Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Review of Aerial by Kate Bush

I don't write many record reviews anymore. But sometimes I still enjoy dancing about architecture, even if Mr. Zappa disapproves. Being unsure as to whether I should embark on such a venture, I flipped a coin. It came up heads. So heads, we're dancing.

What strikes me first about Aerial is how the mainstream "critics", if that is even the correct term, have been falling over themselves to award the album plaudits. Even some old-time punks have joined this popular bandwagon, though I remember them according KT far less acclaim back in the days of her first four records. In fact, they could be damned nasty. I'm not sure why the newfound respect. Longevity? Motherhood?

You could hardly avoid Kate Bush back in the eighties. In those heady days, she would issue songs with some regularity. Not all of these releases were terribly exciting in retrospect. The sophomore release, Lionheart, was a collection of often twee second-rate tunes left over from The Kick Inside, which was a stunning debut for both the depth of song writing (from a girl as young as 13 at the time) and the vocal presentation. Orchestration and arrangements were sometimes bog-standard, but certainly not inappropriate. Attempts at a more "rock" sound were embarrassing unless you really were fond of women in brightly-coloured leg-warmers screaming to guitar posturings.

But back then a good number of listeners were indeed fond. Strange times!

Never For Ever extended Bush's palette through use of synthesiser, which seemed to suit her ever-more-arch conceptual songs. I still rather like the theatrical tunes like "Army Dreamers" and "Breathing". The moment at the end of the video for this single is chilling.

But it took until The Dreaming for me to decide she was truly an artist of standing. Actually, it took until the lead-off single, released much earlier in a different version. "Sat In Your Lap" came from a planet unlike any celestial bodies she had previously occupied. "Kate's got rhythm!" went up the cry, and what a strange rhythm it was.

I fell in love with the album. Dark, textured, less fey, with a maturity and complexity that today still sounds grand. "Night of the Swallow", "Houdini", and "Suspended in Gaffa" bring with them bone-crushing emotion and an intensity of vision that is almost unparalleled.

By the time Hounds of Love was released, everyone was tuned in. Displaying a lighter sound for the most part, it nonetheless extended her music into new areas of storytelling with the side-long Ninth Wave. And it extended the pop charts to fit the exultant sway of "Running Up That Hill", the only song I can think of that's in march time. The b-sides were brilliant, the videos were sexy (Donald Sutherland!), Kate was beautiful, and everyone could agree that they were in the presence of a musical goddess.

The Sensual World was a huge disappointment, only the title single being any good at all, in a kind of middle-of-the-road way. We had previously read that Kate respected Elton John but now her music was starting to show it. The Red Shoes was an album so dire that I did not even buy it. I mean, Prince? Come on.

So for me it's been far more than twelve years waiting for a KT album I could like. Not that I have been waiting... I've moved on. But a new record in so long makes one at least curious. So let's start with disk one, track one.

I'm not sure why "King of the Mountain" should be a single, or why she has chosen to sing it in such a small voice that mumbles the lyrics. The song builds in a nonedescript way but eventually goes nowhere, taking almost five minutes to do so. Where's the melody? Where's the hook? Why is the skanky groove so, so... white?

"How To Be Invisible" and "Joanni" try to be somewhat groovy, but the guitar/bass interplay is muted and uninspiring. These really need to be mixed like rock songs, but for that they'd need to be played that way in the first place. Then they might have some power, some impact. Though why we need more half-baked lyrics about Joan of Arc I don't know. OMD has already done that -- twice!

It's a wonderful conceit to recite the digits of "Pi" and get a song out of it, but the music verges on outright boring. The soundtrack to the film of the same name was filled with compelling electronic dissonances that put this to shame fifteen times over. The less said about the precious "Bertie" the better. Except that it plays even more like a joke in Ireland than anywhere else, thanks to it corresponding to the name of our political leader.

That leaves us with two songs on the first disc (entitled A Sea of Honey). These are based on the piano music with which Kate started her career, and are the most successful entries here. "Mrs. Bartolozzi" is about doing the washing; it's evocative, silly, and even sexy. However, can I go out on a really long limb here and say that I don't much like the vocal performance? "A Coral Room" shares the production problem of the rest of the disk, being far too smooth and drenched in the wrong reverb setting. But it's a beautiful piece that only seems less interesting in comparison to just about any decent Tori Amos song. Is that sacrilegious enough? Or is it fair to note when the pupils have outdone their teachers?

The second disk, A Sky of Honey is musically based on bird song, with some rather clever imitative vocals that turn the calls into words. If there were fewer banal lyrics, if Rolf Harris had been kept to circular breathing exercises, and if someone else had produced it, then it could have been a decent record.

I actually quite like the opening "Prelude" and "Prologue" (what, no "Intro" as well?), though how I wish Eberhard Weber had been allowed to cut loose. "An Architect's Dream" is pure banality. Everything else is "Somewhere In Between", an appropriate song title if ever there was one. This CD is all a big "somewhere" without enough place, enough definition, enough life. "Nocturn/Aerial" almost gets going, but the dynamics have been smoothed into nothingness. And together it lasts sixteen minutes, for goodness sake!

My favourite track here is "Aerial Tal" and, no, that's not just me being perverse. Kate imitating bird song is both playful, clever, and new in a way that nothing else here is. The track is over in a minute. Then it's back to the ho-hum, the humdrum, the sigh and the hum. (Only not as good as I just made it sound with that last sentence.)

In conclusion: Aerial contains uninspired playing, no decent grooves, almost zero energy level, and not one memorable melody. It inhabits a very comfortable KT-type zone that brings back fond memories of much better recordings. There is something compelling here trying to break free but it is not allowed to do so. A big blanket labelled "safe" has been draped over the proceedings.

Give me the master tapes and I think I might just be able to rescue it. (You think I am kidding, but I am not.)

I should mention that while the cover is boring, the inside gatefold photo is very nice. Washing on the line turning into birds. Lovely.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"An Architects Dream" is a beautiful song. One of the best ever. No accounting for bad taste Mr Reviewer.

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