Last night, some commercial, doubtlessly for either a cruise or a luxury automobile, since apparently that's all the people in my demographic purchase, swooshed in like Zorro with bared hairy chest ablaze with desire on the sounds of "Avalon" by Roxy Music. I vocally rhapsodized, as I am wont to do, that Avalon was one of my favorite albums in high school, a fact so pansied and improbable, hearing it now, that my wife snorted with laughter. "Justify that in your next book," she challenged.
As I've stated before, my formative years were in a backchannel where people generally didn't leave and return with exotic gifts of the Orient, so punk rock was lost on us. Plus my clique was OG New Romantic, with an eye for prog-rock evidently. Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby, Icehouse (anyone remember Icehouse?) The Blue Nile and Bryan Ferry ruled the margins of our notebooks. Pathetic, to be sure, but it was real and it was ours, and thankfully none of us had the resources for Armani suits and hair gel or we'd have been there, looking like the finest gayest attorneys ever. Avalon held a centrality to our half-ass lifestyle.
It was years later that I discovered what a cool band Roxy Music had been in their early years, an English Velvet Underground, with some trade-offs: Haute Couture for street cred, Brian Eno's feathers for John Cale's paigeboy, disco for doo-wop. "Remake/Remodel" still stands as one of the greatest achievements in popular culture in the late 70's. But by 1982, when the drugs gave way to bourbon and Jerry Hall and Amanda Lear had been done bedded by Ferry, with sweat that tasted of honey and cocaine, and Eno had been dismissed to start his ashram, "Avalon" was born. Maybe the lushest, slickest pop album ever, something that spoke of an unimaginable to a teenager with Thomas Dolby badges pinned to an army jacket, scratching the Bauhaus logo on his Converse low-tops while the rest of his high school was still listening to "Stairway to Heaven" in their trucks. I read on a desert island list somewhere that someone considered spending out eternity masturbating under a palm tree to the title track, and frankly that sounded like the kind of annihilation I was into. Now, the once unfathomable depths of "More Than This" sound a bit thin against modern recordings, but Ferry's croon over that goddamn soprano saxophone and motherfucking phaser-death keyboard swells is still resplendedent. It's like Burt Reynolds and Maserati - out of favor, but never quite out of style.
Listening to the album for the first time in over decade, there are bits I forgot. "Space Between" should have been a Bond theme. Why didn't Roxy Music do a Bond theme? Duran Duran did, and they lifted every move they had off this record. "India" is a rather pleasing piece of synthetic exoticism, as is "Tara." "Main Thing" sounds worse actually, like it's the model for the sample beats on every keyboard manufactured after 1987. But "Avalon" still sounds like what you want to hear on that cab ride through the misty English countryside as you approach the castle of the bloated aristocrat waiting to behead you and sully your body in a Caligula blood orgy. That's not what you see? I think Kubrick's last work would've been a better film had he simply made a 45-music video to this album, dispensing with hours of Tom and Nicole trying to squint out the lines through the haze of their own sheer banality. 4:16 running time for "Avalon"...oo bad there are no palm trees around this coffee shop.
Stuart A Staples
When I had my table at the Louisiana Book Fair, a man bearing the signs of being a Learned Lethario approached, and the purchase of a book hinged on my finding the right promo CD for him (I gave out promo CD's with each purchase. See what you missed? Should've followed that impulse and come to the fair.) He professed a love for Nick Cave, but judging from his black tweed jacket over a black shirt from last year's book fair, and hint of desire to be drugged by this guy (look how gay Roxy Music makes me! No wonder I didn't get more action in high school) I could've guessed. I offered up the Kid Congo Powers CD, but the disk had escaped the case, so I finally chose to part with Leaving Songs, the solo album by the former singer of Tindersticks. I put them in that moody late-career Nick Cave category - vaguely Leonard Cohen-y with a better croon, but now that I have resurrected the Frankenstein of Bryan Ferry, I see the obvious precedent.
Trade an acoustic guitar and piano for that synthesizer and sax, and you have a stronger, meaner, sexier Avalon, one that makes you want to masturbate in a burnt out house instead of under a palm tree. Mariachi horns, castanets, tambourines all mix with tha absinthe of Staples' voice on the opener "Goodbye To Old Friends", so far up the mix you feel like he's singing from the backseat, knife at your throat, directing you to same castle from the aforementioned cab ride. Like with "Avalon" the album could really just stop at this one song and still have the same power.
Lighter fare like the vibe shuffle of "There is a Path" and the horn filled death boogie of "Which Way the Wind" offer up a bit of relief from the iceberg blow of "Goodbye" leading all up to the volcano that is "One More Time." Talk about a masturbation song, starting out slow, building as intensity as the warmth kicks in and the mind swirling and whatnot. Again, where are the palm trees when you need them? If songs like "Wild Thing" and Smells Like Teen sprit" encapsulate the sexuality of the 17 and the 21-year old, "One More Time" is straight up 32, with the energy to get the job done, but with experience enough to know to savor it. The skeletal, almost a capella, "Dance With an Old Man" follows like the ghost of coitus always does, whispering, aching and worn, gleaming like polished wood, in every definition.
Like the later Nick Cave records I errantly compared this too, the rest of the album keeps to form. Llasa de Sela does her best Nico/Nancy Sinatra duet on "This Leaving feeling" but like with any lethario, she is the guest and not the star. It's probably unfair to heap all this onto old Staples, who sounds gloriously worse for wear on this record, his baritone cracking under all those cigarettes and liquor, in a way that fellow dark-alley-explorer Lloyd Cole doesn't on his later "drinking" albums. Cole just sounds drunk, where Staples sounds harvested by time. Still, the country leanings of "This Old Town" and "Pulling into the Sea" - sounding like what I want Lambchop to sound like - offer a perfect closing credits to this record, leaving one blinking in the twilight.
Which is exactly where the aforementioned Lambchop comes in. This Nashville alternative orchestra band has never really worked for me until this album, where they boil down the carcass of countrypolitan into a pungent broth of melted rhinestones. Kurt Wagner's voice is a clipped, barely spoken thing, making the last Smog album sound like a gospel choir, but the cycles of strings and guitar arpeggios are what pushes this into genius territory. I can't follow the noir tale he spins on "Paperback Bible" with all the broken TV's and whatnot, but I don't care. It trumps half of everything at Sundance for its ability to project clarity hrough diffusion. "Prepared" has the ambiance of a classic jazz trio being overtaken by a choking swarm of butterflies, "Beers Before The Barbican" riding the rollercoaster of one too many drinks. Damaged is a triumph of mood with little motion.
Things get a little more Nashville‚Ñ¢trade; on numbers like "I Would Have Waited Here all day" and the sunset gallop of "Crackers" but all with a Vaseline on the lens, blurring everything into sepia continuum. This record succumbs with appropriately with "The Decline of Country and Western Civilization", Wagner shouting at the devil of Music City's infernal mansion. Which OK, we all concede: old country is better than new country. There can be no debate on this issue. The sentiment seems a little poetry slam in the lyrics, but the music is what makes Lambchop shine like the neon on the Grand Ole Opry, and the reflection in the pools of blood and liquor filling up the potholes of this pretend Nashville are the same as the gleam of the bar lights on Bryan Ferry's leather and the single bulb dangling over the kitchen table in Stuart Staples' apartment. It's that solitary reflection, that bit of siren life that comes from nowhere, and sambas you out the door of your reality.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com