Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bryan Ferry. Olympia (2010) ...and why it’s not the second coming of Avalon (1982).

Ex-Roxy members convened this past year for Bryan Ferry’s new album, Olympia.  The official press release states, “Bryan Ferry reunited on record with members of Roxy Music, including Brian Eno.”   But don’t expect an updated version of For Your Pleasure, or Avalon.  The press release doesn’t even mention Manzanera, Mackay, or Thompson by name and, try as you will, it’s pretty challenging to identify what Eno is doing on the record.  As Mackay says on his Web site, “I have read that I played on Bryan's upcoming record Olympia.  Just for the record I may have done but I am not sure!”  It seems Olympia started as a Roxy reunion, but got bogged down in Steely Dan proportions of perfectionism, and eventually became another Ferry solo outing.   

For those of us that have Avalon burned in our memory, the first track of Olympia starts with a shock of recognition: it’s the same pulsating string sound from “True To Life.”  That seems to tease us with the idea that Roxy is now reformed, picking up where Avalon left off.  But this is not the case.  In fact, the opening is a red herring.  Olympia has, to my ears, nothing to do with Avalon.  Olympia is more burnished wood than polished pearl.  It’s smooth, but you can see the grain underneath.  Avalon was many shades of sleek cool. Olympia has some brightness, but it’s mostly darker and tougher.

Without the co-writing contributions of Mackay and Manzanera, Olympia forgoes harmonic complexity in favor of groove and texture, which is typical of Ferry’s solo work. The core band, supplemented, as usual, with lots of guest players, creates under, one would assume, Ferry’s direction, a weighty bed of swirling layers for Bryan’s observant ruminations.  Practically every track has that now definitive Ferry ending: no fade, no chord, just a single unison note, a device we first heard at the end of “While My Heart Is Still Beating,” from, of course, Avalon.

The collaboration with Groove Armada on “Shameless” provides Ferry with a newer, updated and welcome context, but the track is marred by the distracting borrowing of the bleeping synth from Annie’s “Greatest Hit” (1999).  On Annie’s original it has a bit more filtering, more of a “wah” sound on the attack, and it’s a semitone higher, but it’s essentially the same motif.  Otherwise, the tunes are layered with guitar parts that creep like the roots of trees looking for water.  Ferry is able to orchestrate atmospheric yet muscular arrangements that generate heft without overpowering the etchings of his vocals.

At 65, Bryan’s voice is now fragile and frayed.  With Avalon, Ferry completely dropped the artifice of weird vocal mannerisms that had made his voice so distinctive and strange, and oddly appealing.  Since then he has crooned to us, close to our ear, with something just more than a whisper.

Roxy fanatics tend to express disappointment over Avalon because it’s perceived as less experimental, too safe and soft compared to their idiosyncratic earlier work.  True, it is pretty easy on the ears.  But it’s the work of an adult who had been through some hurt and heartbreak (Bryan was in his late 30’s when he recorded it), and Avalon is all about reflection of the past, or even the present as it fades right in front of us.  It’s a monument to beauty, nuance, and poignancy.  From moment to moment, Avalon presents itself as an elegant flow of meticulous detail; there’s not a single jarring event, or questionable note.  In that regard, it’s the first of the Bryan Ferry solo albums to come, and indeed there are the minimum of co-writing credits on Avalon.

But on stage at least, Roxy Music has reunited, as Ferry is touring with Manzanera and Mackay as a group (original Roxy drummer Paul Thompson having fallen out due to poor health), visiting Europe, Japan, and Australia.  And they sound (and look) pretty darn good doing the old stuff:

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