʼ. Robin is best experienced here on ʽNever Been Aloneʼ and ʽSea Of Smiling Facesʼ, but neither is a big favourite of mine — I believe his vibrato really only works well along with a baroque flavor, whereas these here songs are more in stan­dard folk-pop («soft-rock») territory and end up on the cheesy side of life. Meanwhile, Maurice tries to go for a vibe somewhere in between James Taylor and very early Beatles circa ʽAsk Me Whyʼ on ʽYou Know It's For Youʼ, but the song is almost surprisingly primitive-sounding (of course, from some perspective or other, this could be interpreted as charm).

To Whom It May Concern marked several important «lasts» in the band's career — most im­portantly, it was their last album recorded at London's IBC Studios (from now on, most or all of the band's recordings would be done in America) and the last one with the participation of Bill Shepherd. Thus, if we are setting up demarcating lines, it still makes sense to place it in the same period with Trafalgar, despite suffering from a clear «post-masterpiece» syndrome. It does not as much initiate the band's decline as it simply resigns itself to sweeping around the corners — with mixed, yet occasionally fascinating results. No need to rush, but if you are interested in set­ting up a block post for the Bee Gees that would leave ʽNights On Broadwayʼ somewhere on the other side, make sure that To Whom It May Concern still stays on the right side. In the end, I reassess it as a thumbs up — conceptuality be damned if it helps bring back somberness and silliness at the same time.  

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4 comments:

  1. "not a single one came close to replicating their biggest US success so far"
    It's remarkable how often this pattern repeats itself. The point is, I think, that even "not replicating success" brings in enough money to justify, from a commercial point, the attempt to replicate asap. Of course the consequence is that music becomes a throw away product.
    I am not going to argue if that's a good or an evil thing in case of the BeeGees. I just point this out.

    "candy for the crystally clear teenage heart"
    I'm not so sure about this. To me it always has looked like if the BeeGees produced candy for housewives who wish they still had a teenage heart. I knew precious few teen girls who like the band. Then again I became interested in music only in 1975, beyond their prime. All this doesn't change a iota of your general analysis.
    Bad, Bad Dream is a surprise for me. It's rather generic in itself, but the tendency of the guys to go sentimental is a novelty factor for me.

    «will they or will they not embarrass themselves?»
    As a seasoned Blackmore fan (since 1976 or something, when I bought Made in Japan for the first time) my answer is no - as much I would like it, because I am born to dislike BeeGees' stuff. It could be argued that they embarass themselves with the even more generic Road to Alaska - but then I notice twice a short bass line on unexpected moments. So once again I must conclude that the brothers are sentimental as your average Hollywood romance movie (say with Richard Gere), but also are smart and creative. For me that applies to Nights on Broadway as well, btw.

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  2. It's funny you mention 1st because that was what I was thinking when I was listening to it the other day. A lot of the songs sound like 67-68 outtakes. Which is probably why I like the record a lot more than I thought I would. The general consensus (which includes your old site) was that TWIMC was a major letdown from Trafalgar and marked the beginning of their mid-70s swoon. It IS a letdown, but a fun one, and at least with the Gibbs, you're let down with class and melody.

    Given the recurrent opinion that their music was geared toward lonely housewives, should I admit that I've ALWAYS liked Run to Me, and run the risk of being classified among their apron-wearing, teary numbers? Yes, because it's a dorky little throwback to the early 60s ala the Lettermen.

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  3. I don't know, I don't think there's anything dorky or fluffy about that little "I am unwise, to open up your eyes, to love me". The rest of the song is kind of silly, if still nice, but that particular flourish always strikes a chord in me.

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    1. That line connects with me also. Another song from that same era was "My World." The way Robin sings 'I've been crying i'm lonely/What do i do to have you stay?' kills me every time. They were masters of hiding those little pockets of depth inside otherwise fluffy pop songs.

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