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Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Chameleons: Strange Times


1) Mad Jack; 2) Caution; 3) Tears; 4) Soul In Isolation; 5) Swamp Thing; 6) Time/The End Of Time; 7) Seriocity; 8) In Answer; 9) Childhood; 10) I'll Remember; 11*) Tears (full arrangement); 12*) Paradiso; 13*) Inside Out; 14*) Ever After; 15*) John, I'm Only Dancing; 16*) Tomorrow Never Knows.

The one and only album that The Chameleons released for Geffen Records would also be their last one for more than a decade: immediately after the death of their manager Tony Fletcher, they disbanded, although I suppose that there must have been something more to that — lack of com­mercial success, for instance, or personal friction between the band members. Could hardly have been personal dissatisfaction with the record, considering that Mark Burgess still regards Strange Times as the group's best album — an opinion with which, unfortunately, I cannot agree.

The record is indeed a fan favorite, but the only thing that I could «objectively» agree upon with the admirers is that this is a stab at Creative Maturity, and if you think that the very act of thrus­ting your lance against the dragon of Creative Maturity automatically calls for a Medal of Art Rock Valor, feel free to call Strange Times a masterpiece — even if, as far as I can see, the brave knights were charred to a crisp by the dragon's mature fire breath. What this means, basi­cally (no pun intended), is that some of the songs are longer; some of the songs are slower; some of the songs are more soulful; and some of the lyrics are more introverted.

But if your long, slow, soulful, introverted songs share all the problems that used to pester the band's short, fast, playful, extraverted songs, is this really a meaningful achievement? Namely, the production values remain absolutely the same — despite, or, more likely, because of the band now working with The Cure's own production David M. Allen: big drums, cavernous guitars, and typically Eighties synthesizers converge on almost every track. The melodic underbelly of each song follows the same principle — complete monotony from start to end, and, unlike The Cure, The Chameleons know very little about creative overdubbing, so there is none of the intricate and intriguing sonic layering which Robert Smith bakes in his cakes and which can often make even the most melodically simple and straightforward Cure song into a sonic masterpiece. And, as before, Mark Burgess only plays one role: an earthier, more realistic, but less emotionally rousing spiritual relative of said Robert Smith.

I will admit that the opening song, ʽMad Jackʼ, is an energetic pop rocker in the best traditions of Script Of The Bridge and remains as the high point of both this album and The Chameleons' original career in general. Except for the awful production (really, this is one song that deserved a proper in-yer-face sound, rather than the usual lost-in-the-forest atmosphere), it's got all the decent ingredients: a rousing and catchy opening riff, interesting lyrics that are open to all sorts of inter­pretations (you could just as easily associate ʽMad Jackʼ with Ronald Reagan as you could with Timothy Leary), a rowdy barroom chorus, and a steady, fast beat to keep it all together. Too bad there is not another song like that on the entire record.

Because once it is over, your hopes come crashing down with ʽCautionʼ, an insufferable, eight-minute-long quasi-Goth monster that thinks it can boil up and keep hot an air of apocalyptic depression just by repeating the same predictable minor key jangle over and over and over. Any musical development in the song? Sure. Midway through, it gradually fades out, and then begins to fade in again, and then there's, like, a crescendo, with, like, John Lever putting in more fills and Burgess actually rising to a whiny scream, and the guitars playing at louder volume, but without ever changing their initial jangly pattern. Unless one is immediately struck by lines like "One by one by one / We disappear / Day after day / Year after year... We have no future / And we have no past / We're just drifting / Ghosts of glass", I cannot see how one could regard this song as anything but a gigantic — or maybe not even so gigantic — failure to get oneself elected into the Mope'n'Roll Hall Of Fame, next to The Doors, Pink Floyd, and The Cure.

Alas, the album never truly recovers from that crash. Subsequent tunes may be shorter (although at least ʽSoul In Isolationʼ still tries to repeat the same feat, with a slightly faster tempo, but equally monotonous results), may be speedier, may suddenly switch from electric post-punk to acoustic post-folk (ʽTearsʼ) — nothing helps. Departure from the simpler, but shapelier pop format of Script has simply not been compensated by any positive factors: now the songs are almost completely hookless, but the arrangements and production values stay at the same old, boring level. With a little effort, I can single out ʽSwamp Thingʼ, which does sound a bit like its title — with a bunch of «twangy», delay-driven chords and ghostly echoes creating a nervous, suspenseful atmosphere for the first couple of minutes, although eventually it still mutates into the same old jingle-jangle. "Now the storm has come / Or is it just another shower?", asks Bur­gess in the chorus; well, as far as my opinion is concerned, the whole record is an unending series of drizzling showers that never gather enough force to convert into a proper storm.

My only guess is that the lyrics, and the utter conviction with which Mark delivers them — the good old Joe Strummer bark when necessary, the Robert Smith wail when not — are that single factor which tips the scales in favor of the record for its fans. When I look at the words for ʽChild­hoodʼ, for instance, they are really good: it is not easy to write a song about preserving the innocence of the child state and not make it sound like a bunch of high school clichés, but "I saw innocent kids turn cruel / In the playground at school" is a good start. If only the «climactic» invocation "just a little more heart now!" could match it sonically, but it just gets lost in the air, like everything else here.

I give the record a thumbs down. I imagine that with better musicians, more creative producers, and, most importantly, at some other time better than 1986, Strange Times might have ended up a moody atmospheric masterpiece, maybe not on the level of, say, Talk Talk, but, heck, who knows, at least on the level of U2. As it is, I can only see it as a disappointing end for the first stage of an initially promising career. Nor does the expanded CD edition make things any better, with its bunch of bonus tracks that culminate in Strange Time-ified covers of Bowie's ʽJohn I'm Only Dancingʼ and the Beatles' ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ (the latter also including a snippet of ʽEverybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkeyʼ, a cool idea in theory but not at all working in practice). Altogether, this makes for about sixty minutes' worth of Dullsville '86, and I'd honestly even take Phil Collins over this.

1 comment:

  1. No great fan of these guys, but a thumbs down seems unduly reactionary: blaming a band for the era surrounding them. Their live sound had far more balls and more spirit.

    A Terry Date/Rick Rubin-type could have delivered the auditory contrasts that they were about -- the way Lever's drums get treated in the studio is particularly shameful -- but here they were obviously pushed back on their heels in the studio for whatever weird (probably commercial) reasons. Ok, they let it happen, but most semi-successsful bands of the 80's never even reached the "if only" level of creative competency.

    The songs are still the thing though and they balance the misguided production just enough for ST to be a decent listen for me. Maybe not a thumbs up, but safely out of thumbs down territory.

    Uh... So there!