Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) – Eurythmics (1983)

Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) cover

Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) cover

What a difference a few years makes. Something happened to the duo of Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox, better known as Eurythmics after their icy 1981 debut In the Garden. By the time Sweet Dreams was released, they had traded the cold and mechanical sound from former Kraftwerk producer Conny Plank for polished up alt-pop that bumped Lennox’s voice front and center in the mix. No longer sounding like a glamorous android, but more like a soulful art pop diva in waiting.

In the process of placing more emphasis on Lennox’s soulful tenor, the Eurythmics went from college rock cutout to featured artist status. The new sound retained some of the cold synths from before like the simple Martin Gore styled melody on “The Walk” or the hyper cool mechanical drone of “Love Is a Stranger”, one of Sweet Dreams hit singles.

The biggest change of course was Lennox’s voice. Dave Stewart, who played most of the instruments and arranged many of the songs is a virtual one man band. Stylistically there were Depeche Mode like moments but more often Stewart’s diverse compositions hinted at the soulful power pop that the Eurythmics would later grow into.

Songs like “Somebody Told Me” with its odd looped bass sound shows the versatility of Lennox’s voice as she jumps from crooner to rowdy man handler in a busy cover of the Tom Jones song “Wrap It Up”. Sweet Dreams is the point in the Eurythmics catalog where Lennox leans towards a soulful delivery regardless of the style of song.
It was that bit of soul combined with a supermodel persona turned on its head that made the Eurythmics such a treat to see and hear. The albums most iconic song is its biggest hit. “Sweet Dreams” embodied this ideal to the max, launching a juggernaut of successful singles. Lennox crafted an androgynous look that took full advantage of the power of music video.

Her new world savvy look, became the perfect vehicle for defining her style in an era when many female artists were at the extremes of aping Madonna or Cyndy Lauper’s look. It was a striking stylistic alternative to everything else out there (except for maybe Grace Jones) and perfectly contrasted the masculine overtones of the song.

Lennox’s early image also made her a gay icon right alongside Madonna, Morrissey and Boy George. Ironically this would be more the case as a solo artist by which time she had long move on from androgyny.

It would not be long however before the Eurythmics would transcend any cult status and enter the mainstream with cover features on Newsweek and Rolling Stone magazines.

The title track was wildly popular and had become a part of American pop culture. As a teenager I vividly remember the songs line “some of them want to abuse you, some want to be abused by you’ being appropriated by a minister of all people in the noisy Apostolic church of my youth. The Eurythmics had penetrated society to that extent and had become ubiquitous, despite their somewhat experimental tendencies.

This was the beginning of an upward trajectory for the band as Lennox would become a respected fixture in rock, pop and R&B after projects with George Michael and Aretha Franklin. Lennox was called the “Greatest White Soul Singer Alive” as recently as 2012 by VH-1.

Lennox was not the band’s only successful member as Dave Stewart who seemed to prefer being in the background would become a sought after musician, arranger and producer after the success of Sweet Dreams.


Fragile – Cherrelle (1984)

Fragile album cover

Fragile album cover

Cherrelle may have seemed like one of those one hit wonders when she came out with her debut album Fragile in 1984, but she had already paid her dues by touring with Luther Vandross. Her demo caught the attention of all the right people, landing her a record deal and a pairing with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

The two ex-Time members went off on their own and forged one of the most successful production teams of the ’80s. In the process of honing their skills Flyte Time’s musical experiment split off in two distinct directions with Fragile as its laboratory.

The first direction could be characterized by the dynamic sound of Janet Jackson. Albums from artists like Karen White or Nona Hendrix were more or less subscribed to this style. The other direction was marked by the S.O.S. Band. It was a smoother relaxed groove heavy style as heard in projects by The  Human League or Alexander Oneal.

One artist who was an early testing ground for the refinement of both directions of the Flyte Time sound was Cherelle. Her debut album was one of a string of very early productions for the new Jam/Lewis production team.
While Fragile would feature ballads and mid-tempo tracks produced  by Michael Evertt Dunlap and Iaac Suthers, it would be the Jam/Lewis produced dance tracks that Fragile would be known for.

The albums biggest hit “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On” featured a funny homage to King Kong in its video. The funky electronic double drum sound was the songs signature trick. It was a sound that would become more commonly used as the ’80s evolved. Perhaps first used by Prince in 1999. With Prince and the Revolution (or Shelia E. for that matter), the ‘double drum’ sound was most often made by a real person and not a drum machine as anyone who’s seen Shelia E. play live would attest.

The Jam/Lewis version of this effect would be copied by everyone from Ready For the World to Robert Palmer. The drum effect alone might be Fragile’s biggest and most enduring musical legacy. It would be Robert Palmer who would re-record “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” a few years later and Mariah Carey nearly a decade after that, proving the song’s timeless ability to get people on the dance floor.

The song reached the top 30 R&B chart, which by that time was still a ghetto for ‘black’ singles. The video was played BET quite often and MTV on rare occasion. At the time the vaguely conceptual cover art and elaborate videos seemed like a rare big budget indulgence for a R&B artist who was not Michael Jackson or Prince.
Other songs were clearly blueprints for the sound that the S.O.S. Band would be known for later. The mid-tempo “When You Look In My Eyes” could have easily have come from their catalog.

The other dance hit “Fragile” was typical of the Janet Jackson songs from the Control era. Once again the ‘double drum’ sound was one of the songs sonic features. With 5 of the 8 tracks on Fragile produced by jam and Lewis, the other songs were pretty much overlooked, despite being decent alternatives to the Minneapolis team’s work.
It would be just the beginning of Cherrelle’s upward trajectory as her next album High Priority would breakout of the chains of the American R&B charts with a little help from her friends.


Art In America – Art In America (1983)

Art In America album cover

Art In America album cover

On the fuzzy edges of adolescence, sometime late in my early teenage, I was intrigued by prog rock or what was left of it. Alan Parsons, Rush and Yes were some of my earliest memories of grandiose arena rock. So it was no surprise that when a group of family members and their friend under the name of Art In America released a song of the same name, I was hooked because they echoed bits of  was was a soon to be lost era in rock. Besides, they sounded a lot like one of my favorite bands of the time Rush.

The Detroit, Michigan via Ohio based quartet had a small hit with the title song and I remember its surrealist styled music video being played on MTV and the USA Network show Night Flight. It was easy to mistaken that song for one from Rush, who were no doubt big influences being that they were at the height of their popularity.

There were other influences like John Wetton and Asia on the second single “Undercover Lover”. Progrock influences like lush string arrangements and varying tempos were still in vogue in 1983, but were loosing favor as electro pop was starting to dominate the charts. Eddy Offord’s production balanced pop and rock elements for an album that fit comfortably between each. Offord worked with Yes and on Art In America, parts of the album could have easily been written for Jon Anderson. Even lead vocalist Chris Flynn’s voice sounded vaguely English accented (in a Getty Lee kind of way).

Perhaps the Getty Lee like vocal style just came with the territory, but Art In America had one hit then were pretty much forgotten after a second album failed to gain any traction. The band’s biggest legacy may have been the album’s cover art which was featured in the coffee table book “1000 Record Covers” by Michael Ochs.

A re-issue in 1996 and rotation on XM Radio has helped bring about awareness of this forgotten band. As ’80s nostalgia deepens and goes beyond the obvious candidates for revival, Art In America was rediscovered by an English producer David Hentschel (Genesis, Queen) who re-introduced the band to a whole new audience again with the Hentschel Sessions in 2013.

The Hentschel Sessions featured former King Crimson bassist Tony Levin in the role of guest artist. At this writing. the band was looking for record deal, but distributes its musical through digital channels for the time being.


What Time Is It? – The Time (1982)

What Time Is It? album cover

What Time Is It? album cover

Back when R&B was mostly confined to urban radio, many of its future stars were well known by urban dwellers. One of those stars was spawned from the more commercial side of Prince. The Time was headed by Morris Day, but it’s songs and many of the corny wittisims associated with the band came from Prince who co-produced “What Time Is It? the band’s second album with Morris Day.

Hardly a year had gone by since the release of The Time in 1981. In the year that followed songs like “Get It Up” and “Cool” became sorta underground R&B hits because they used funk and new wave when no one else outside Minneapolis was.

With What Time Is It?, the persona that is Morris Day would be front and center, complete with new clownish antics that cemented his reputation as a suave womanizer. Jerome Benton or just ‘Jerome’ would also rise as Day’s comic foil. The original formula of blending rock elements with funk and traditional R&B was refined also. Jessie Johnson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were all still part of the band at this time, although their creative input would be muted in the context of following the lead of Day.

Not long after the album’s release The Time became associated with the wild danceable songs like “Wild and Loose”, “The Walk” and the record’s funkiest single “777-9311″. The choppy guitar cords would become part of the signature guitar sound of The Time, while female characters introduced in rap section of “The Walk” foreshadowed the arrival of Vanity and Appolonia.

It wouldn’t all be up tempo as “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” became an early quiet storm favorite and one of the few songs where Morris Day stage persona displayed some vulnerability. Like in their debut, there was always at least one song that was more influenced by new wave than others, that song was “Onedayi’mgonnabesomebody” with its hyper melody and rhythm section. Ironically (or not) the band utters ‘we don’t like new wave’ at the end of the song followed by laughter suggesting just the opposite. After all they were from Minneapolis, the home of many new wave bands like The Suburbs and Information Society.

What Time Is It? was enormously popular in ‘the community’, where it was still very much relegated to black urban radio. The Time’s music rivaled Princes own commercially for a short period. What Time Is It? began showing sings of breaking the glass ceiling that was black radio with the album making an impressive run to the Top 30 album chart. Morris Day was not the kind of character that could stay a secrete for too long. That proverbial glass ceiling of course would be broken a year later with their third album Ice Cream Castle.

 


Throwing Copper – Live (1994)

Throwing Copper album cover

Throwing Copper album cover

When grunge music started to die down and every one decided that copying Pearl Jam or Nirvana was no longer cool, a vacuum opened up that made indie rock cool again. Through that vortex came one of post-grunge’s first big stars Live.
Live was a Pennsylvania based band who was led by Ed Kowalezyk. The band’s first album was a platform for Kowalezyk’s Zen politics and righteous world view. It was as if the band decided to mix up the sound of U2, R.E.M. and Counting Crows while adopting the do gooder angst of Pearl Jam. Mental Jewelry was sometimes difficult to stomach for that reason only, but could not be avoided because it was a great album.

The post industrial world of Lancaster Pennsylvania was a far cry from the Seattle scene, so the angst that powered many of Live’s songs were more localized and personal. Localized in the mind of Kowalezyk who wrote about things Mid-Westerners could relate to. As Live began to tighten its musical focus there was less of the Budda Zen philosophy and more grounded songs about regular life things like unemployment, drunk drivers and such.

Throwing Copper, with its wonderful Peter Howson cover art was the third project produced by former Talking heads bassist Jerry Harrison. The album had none of the Talking heads fun and lightheartedness, instead it had sharp power rock anthems in the mode of U2, but without the ambience of the Edge’s guitar playing.
Throwing Copper traded any loftiness for accessibility, despite Ed Kowalezyk’s non -buffed always shirtless shaved thin genie look, Live became an even bigger rock phenomena thanks to five highly successful singles including “I Alone” “Selling the Drama” and “Lightning Crashes”. Like R.E.M. or U2 before them, Kowalezyk’s songs took a righteous approach to topics from contemporary society and sometimes Kowalezyk’s personal faith philosophy.

Due to this approach I nearly confused them for a Christian band, until I heard “Shit Town” and “T.B.D.”. “Shit Town” was a song presumably about Kowalezyk’s former stomping grounds of Lancaster PA, the source of all his pint up angst. The title’s shock value was indicative of the band’s (or Kowalezyk’s) in your face, yet respectful kind of attitude.
In an odd break from the normal rock fueled angst of Throwing Copper, an untitled track at the very end of the album became one of my surprise favorites. It’s basically a country song and was the odd one out in a solid set of rock songs. Including it showed the band’s diversity and willingness to acknowledge all of its influences.

Live became the new REM or more accurately the new Counting Crows of the ’90s, blowing up the modern rock radio airwaves with heavy rotation. If you could not get your fix on the radio, there was also MTV who played “I Alone” every hour on the hour it seemed. For many of my friends in their late 20s, Live was one of the first rock bands they remember liking.
Throwing Copper was Live at their best with plenty of big rock power chords and imaginative lyrics with just a touch of mysticism. They very likely were the sound that launched 1000 garage bands during a time in the ’90s when alt rock was looking for the next big thing.


Here – Adrian Belew (1994)

Here album cover

Here album cover

Of the former members of the prog rock band King Crimson, Adrian Belew is perhaps the most underrated and prolific. The native Kentuckian has worked with David Bowie, Talking Heads, The Tom Tom Club and many others to list here, bringing with him his unusual guitar style. Belew has also worked on numerous solo projects, sometime under the name GaGa or his with his band The Bears.
In each of his solo projects he has evolved his style rapidly, from album to album in most cases. On 1994’s Here, the fourth album in a series of post Bears releases (8th under his own name), Belew channels some of his influences and evokes the spirit of King Crimson on a few occasions.

The album’s opener “May 1, 1990″ suggest some sort of life changing event. On that note more songs feature an awareness of environmental issues, a trend that started with “Only A Dream” from Young Lions in 1990. Belew wrote all every song and played all the instruments.  The scope of the subject matter was a slight departure from his work from the past – or at least the recent past starting with Mr. Music Head from 1989. Belew’s infatuation with ’60s styled music would tie Here with other projects. but it would be the guitar work that would be the signature element.

Songs like “Here” with its haunting guitar-sounding like a violin could have been on King Crimsons Three of a Perfect Pair. Here is far more diverse than its title song lets on to. Stripped down songs like “Fly” mix it up with the eco-friendly “Burned By the Fire We Make”  or the angry  Todd Rundgren-like “Futurevision”.

Belew’s voice was always part of the reason I liked King Crimson. It was one of the elements that kept the band from going totally off the rails, although at its most accessible it could not be called pop. On Here , Belew’s voice is as strong as ever and quite versatile. Such versatility made nuances possible like the  Beatalesqe transitions on “May 1,1990″ and the ’60s pop stylings of “Postcard from Holland”. It would be the slow nearly acoustic “Fly” where his voice would shine the most.

To me one of the album’s big surprises was “Never Enough”. At the time it reminded me of the type of songs Mitch Easter might have written a decade earlier or that Smashing Pumpkins would have performed when Here was new. Belew’s voice generally settled into a David Byrne-like tenor, but on occasion could be surprisingly Paul McCartney like as on “Peace on Earth”.

With so many styles going on, Here was far too eclectic to be a charitable pop album. There were no singles to speak of and the only mass exposure the album got was from a review on NPR. That was unfortunate, because Here was a great album that covered nearly all of Adrians Belew’s background influences. Of course for anyone who followed his career closely, they knew that this prolific artist would have his next release coming shortly with an altogether new musical direction.


A Walk Across the Rooftops – The Blue Nile (1984)

A Walk Across the Rooftops album cover

A Walk Across the Rooftops album cover

Fans of the English band The Blue Nile are some of the most patient in rock. Sense 1984, the band composed of Paul Buchanan and Robert Bell has only released four albums and remains reclusive and counter intuitive where all the usual rock record promotion conventions are concerned. The band was not only concerned with the artistic quality of its material but the technical aspect as well. Early in its history an association with the high fi equipment maker Linn resulted in them being the first on it label Sounds With Integrity.

A Walk Across the Rooftops, the band’s 1984 debut was unique amongst the sophistipop offerings of the early ’80s. While electronic based, if featured a beautiful calm about its production. In fact it was produced with the new CD medium in mind by highlighting the dynamic range possible with digital mastering.

With a pace hardly above midrange, the album’s most playful song “Tinseltown in the Rain” still have placidness to it.
The songs, are best described as slow and slower. The production was pristine and intricate  like something made by Apple. Whatever Paul Buchanan’s voice lacked in range, the arrangements made up for with sparse atmospheric beauty. Nuanced sounds contained in the lush arrangements revealed strings, guitars and keyboards. In the title single all of these elements were featured on the same song, but never at the same time. What could have sounded disjointed ended up becoming one of 1984’s most overlooked masterpieces.

The album was not released in the United States until well into the decade. Around the same time the band had released its second  and equally impressive album Hats in 1989. It was an interesting time for The Blue Nile as its commercial appeal began to rise on the accumulative strength of A Walk Across the Rooftops while Hats was getting some attention on MTV and VH-1.

Whatever momentum The Blue Nile gathered by Hats would cool off in the protracted time it took for them to release another album. Loyal fans made do with collaborations featuring Buchanan as well as a few solo projects. In the meantime with each release after Hats, the band moved more to a guitar based sound and quite frankly lost what made them so special on the first two releases.

The last Blue Nile album was in 2004 as to this date there is no word on if the band is still together or not.


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