[Album Review] "Headlines and Deadlines" – a-ha

Headlines and Deadlines - a-haAlbum Title: Headlines and Deadlines: The Hits of a-ha
Artist: a-ha
Year: 1991
Running Time: 68m 32s

Track listing: 1 Take On Me; 2 Cry Wolf; 3 Touchy; 4 You Are the One (remix); 5 Manhattan Skyline; 6 The Blood That Moves the Body; 7 Early Morning; 8 Hunting High and Low (remix); 9 Move to Memphis; 10 I’ve Been Losing You; 11 The Living Daylights; 12 Crying in the Rain; 13 I Call Your Name; 14 Stay on These Roads; 15 Train of Thought (remix); 16 The Sun Always Shines on TV

Where were you when the intricate keyboard notes of ‘Take On Me’ first infiltrated your brain? It’s not quite in the same league as the ‘where were you when Kennedy was shot’ question but for me A-ha were one of the finest bands ever to grace popular music culture. A-ha defined perfect pop – a sound which hadn’t been witnessed so consistently since the Beatles. This greatest hits collection is a real trip down memory lane. All the hits from 1985 to 1991 are included, spanning four hit albums although the decline in sales is noticable as you get towards the fourth album, ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’.

Looking at the album chronologically, starting with Phase 1 of the A-ha story, ‘Take On Me’ is a keyboard-based cut possessing one of the most unforgetable tunes of all time. It was followed closely by the powerful follow-up single, ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’. If ‘Take On Me’ demonstrated a bouncy, jaunty side to the band’s music, ‘Sun …..’ showed a moodier and more determined facet. ‘Train of Thought’ is an interesting keyboard and drum-based jaunt – it’s even better in this remixed form – and ‘Hunting High and Low’ is a wonderful orchestral ballad and a great vehicle for Morten Harkett’s athletic voice.

Moving on to Phase 2. ‘I’ve Been Losing You’ veered in to view sensationally with a top-notch mid-tempo melody, a chorus of brass instruments and an inspired guitar presence, rhythm and bass. The closing break-down and finale is a real triumph – a mature pop song. ‘Cry Wolf’ is a strong tune but seems slightly insipid in comparison to ‘I’ve Been Losing You’. It’s bright and very distinct but the keyboard strokes become a little overbearing at times. ‘Manhattan Skyline’ is a strange power ballad concoction. A mellow verse is arrested by a strong guitar and drum-driven chorus and a slight but welcome guitar solo.

Phase 3. ‘The Living Daylights’. And despite the presence of Timothy Dalton as James Bond, this movie soundtrack was a super tune. Taking the elements of adventure and excitement present in the movies, A-ha crafted a pop song that suited it’s purpose perfectly. ‘Stay on These Roads’ is a pleasant enough ballad but never really reaches near to the quality of ‘Hunting High and Low’. Meanwhile, ‘The Blood That Moves the Body’ was an excellent tune that for some reason struggled in the lower half of the top fourty – the first time an A-ha song had failed to make the Top 20.

Next up is the indulgent ‘Touchy’ which dug A-ha out of a bit of a hole. The song was a big hit and a popular radio friendly tune. The buoyant keyboard vibrations were the perfect summer tonic in 1988. ‘You are the One’ was a popular release too but was a fairly poor relation to it’s predecessor, ‘Touchy’ and sounds dated and cliched in hindsight.

Phase 4 was a more inconspicuous phase for A-ha and one I am not too familiar with at all. Youth culture now embraced dance music and I personally was embracing the emerging grunge and rock scene. This shift left A-ha fairly redundant in world terms. However, October 1990 saw the release of their superb cover of ‘Crying in the Rain’. It was a great job, musically and especially vocally, by Morten. ‘I Call Your Name’ followed and the maturity of the group was highlighted by the piano and sax that replaced the usual keyboard strokes. Not so inviting was ‘Early Morning’ which ambled along with little direction and a retro sound that was totally at odds with the previous release. But it was just a blip as the bass-propelled low-key ‘Move to Memphis’ was pleasing enough on the ear in many departments.

And that’s where this story ended. There was another (critically acclaimed) album but commercial success on a world scale was minimal. At the moment, the band members, Morten, Pal and Mags, are pursuing their own agendas so it might be a while before we get some new music. This collection though is pretty essential for 1980s pop fans.



[Album Review] "Rock in a Hard Place" – Aerosmith (original review)

Rock In A Hard Place - AerosmithAlbum Title: Rock in a Hard Place
Artist: Aerosmith
Year: 1982
Running Time: 40m 16s

Track listing: 1 Jailbait; 2 Lightning Strikes; 3 Bitch’s Brew; 4 Bolivian Ragamuffin; 5 Cry Me A River; 6 Prelude to Joanie; 7 Joanie’s Butterfly; 8 Rock In A Hard Place (Cheshire Cat); 9 Jig Is Up; 10 Push Comes to Shove

To further complicate the Aerosmith story, guitarist Brad Whitford waved the white handkerchief in 1981 and walked out on the band. There was a lot of inactivity at the time due to the drugged-up state of the influential lead singer, Steven Tyler, and his involvement in a serious motorcycle accident in 1980 saw him lose his heel and almost his life. Rick Dufay stepped into the breach left by Brad to help with the recording of what many were predicting to be the last Aerosmith album ever.

And while the disc is considered their weakest recording by many fans, I am not one. For me it is an album that personifies the living-on-the-edge, last rites air that had followed the band for the previous 5 years or so.

While the new romantic movement was in full swing, Aerosmith were rocking harder than ever as if to stick two fingers up at those who wrote them off. The truth was that the whole thing was hanging, albeit successfully, by a thread.

The album was launched by three powerful slabs of eighties hard-rock. The opener, the fiery ‘Jailbait’, kicked things off at about 100mph with Tyler spitting out lustful lyrics with the full orchestra of pounding cymbals, distorted guitars and attitude that would burn a hole in the ozone. Possibly as close to metal that Aerosmith ever got, but with an undeniable quality. Next up is ‘Lightning Strikes’ which welcomes us with a church-like organ before a tension building false start arrives only to fade again. Before you know it the band have engulfed you once again and Jimmy Crespo’s edgy guitar struts between Tyler’s vocal in poetic motion: ‘Boys who look so ready to rumble…’, crows Tyler in his ode to street gang antics.

The final part of this hard-rock trilogy, is the devious ‘Bitch’s Brew’. Seething guitar, smoking lyrics, rasping drums. ‘Bitch’s Brew’ is at times, vintage Aerosmith. ‘You’re fooling with the bitch’s brew, you know the things I warned not to do…ain’t nothing going to save you’, warns a street-wise Tyler before a harmonic verse lulls you into a sense of false security…before you know it, the knives are out again. The highlight is a brilliant mid-section where Tyler breaks the tension with a nostalgic funky groove before growling his sinister warning again to all and sundry.

The good time groove had not completely disappeared from the Aerosmith menu. ‘Rock in a Hard Place’ cranks up the volume again with the return of the horns, Tyler’s trademark harmonica and a hook that had not sounded so good since ‘Rocks’. For a man who had a head full of coke, his lyrical prowess on this album is nothing short of miraculous. ‘Rock in a Hard Place’ is a great mixture of jazz and metal. The closing track, ‘Push Comes to Shove’, is a drunken bar jam which is driven by a lazy harmonica, an intoxicated piano and a more clued in bassline. This is the ultimate in bar room balladry and shows Tyler as the undisputed genius he clearly is.

The only cover version on the album is the emotional 1950s ballad, ‘Cry me a River’. The track is introduced by a gentle guitar and a nervous, hesitant vocal only to be gradually ravaged by the rest of the band until finally swelling to a powerful, whaling, screaming finale. Tom Hamilton’s bass is exemplary here on what is a wonderful song in its own right and a brilliant version but not one that the orignial author, Julie London, would have enjoyed I would think.

‘Bolivian Ragamuffin’ is a take-it-or-leave-it funk-fest which seems to lack direction of any sort. Tyler rambles on for a while and gets to what is actually a decently composed chorus. Interesting ideas here but completely devoid of an overall plan it seems. ‘Jig is Up’ seems like the younger brother of ‘Ragamuffin’ with similar ideas but with even less dressing. Tom Hamilton again pulls out all the stops.

The whole ‘Joanie’s Butterfly’ episode is one that will never be fully understood. ‘Prelude to Joanie’ is a haunting 80-second psychedelic vocal recalling a vivid dream Tyler had about seeing a pony sprout wings. It is also rumoured that it could have been based on a meeting he had with the devil during one of his drug-induced trips. That seems unlikely though.

The song it builds up to, ‘Joanie’s Butterfly’ spends half the time being a folky, acoustic number and the other half, being an all out band jam. Not too much to get excited about overall though.

This is an album that is definitely a specialist taste, but if it gets to your buds, it will be hard to leave on the plate.


[Album Review] "Night in the Ruts" – Aerosmith (original review)

Night in the Ruts - AerosmithAlbum Title: Night in the Ruts
Artist: Aerosmith
Year: 1979
Running Time: 35m 46s

Track listing: 1 No Surprise; 2 Chiquita; 3 Remember (Walking in the Sand); 4 Cheese Cake; 5 Three Mile Smile; 6 Reefer Head Woman; 7 Bone to Bone (Coney Island White Fish Boy); 8 Think About It; 9 Mia

At this point, Aerosmith have to take the loss of influential guitarist, Joe Perry, on the chin. The master string manipulator claimed to have had enough of Steven Tyler and decided to take his beleagured ass elsewhere. Accomplished guitarist, Jimmy Crespo, filled the gap for the final recording of this album but he must be wondering why. The rumours of serious drug abuse and alcoholism are rife and it certainly shows on this record.

However, Perry did leave some strong material behind and the best stuff on this disc has to be credited to him – there is just so little of it.

‘Chiquita’ lies on a remarkable Perry riff, a head-banging, twisting melody, a great performance from Brad Whitford and a vibrant horns section to lift it up with the best of them. Then consider the excellece of the album opener, ‘No Surprise’, an autobiographical rocker with an edgy, persecuted feel but still enough fun to make you boogie.

The other original material on this album is worthy too. ‘Mia’ is an ode to Tyler’s newly-born daughter and is a dark, evocative love song that swirls around a lone piano refrain. It’s closing, a repeated low keyboard note, is ghostly and ponderous. ‘Cheese Cake’ is another astonishingly authoritive Perry riff which is suplemeted beautifully by Whitford, Joey Kramer and Tom Hamilton who combine to create a bluesy backbone that is in perfect time.

‘Three Mile Smile’ is a tolerable funky jam which is a welcome diversion on an album that is guitar heavy for the most part and ‘Bone to Bone’ is unleashed to woo you with its ‘wah wah’ guitar and a consistent rhythm that is pure class. Damn, it woo’s you.

Then God made cover versions. The good original material was thin on the ground and Aerosmith were forced into trying some mediocre covers. ‘Think About It’ is the tuneless Yardbirds hit, ‘Remember (Walking in the Sand)’ is a painful re-working from soul divas, The Shangri-La’s and ‘Reefer Head Woman’ is a harmonica-drenched 1945 blues number which just succeeds in being dull and probably only made it on the album because Tyler could sing it while half asleep.

Not a particularly strong record and definitely, to use a cliche, a tale of two halves. The original stuff is powerful and raw but the covers are totally out of place. Perhaps they should have just made this an EP.