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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Frida): Shine


1) Shine; 2) One Little Lie; 3) The Face; 4) Twist In The Dark; 5) Slowly; 6) Heart Of The Country; 7) Come To Me (I Am A Woman); 8) Chemistry Tonight; 9) Don't Do It; 10) Comfort Me; 11*) That's Tough.

If you manage to disregard the cheeky album cover (okay, so the world was living in the era of ʽPhy­sicalʼ back then), Shine is actually a very strong, engaging, even «experimental» pop album. Why it bombed on the charts, turning Frida off recording for more than a decade and off English-language recording almost forever, is unclear. One guess is that the world was shaking off the «ABBA cobwebs», setting the band aside as obsolete fluff until the 1990s revival — thus, even though only one song on Shine really sounds like classic ABBA, Frida got the boot simply for being Frida. Another guess is the opposite one: Shine is so different from ABBA that Frida's veteran supporters, constituting the bulk of the buyers, were turned off by the sound.

And no wonder: this time around, the producer is Steve Lillywhite, who was, back then, one of the hottest things in town, masterminding cutting-edge albums by Peter Gabriel, U2, and whoever else wanted to make use of the latest developments in studio technology in order to record some­thing dark, freaky, unsettling, or futuristic. The assembled musicians also represented «the new breed» and had already made big names for themselves: Tony Levin of King Crimson fame is on bass, Mark Brzezicki of Big Country fame is on drums, and singer-songwriter Kirsty McCall supplies much of the material, often co-written with Simon Climie, the man who'd later become known for the «Climie Fisher» duo (and then for the next stage of ruining Eric Clapton's solo career with atrocious albums like Pilgrim, trying to modernize the unmodernisable — but that would be a long, long time away: here, the guy just plays synthesizers).

The result is a bona fide synth-pop album (with very limited guitar presence) that takes the already dark overtones of its predecessor and compacts them into something even more emotio­nally disturbing. The title track's release as a single must have confused audiences, because it is not at all clear what it is — a simple love ballad, or a tale of an unhealthy psychoaddiction? The "you give me love, you make me shine" chorus, with its high uplifting harmonies seems to sug­gest the former, but the unexpectedly dissonant bass chords, the ghostly harmonies, the aggres­sive drum patterns, the sickly "you give me love, you give me love, you give me love..." repe­titions, it all suggests probing certain subconscious depths that are way below «fluffy lightweight romance» levels. This fluctuation between the light and the dark throws you off balance and prevents easy pigeonholing — hence, perhaps, the hesitation to buy up extra copies.

The one small «giveaway» to ABBA fans was certainly not enough to compensate. ʽSlowlyʼ, which Frida actually accepted from Benny and Björn (so, for all purposes, one might count it as a legitimate ABBA song), is awash in typically ABBA vocal hooks, tailored to Frida's abilities: a «multi-movement» ballad going through several layers of the emotional spectrum (the way she brings it all around with her velvety delivery of the title is gorgeous), and, for that matter, showing that the ABBA pool was anything but spent in the early 1980s. Still, just one song, and it comes on after the album's «creepiest» number: ʽTwist In The Darkʼ, contributed by songwriter Andy Leek, is like a slightly more accessible Melt-era Peter Gabriel track — big booming drums, ghostly keyboards and backing harmonies, and a menacing hookline. Now it's never really as threateningly Freudist as the description makes it out, but it's still fairly serious: if you liked the «darker» elements of The Visitors, this is a logical development.

Less stunning, but still catchy highlights include ʽOne Little Lieʼ, a lively synth-rocker with a rather gratuitous, but harmless, Beethoven lick in the intro, and ʽHeart Of The Countryʼ, contributed by Big Country's own Stuart Adamson. Individual disappointments would be limited to ʽDon't Do Itʼ, a rather shapeless ballad with nowhere-going echoey guitar used purely for at­mosphere — written by Frida herself, and maybe she shouldn't; and ʽCome To Me (I Am A Woman)ʼ, another ballad, this time, an even gentler and adult-contemporarier one, but it wouldn't be as embarrassing, I guess, if only Frida did not sing the chorus as "come to me, I am woman" (without the article!), which, if your English is on an okay level, gives the oddly dumb impression of "me Tarzan, you Jane" and dumbs down any hopes at romance.

Still, in terms of our general expectations, Shine is a relative masterpiece — nobody would demand a genuine Peter Gabriel-level record from an ABBA singer, no matter who the producer is, if the songwriting remains in the hands of a bunch of pop-oriented outsiders, but they come as close to this result as physically possible, and with a rather natural grace. Many people have floundered in the transition from «typically 1970s» to «typically 1980s» music: Frida clearly understood how not to flounder, and thus, it is actually a little distressing that she had all but severed her relations with the music industry from then on — unlike Agnetha, who eventually succumbed to DianeWarren-itis, Frida seems like the type who could have preserved a modicum of good taste throughout the decade (yes, sometimes my inner optimist does manage to beat up my inner pessimist).

But then, it does not make much sense to talk in «ifs»: the truth is that Shine was Frida's last internationally-oriented album, and she only made brief occasional returns to the public eye since then. One more Swedish-language album followed in 1996, and that was it. Should we lament the missed opportunities or appraise the humbleness and modesty? I guess we'd need to at least be close friends or something to answer that question. In the meantime, Shine gets an expected thumbs up rating — if you like tasteful synth-pop, and can stand the idea of it being slightly blemished by superficial sentimentalism, this record is made for you. Additionally, it is the last ever album to feature a song written by Benny and Björn and sung by one of the ABBA girls — most likely, this should wrench a commitment out of some people at least. 

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