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Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Boomtown Rats: The Fine Art Of Surfacing


1) Someone's Looking At You; 2) Diamond Smiles; 3) Wind Chill Factor; 4) Having My Picture Taken; 5) Sleep (Fingers' Lullaby); 6) I Don't Like Mondays; 7) Nothing Happened Today; 8) Keep It Up; 9) Nice 'n' Neat; 10) When The Night Comes.

The Boomtown Rats' third album is often looked at as the highest point in their career, but it seems fairly obvious that the reputation is mainly due to the mega-success of ʽI Don't Like Mondaysʼ — which isn't even Geldof's best song, really, but there is no denying the nerve it must have hit in mid-1979, when the US and, apparently, the Western world in general were still re­cuperating from the shock caused by the Brenda Spencer shooting spree and, most importantly, her explanation of the shootings (the song title).

Ironically, ʽI Don't Like Mondaysʼ is as far from the original Rats sound as possible — a piano-and-strings-driven pop song that stylistically belongs in a Broadway musical rather than in a rock'n'roll album. It also gets a little creepy when you think about its stadium-level popularity and how the entire world sang along to "tell me why I don't like Mondays, I want to shoot the whole day down" during Live Aid (I wonder whether the imprisoned Brenda Spencer had a chance to watch the show from her cell?). But if you manage to disassociate the song from the context, it is hard to deny that the sound is real good — usually, when you get yourself a piano-and-strings arrangement, it results in a mushy ballad sound, whereas ʽI Don't Like Mondaysʼ is really a very rowdy, dynamic thing, an ironic-romantic explosion which is much more Springsteen in spirit than Carole King or the Carpenters. In any case, it is at least certain that the song's enduring po­pularity is due to much more than just its «shock» appeal.

Unfortunately, it also marks a certain turning point beyond which Geldof would start taking things way too seriously — and both the Boomtown Rats' and his own solo output would begin suffering from too little humor and too much anthemic pomp. Fortunately, this does not yet show up so much on The Fine Art Of Surfacing, whose problem lies elsewhere: in an attempt to catch up with the times, they have stuffed way too many of these shrill Cars-type synthesizers at the expense of rock'n'roll guitar. This is not good, because The Boomtown Rats are not The Cars, and they are even less Talking Heads (whose sound they attempt to rip off head-on in ʽNothing Hap­pened Todayʼ, with Geldof going for an all-out David Byrne imitation). Their hooks are best supported by rowdy classic rock posturing, not keyboard experimentation and theatrical vocal parts — at least, this is how my gut feeling explains it when the album is over and, other than ʽMondaysʼ, I have a serious problem remembering any of the other songs.

From a rational point of view, they are still being interestingly clever, though. ʽSomeone's Look­ing At Youʼ, echoing both the glam and the Berlin period of David Bowie, could be initially thought of as a picture of a love-confused teen punk, but the lyrics make it clear that it is really a song about Big Brother — it's just that it has been initially set up as a caressing, tender number, with cozy mood-setting "na-na-na's" and the first line going "on a night like this I deserve to get kissed at least once or twice" and the background synthesizers serenading you with an optimistic lead melody. Then, giving you no time to get over it, Geldof hits you over the head — gently, gently! — with a song about a glamor girl's suicide (ʽDiamond Eyesʼ), another New Wave rocker once again almost completely driven by cheery keyboards.

Eventually, the model gets a bit predictable — informing the listeners about the evils of the world we're living in through the medium of the world's best-crafted and most widely reaching informa­tion machine, the pop song. It all gets to the point where you start looking for a rebellious mes­sage even in an innocent complaint against insomnia (ʽSleepʼ) — I mean, no doubt about it, it must be the insane energy-sucking world of capitalist pressure that drives the protagonist to "counting fences" and "jumping sheep" and still to no avail. But on a purely emotional level, the song does not succeed very well in constructing an atmosphere of insomnia / paranoia / depres­sion / whatever, unlike, say, John Lennon's ʽI'm So Tiredʼ — it's just a moderately catchy key­board-driven pop rocker.

The only song that tries to recapture their original rocking sound is ʽNice 'n' Neatʼ, a speedy num­ber that brings back full guitar throttle for three minutes — good, but a little too late, and hardly supported by the closing ʽWhen The Night Comesʼ, one of their most blatant Springsteen imita­tions that could have been easily slipped inside Greetings From Asbury Park without anyone noticing. Still, much to their credits, at least they pull these imitations off convincingly — Geldof lacks the «technical endowments» of The Boss (meaning that he is not as vocally powerful, of course — I have no further basis for a physical comparison of the two), but he can set his soul on fire just as directly and unflinchingly whenever the need arises.

On the whole, this is a good album — ultimately, one can forget the criticism and just enjoy its still fairly tasteful and energetic sound, and I should probably add that at least the vocal harmo­nies on most of these here songs are the best on any given Rats album. Make this their «pop mas­terpiece», if you will, as compared to the «rock goodness» of the preceding two records, and think of it as a masterpiece indeed — for a band that was not at all cut out for a good «pop» album in the first place. Thumbs up.

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