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Monday, March 23, 2015

Boston: Third Stage

BOSTON: THIRD STAGE (1986)

1) Amanda; 2) We're Ready; 3) The Launch; 4) Cool The Engines; 5) My Destination; 6) A New World; 7) To Be A Man; 8) I Think I Like It; 9) Can'tcha Say / Still In Love; 10) Hollyann.

With all his perfectionism, delayism, disrespect for deadlines, and contempt for record labels, Tom Scholz ended up waiting for the most uncomfortable time to release Boston's third album — 1986, the Doom Year for Classic Rockers (just to remind you, Alice Cooper's Constrictor and Chicago 18 came out in the exact same month). Not that this should have derailed Scholz, who rarely trusted anybody's nose but his own: yes, you can sense that the Eighties are upon us from the production, but Scholz himself was responsible for the production in many ways, not the least of which was his own self-designed Rockman guitar processor.

So the bad news about Third Stage is not really its year of release, but rather the stylistic choice of its maker. As some of the old guys, such as second guitarist Barry Goudreau and bass player Fran Sheehan, eventually quit because they couldn't take the waiting any more, Scholz began sliding further and further into lyricism and sentimentality — the typical song on Third Stage is not a revved-up power-pop-rocker, but rather a heartfelt ballad, power or no power. In the place of ʽMore Than A Feelingʼ and ʽDon't Look Backʼ, songs that had an aura of cheapness but could still be a great way to kick-start your day, we now have ʽAmandaʼ — a song that must have per­manently ruined the life of every single Amanda on US soil. Just imagine yourself being a 12-year or so old girl called Amanda in 1986 and having to walk to school while all the radio stations for miles around blast "I'm gonna take you by surprise and make you realize, Amanda..."... oh, the horror. Hope they all hid in the basements while the heat was on.

Not only ʽAmandaʼ, though, but just about every other of these ballads is almost unbelievably lame — without the thunderous riff-blasts of his rockers, Scholz is reduced on the spot to pom­pous schlock where even the trademark Boston guitar tones do not redeem the material that rides on exhausted balladeering clichés all the way through. ʽMy Destinationʼ, ʽTo Be A Manʼ, ʽHolly­annʼ — I am not even sure I can properly distinguish one from the other. The only good thing about them is the band's stubborn reluctance to use synthesizers or strings, which does give them a Boston-exclusive flavor. But the contrast between the primitively uninventive melodies and the immense atmospheric pomp is just too much to bear.

Unfortunately, the few rockers on the record do not redeem the situation. The album's loudest and brawniest track, ʽCool The Enginesʼ (formally the last part of a space-related trilogy), is a glam extravaganza, with Brad Delp screaming his head off and Scholz getting to play Zeus the Thun­derer. Is it my fault, though, that the final result sounds stylistically similar to Aerosmith's ʽLove In An Elevatorʼ? With the same overloud, sleazy guitar assault as everything gets driven to ele­ven? Hilariously, even if Scholz never wanted to make a pop-metal anthem, he unintentionally produced one along the same stylistic lines as Aerosmith or Bon Jovi in their big hair days. I ad­mit that it is catchy — but it is also rather silly, adding this «macho» edge to their cosmic music (yes, I know that «cooling the engines» is just a metaphor, but I don't even want to remember explicitly what for). At least ʽI Think I Like Itʼ manages to combine the album's lyrical sensitivity with a strong, but delicate pop-rock rhythm, and arguably comes out as the best track and the only one that I can currently imagine myself wanting to revisit.

Bottomline: tech savviness is one thing, understanding of how to juice up an already catchy hook is another thing, and a good sense of taste and measure is the little devil whose absence can mess you up even if you got the other two quite right. With Third Stage, Scholz shows us one and one thing only — namely, that he himself does not seem to quite understand what it is that used to make him so good. Yes, there are quite a few things in common between ʽMore Than A Feelingʼ and ʽAmandaʼ, but there is also a wide gap. For Scholz, what really matters is what they have in common. For myself — and I hope to be speaking for quite a few other people, too — what really matters is the gap, and I hate this particular gap. Thumbs down with a vengeance, even if, on the whole, this is quite far from the worst record of 1986.

7 comments:

  1. Brilliant summary of a pretty bad (not awful, though) record.

    May I say that, for whatever reason, 1986 was the worst year to proudly announce "No Synthesizers" on the cover? But it was a pretty good year to say that you are a Greenpeace supporter.

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  2. Ah, so you skip Barry Goudreau's solo album of 1980. That's not exactly a loss, but it loses something.
    In the first place that solo album is Boston without Tom Scholz. So if you think TS the best think since the invention of powdered milk (yup, that's an unsubtle hint) you can neglect it. If you dislike Boston in the first place you can neglect it as well. But if you like Boston casually, like me and apparently GS, it's worth a try. Regarding "sliding further and further into lyricism and sentimentality" it sits comfortably between Third Stage and Don't Look Back. A good example is Mean Woman Blues - technically a blues indeed, but stripped off of anything even slightly offensive. If you think Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac boring you haven't heard that song yet.
    But there are also two pretty good songs: Sailing Away and Cold, Cold World. Neither is a classic, not even according to Boston standards, but they are definitely better than the filler on the two previous regular albums. Sailing Away is a simple, short ballad, with a string quartet added and as such a welcome anomaly in the catalogue. Cold Cold World is a typical Boston song with a decent riff and one or two decent hooks.
    As such it becomes clear that it's not technology that matters - what matters is what you do with it. At his best Tom Scholz did some interesting things; Barry Goudreau quickly and predictably descended into the blandness so typical of AOR. Try the two good songs though.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ah, so you skip Barry Goudreau's solo album of 1980. That's not exactly a loss, but it loses something.
    In the first place that solo album is Boston without Tom Scholz. So if you think TS the best think since the invention of powdered milk (yup, that's an unsubtle hint) you can neglect it. If you dislike Boston in the first place you can neglect it as well. But if you like Boston casually, like me and apparently GS, it's worth a try. Regarding "sliding further and further into lyricism and sentimentality" it sits comfortably between Third Stage and Don't Look Back. A good example is Mean Woman Blues - technically a blues indeed, but stripped off of anything even slightly offensive. If you think Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac boring you haven't heard that song yet.
    But there are also two pretty good songs: Sailing Away and Cold, Cold World. Neither is a classic, not even according to Boston standards, but they are definitely better than the filler on the two previous regular albums. Sailing Away is a simple, short ballad, with a string quartet added and as such a welcome anomaly in the catalogue. Cold Cold World is a typical Boston song with a decent riff and one or two decent hooks.
    As such it becomes clear that it's not technology that matters - what matters is what you do with it. At his best Tom Scholz did some interesting things; Barry Goudreau quickly and predictably descended into the blandness so typical of AOR. Try the two good songs though.

    ReplyDelete
  4. As for Third Stage I kind of like Amanda and Cool the Engines. Sue me for my bad taste of blame Uriah Heep or whatever. For me it's the gap with hair metal that counts. Sure, Amanda is cheesier than the product of Edam, The Netherlands, but it's catchy and the übercheese of "I love you", suddenly toned down as it is, is a hook. Cool the Engines has that nice turn at the end of the song, when the entire band restricts itself again.
    The rest is crap afaIc.

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    Replies
    1. you like two moments on it? out of how long an album?

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    2. Two songs. That's what compilations are invented for.

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  5. A perfect review! (and the only song I ever revisit on this album is the chuggin', atmospheric rocker that is 'I think I like it').

    ReplyDelete