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Friday, January 9, 2015

Blondie: The Curse Of Blondie


1) Shakedown; 2) Good Boys; 3) Undone; 4) Golden Rod; 5) Rules For Living; 6) Background Melody; 7) Magic (Asadoya Yunta); 8) End To End; 9) Hello Joe; 10) The Tingler; 11) Last One In The World; 12) Diamond Bridge; 13) Desire Brings Me Back; 14) Songs Of Love.

Everybody knows what the real «curse of Blondie» is, and has always been: being mistaken for «Blondie», a male-oriented post-Marilyn, pre-Madonna pop factory churning out Viagra substi­tutes à la ʽHeart Of Glassʼ. Small wonder, then, that in the 21st century the curse gets stronger than ever — everybody needs that kind of «Blondie» when she's in her twenties or even thirties, but now that she is pushing sixty, you'd almost be getting into some sort of Harold And Maude situation, and not that there's anything wrong with that, but... well... you know...

...anyway, the title of the album seems to reflect irony, but it wouldn't hurt if they'd added, some­where in minuscule letters at least, «getting over...», because this is exactly what they are trying to do here. The only improvement of this album over No Exit is that, while some of the songs still reflect the old Blondie style, The Curse Of Blondie no longer toys with sexual imagery at all: there is nothing like ʽMariaʼ or ʽHappy Dogʼ or, thank God, ʽBoom Boom In The Zoom Zoom Roomʼ on this record. The lyrical and emotional tones are far more serious and, crucially, far more in line with the age-induced changes in Debbie's voice: no cognitive dissonance for me this time while undergoing the influence of her vocal timbre.

The flaws of this record, unfortunately, are very much in your face just as well. First and fore­most, it is overlong: simply put, they did not have enough songs to fill up the space of 60 minutes, yet, for some reason, decided to do it anyway and stretched most of the compositions out to totally unreasonable lengths. Basically, this is a set of 14 mediocre-to-good three-minute pop songs that seem to overrate themselves: 60 - (14×3) means that for about 18 minutes you will, most probably, be bored stiff out of your mind. Second, there is way too much emphasis on «sounding contemporary»: the lead (and only) single from the album, ʽGood Boysʼ, was strictly in the electronic dance-pop vein, and there are quite a bit more «commercial» throwaways like these on the album. Whatever the situation, Blondie has always been a guitar-based band, and trying to cross over thus late in their career will almost inevitably lead to embarrassments — and it does, even despite the fact that ʽGood Boysʼ has a catchy chorus.

And yet, despite the fact that it is so uneven, The Curse Of Blondie still contains a few melodic surprises and harmonic joys — too bad that you have to filter them out, but let me try and name a few, as a small aid. ʽGolden Rodʼ is a fine guitar pop song, on which they remember the old wailing Fripp/Belew lead tones, introduce a little bit of sped-up droning into the melody to make the atmosphere more scary, throw in a Patti Smith-like mid-section (Debbie even sounds like Patti when she is singing "my reaction, what's gonna happen, gets no help from me"), and com­plete the whole thing with lyrics that turn it into a thinly veiled anti-drug statement (or at least, that's how all these lines like "mother says it's just a weed" read out to me).

Later on, they do a fine job saddling Japanese pop influences on ʽMagicʼ — actually, an electric arrangement of a traditional Okinawan folk song (ʽAsadoya Yuntaʼ) where a multi-tracked Debbie sounds well in line with a high-pitched female Japanese choir, and is also well aided by psychedelic backward-recorded guitar solos: nothing earth-shaking, but a little tender innocence well integrated with a little bit of studio magic can sometimes go a long way. Perhaps it is not «true Blondie», but in 2003, it is certainly truer Blondie than ʽMariaʼ — besides, «true Blondie» has always been about reaching out into the unknown, so Okinawan folk music ties in pretty well into that category.

The band shows that they can still bulge those muscles, too, with a hard rock anthem that carries plenty of grit and desperation — ʽLast One In The Worldʼ — unfortunately, marred again with piss-poor production, flattening out the guitars and cluttering the mix with unnecessary extra layers of percussion and keyboards, but essentially a good song all the same. Finally, ʽSongs Of Loveʼ, though drastically overlong, is a wonderfully moody folk-jazzy conclusion, essentially in the «late night» vein, but with jangling guitars and pulsating «astral» electronic keyboards instead of the usual piano-and-bass accompaniment associated with such songs. Although Debbie does not have the proper voice for this (we'd rather need a Billie Holiday here, or at least some of the other old school jazz divas), she still does what she can, and sounds more convincing as a ro­mantic crooner than a sexy feline, forever stuck in kittenhood.

Much of the rest is hit-and-miss, as subjective as these judgements are: for instance, I remain completely unmoved by ʽHello Joeʼ, the band's allegedly heartfelt tribute to their long-term New York pal Joey Ramone — not only does the song's genre (a light acoustic pop-rocker) have no relation whatsoever to the Ramones, but even the song per se is melodically way too simplistic for the usual Blondie standards, as if they thought that a lyrical reference to hey-ho-let's-go would suffice in making the song work. More seriously and generally, the rhythm guitar parts on the album suck more often than not (overprocessed, overcompressed, the usual stuff), and the key­boards too often sound like a novice, frosted out after twenty years of repose and frantically trying to «catch up» with the hottest trends.

On the whole, though, still a thumbs up here rather than the dustbin treatment: I like the attitude, the maturity, the still-not-too-bad songwriting, the way they sometimes (alas, not too often) suc­ceed in overcoming their disadvantages in the new age, and just the basic fact that they have managed to avoid turning into complete self-parodies — one true sign of a great band, actually (retaining self-control and adequacy even after the cutting edge has long since been passed). And if somebody trimmed this whole thing down to reasonable length, re-mixed and re-produced most of the songs, and erased all their «intentional modernity» impulses, then it might have been a very strong thumbs up, for all I know.

As it is — who knows, maybe that curse of Blondie does exist, after all, and is way different from the way I have described it? For instance: «the curse of Blondie is that they will never be able to release a fully satisfactory record in the 21st century»... nah, too obvious. «The curse of Blondie is that they will never be able to free themselves from the illusion of being obliged to their fans to release superficially commercial singles, instead of just being true to their musical hearts». Too pretentious. «The curse of Blondie is... what kind of a stupid band calls itself Blondie, anyway?» Okay, never mind. Curtains, please.

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