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Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Power Station : Cutting-Edge Mediocrity

The Power Station project of 1985 will forever go down in history as one of the coolest uncool records ever made.  It certainly deserves no more or less praise for its accomplishments.  It is, after all, a one-off fun project for all involved and as such has a freedom to it, but also has a nonchalant mediocre allowance in all the tunes.

Right off-the-bat the album grips ya like it knows it has to with "Some Like It Hot".  Masters of the groove, the Chic crew and Chic lovers, Taylor & Taylor attack like they're here for a reason.  The drum production is the star here, putting Tony Thompson front & center on radios around the world.  Though the song isn't very hummable, the intensity in the vocals, horn punches, and drums keep us curious and excited to hear more ... maybe a future classic is coming up next.

"Murderess" comes on next like this album is gonna be an all time favorite for heavy rotation on '80's radio for years to come, but although we've got the razor-sharp modern take on the retro-70's guitar of Andy here, we also have these strange holes in the composition that leaves one with the sense that the song has built up to nowhere by the time the chorus hits.  With "Some Like It Hot" you get an anti-climactic chorus that works to its' advantage, but here it's a very settled-in section that hints at the lameness to come.

"Lonely Tonight" is a super-slick white-soul/jazz dance waste that reeks of the white suits and white powder of the Miami Vice era.  For a Rocker gone New Wave, it is just too much to ask me to like something closer to the useless posh of The Manhattan Transfer and Al Jarreau crowd.  I just can't do it.  The same year, Pete Townshend would test my patience too on his "Face The Face" song.  Luckily, the rest of the White City album is excellent and is my favorite work of his.  But, this was the problem of record companies in the late 80's ... release a famous artist's latest work, but pick the safest song as the single which will in-turn kill the sales of the album as a whole.

"Communication" seems to slightly make-up for, and yet, continue the misery of the previous tune.  This, their third single for the record, isn't a horrible choice (for the sound of '85), but certainly lets you know that this project was not a necessity.

"Get It On" remakes the T.Rex classic to excellent effect with powerful performances all around and one of the best guitar solos of the decade.  No wonder this was the song that kept Palmer at the vocal duties for the whole record.  (Evidently, they were gonna use different singers on every tune.)

"Go To Zero", my favorite upbeat song from the album, has the potential to be memorable until the bottom falls out in a big way.  It starts great, moves well, has good sections, has horn punches, but why isn't there something special in that dead space after the horn hits ?! There's a guitar touch here and there, but the tune falls apart over this lack creative input.  By the time the crappy solo comes around I'm crying over the loss of potential.  I'm over it now, but I remember how sad a moment that was at the time.  The outro groove makes things better again though, as well as the killer guitar ending.

"Harvest For The World" was a shocking departure from this record's sound not only by the cover tune chosen, but the vocal switch from Robert to Andy. The nice 'n' tight choppy guitar rhythm keeps us involved, making this tune a whole lot more enjoyable than it should be for a White-Boy-Blues vocal the likes of which we'd heard plenty of in the 70's. I do occasionally listen to songs like this from other Northern Soul boys, but a burned-out genre for sure.  One guilty-pleasure I return to from time to time is The Firm (also from '85 and also covered a 60's tune) but, if it didn't have Jimmy Page, I wouldn't have bought it. I must admit that I admire the ability of Paul Rodgers and his type of vocalists and I often try to sing his lines to see what my voice can't handle on any given day.

"Still In Your Heart" is the kind of song that keeps on giving in spite of its' "anybody-can-make-a-tune-like-this" nature.  But, I feel massive emotion coming off of this tune.  It's not like this holds any special event attached to it for me (like almost all the songs I own).  I was only "kicking cans" walking around Hollywood waiting to hit 18 (I was 17 at the time) so I could begin my life proper.  Again, the performances are what sell it.  The vocal is smooth and nuanced (stock and trade for Palmer).  Great instrumental movement section to section.  Good melodies.  A fairly tasteful synth part.  And most importantly for songs that use any kind of solo horn part ... an excellent use of sax !  It stands out, but serves the song.  Not overdone, not underdone.  When a horn part isn't overblown it's a master stroke for a composition and only adds to the power of a recording (in the pop-rock world).

It's strange for an album to come along and spark so much interest only to leave one feeling like they might have better spent their money somewhere else by the end of it.  In the grand scheme of things though, I'd rather be listening to this front to end than ever lay ears on Duran's Big Thing album again or most of Palmer's solo output.  But, the gems are out there ... you just gotta go dig them up.

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The group returned in '96 for their second and last recorded output, Living In Fear. It was both a better and weaker album.  And like the first one, I thought I could live without about half of it.

Right away you have to understand it is not a sonic sequel to the first album.  What the album lacks is the unifying candy-pop production of the '85 album.  This plays more like a collection of all-over-the-place styles from other compilations.  That isn't a bad thing, it just is what it is.  (Like McCartney's London Town vs. all the other Wings albums.)  Also, the reputation of Palmer and Duran catalogs being, essentially, soft to medium pop-rock is shattered here.  So, if you're not open to other styles, it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

While there's nothing as cheesy here as on the first, there are certainly styles I don't like straight-away.  I was never a fan of soul music any more than of folk, country, metal or any other stereotyped genre.  I do love flavorings from all those styles.  But, multifaceted rock covers all those bases for me.  Like XTC covering Beatles to Punk to Jazz and while always delivering smart words and originality in the work.  If I sense the honesty in catalog, I can withstand the frivolous moments easily.  In other words, you're in trusted hands, so I'm on-board for the journey.  Arthur Lee is another one.  He's an original, yet he went on to do what others had already done, but I'd rather hear HIM do it than a stereotype ... see what I'm saying ?  Ok, having said that ...

Living In Fear starts with two medium rockers, very organic, easy on the ears.  "Notoriety" and the soothing, but powerful "Scared".  A good start to an album, but I'm still worried about where it's gonna go ... holding my breath.  Hoping it doesn't turn into a Hootie or Barenaked Ladies trip.

Now, well placed, their signature sound, one could say, is delivered in the only promoted song, "She Can Rock It".  Lame words for the serious '90's, but these guys were raised on the good stuff, don't forget !  They grew-up on Lennon, Harrison, Dylan, Ray Davies ... all that long before the Grungy '90's "acted" so serious.  They just wanna have some rockin' T&A fun here and for once I'm cool with that, so we'll leave 'em to it.

But, now, for me, the album comes to a screeching halt with the cover of "Let's Get It On" ... bore ... next !

Now, let's travel into territory that no one buying this record wants to go into.  With "Life Forces" we're back in the world of soft, groovy, modern, sexy-Jazz.  No thanks.

In similar musical territory, we find "Fancy That".  I cringe once more, but it's snappy and upbeat and at least a level up from 'duh' on the lyrics.  Over time I got addicted to it, but I still cut out the Jazz vocal bridge section (yuck!) when making a Mini-Disc for my car (years back now).

Another abrupt change, but this time it's Metal !  Or what is now considered Hard Rock.  But, this tune is smart and tight ... it's an exceptional performance.  I bow in respect to the greats of rock every time I hear it.  (On playlists I always have Rush's "Virtuality" lined-up right after it.)

Continuing on for the trilogy of hard tunes, they serve up "Shut Up" and "Dope".  "Shut Up" is lighter in that it is soul at the core and has 'fun' horn punches.  "Dope" is nice and heavy.  No way a '90's band can compete with this maturity when it comes to being all-encompassing in the delivery of Heavy Blues from all the decades of the white man loving the black man's music.

Now it's slow-it-down time.  No problem with that, but this song sucks.  It's "Love Conquers All".  Leave this song to Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart, Phil Collins, Sting, Hall & Oates, Paul Young ... you know the rest of 'em.

Ok, hold my breath time.  The Beatles' masterpiece "Taxman" is coming down.  Ick !  The drum track sucks.  Wasn't expecting the debut album's exciting drum production, but yikes !  Whew !  It's getting better.  Ok ... I can live with that.  Hope you had fun on that one, guys.

Now ... the album's over unless you hunted down the Japanese bonus tracks.  I did, knowing I shouldn't, but glad I did.

The second of the bonus tracks would have been a nice addition to the funky-soul-jazz portion of the record.  It's a classic funk piece of happiness called "Power Trippin' ".  Seems 'blah' at first, but the transition into the smooth horn background part is 'too cool'.  All the sections are good and the flow is great.

The first bonus track is what you would more likely find on a solo Palmer album where he's trying to be World Beat.  I say trying since most of those songs are not memorable.  I have a Palmer playlist that includes my favs, but don't go buying every Palmer record and get bummed out and sell 'em all 'cause you over-saturated yourself in Palmer land, or should I say ... Palmer Island !  The track here is called "Charanga".  Named after the music / beat style, of course.  Maybe it was tacked-on here since it doesn't actually "go anywhere".  But, this is a Round.  And a Round builds and decreases like a Raga.  It's delightful, I love it, you should too, end of story.  I don't hear any of the bandmates on this one, but maybe Bernard Edwards produced it or some fun fact that makes it a Power Station addition.

Anyway you slice it, you've got two very different records, each with something for everybody on it.

"And what's wrong with that ?! ... I'd like to know ... " - McCartney '76

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