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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: XII

BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: XII (1978)

1) Fantasy: Loving Is Easy; 2) Berlin; 3) Classics: A Tale Of Two Sixties; 4) Turning In Circles; 5) Fact: The Closed Shop; 6) In Search Of England; 7) Sip Of Wine; 8) Harbour; 9) Science Fiction: Nova Lepidoptera; 10) Giving It Up; 11) Fiction: The Streets Of San Francisco.

At least we now know that Barclay James Harvest were definitely not deaf and blind to recent musical developments, including that whole oddball «New Wave» thing — considering that the stern-marching bassline that opens ʽLoving Is Easyʼ was lifted directly from ʽPsycho Killerʼ. (Perhaps Lees just thought that there was no way the base audiences of BJH and Talking Heads could have any overlap whatsoever — and he was probably right, too).

Unfortunately, where the bassline of ʽPsycho Killerʼ flows quite naturally into the funky guitar riff, and the funky guitar riff nicely tills the soil for the paranoid vocals, the bass in ʽLoving Is Easyʼ does not even technically fit in with the rest of the song — it was stuck there just for a fla­shy flourish, and this decision very neatly summarizes the main flaw of BJH: a band that never stopped looking for ideas (not necessarily their own ones), but ever so rarely had a good under­standing of how to «set up» an idea once it had been found.

It's not even that ʽLoving Is Easyʼ is that bad an album opener — it's got a catchy Foreigner-style chorus, a vicious solo, a perky-arrogant synthesizer tone... well, okay, it is pretty bad, because all of it is hardly enough to override the confused amusement at John's salacious double-entendres. I mean, "...as I shoot all my love into you"? "just get a hold and watch how it grows"? I do not exactly remember anybody ordering a blue plate special à la AC/DC, although it is the Foreigner comparison that is more appropriate here: sexist arena-pop with crude, stern hooks and no sense of irony whatsoever. And leave it to a band as perplexed as BJH to mix all that with the bassline of ʽPsycho Killerʼ.

If I have unintentionally made the song sound more curious than it is, I apologize, because, in all actuality, XII is a fairly boring record. Those who do seriously care about the second phase of poor Barclay's career will probably still want to own it, and make it their last: after XII, Woolly, disgruntled with disproportionate discrimination, finally quit the band and became free to pursue his own Wagnerian-Mahlerian dreams in a solo career. But even as XII still sticks fairly close to the band's «progressive» or, at least, «art» roots, it seems to run on an even smoother, less per­ceptible railtrack than its predecessor. It is melodic, modestly complex, and rarely indulges in huge lapses of taste, the biggest exceptions being the aforementioned ʽLoving Is Easyʼ and ʽA Tale Of Two Sixtiesʼ, where, once again, Lees puts on his old-and-worn Rock Guru Shoes and pours out a name-filled «baby-boomer complaint» on the decline of rock music: apparently, "rock and roll died with Easy Rider" and "I'm cutting out now before the New Wave takes my surf board flair". (That's all fine, but why steal from David Byrne then?).

On the formal side, the album is notable for containing ʽBerlinʼ, a typically mushy Holroyd an­them that endeared the band to the Germans so much, they would go on to sell most of their al­bum stock in that country — Les is honestly trying to come up with a McCartney-quality ballad here, and it probably wouldn't be too cringeworthy if not for his elfish voice, carrying such an overdose of sentimentalism that my emotional centers immediately regurgitate the stuff.

It is also notable for an «encyclopaedic» twist on Lees' part: all of John's songs are arranged in «library folders» (ʽFantasyʼ, ʽClassicsʼ, ʽScience fictionʼ, etc.), to reflect the wide variety of his interests and the genuine Renaissance nature of his character. This bold artistic move is a little diluted, though, by the necessity of mixing his material with that of Les and Woolly, both of whom refuse to play the game; and by the rather loose adherence to the rules — for instance, why the hell is ʽLoving Is Easyʼ placed under ʽFantasyʼ when it clearly should have been labeled ʽAdultʼ (unless, of course, under «fantasy» we first and foremost understand something like this)? And why does he write such deadly boring «fiction» as ʽThe Streets Of San Franciscoʼ, which closes the album with three minutes of a repetitive dark-descending-acoustic coda with splutters of barely audible morose harmonica pasted over it for consolation?

Overall, they seem to have succeeded in creating a slightly darker, denser, more stylistically uni­fied and, subsequently, less memorable and «flashy» sequel to Gone To Earth: Woolly went on record stating that he actually prefers XII (probably, among other things, because they let him have two songs on it instead of the usual one — mercy gift before the final breakup?), and in a way, so do I, because it does not at least have a ʽPoor Man's Moody Bluesʼ on it. But that does not make it recommendable, either: darkness and density aside, the music is still as limp and spineless as ever — by this time, only a miracle could lift them out of this bog, and Barclay James Harvest were a steady, self-assured band that never really believed in miracles.

Check "XII" (CD) on Amazon

2 comments:

  1. I don't think that Berlin is a bad song, at least it's memorable. I'm otherwise only familiar with their first album which I enjoy very much, but I listened to a greatest hits album of theirs the other day which seemed to heavily draw on their later albums and I thought almost all of it was indistinguishable mush. Berlin's melody was actually the only one I could remember and enjoy. Maybe it's sappy and sentimental, but there are worse songs.

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  2. Wow George, you sure got more out of this album than I did -- though I agree with "spineless" & "boring." Thinking about mush like this too much will rot your brain. Keep the cover, throw the record away....

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