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The hit that should have been: Rickie Lee Jones’ “Woody and Dutch”

Rickie Lee Jones followed her eponymous 1979 debut a little over two years later with Pirates, an altogether darker and more ambitious affair that, three decades on, still sounds utterly glorious. It’s not a single-heavy kind of record but “Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking” was as good a choice as any, a sort of good-time bebop/R&B/jazz hybrid complete with invented percussion, handclaps, horns, and male backing vocals (alongside a suitably kittenish vocal from Jones) that’s almost like a logical step forward from the first album’s saucy “Danny’s All-Star Joint.”

The b-side, “Skeletons,” pares things back significantly to shine the spotlight on Jones’ spare, plaintive vocal/piano delivery (with some subtle, well-placed support from a string section.) Jones gives one of her most emotive vocal performances on this sad lullaby of love, life, and loss; it’s a complete mood change from the A-side but only serves to highlight Jones’ versatility and ability within various styles. Naturally, both these songs fit best on their parent album, which really is a stone cold classic, but as singles go it’s up there with Jones’ best.

Unfortunately it didn’t catch on in the same way that “Chuck E.’s in Love” did, and Jones would never again scale the commercial heights of the first record. But, as joyous and naughty and vibrant three decades later, “Woody and Dutch” still stands as one of Jones’ neglected classics.

Filed under: Art, Culture, Music, Pop, , , , ,

Unsung Classics Pt. II: ABBA’s “The Visitors”

In 2010, we all know that ABBA were master purveyors of quality pop, but that wasn’t always the case. Often derided as kitsch or somewhat outmoded, it’s really since the release of their final new material in 1982 that ABBA’s tenure as pop’s leading group for that decade before has achieved the acclaim it deserves.

The arrangements and production were top notch, the vocal harmonies often beautiful and surprisingly intricate (owing to a love of the Beach Boys), and the melodies were invariably sublime, infused with a wistful Scandinavian melancholy.

ABBA’s final studio album, 1981’s The Visitors, pretty much broke all the rules as far as the “ABBA formula” went. You could really only count the hit single “One of Us” as an ABBA single in the classic mould; the rest bears the influence of early ’80s synth-pop and a dark stage-musical quality (presaging Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’ work on the Chess musical.) There are no “Dancing Queen”s or “Fernando”s here.

This is not happy, singalong stuff. Opener “The Visitors” is a creepy cold war anthem, all chilly synths and distorted vocals, with one of ABBA’s most inventive but somewhat unfriendly hooks. Minor hit “Head Over Heels” is quirky, offbeat synth-pop-meets-Euro-melodrama, with one of Agnetha’s finest vocals, while “When All Is Said and Done” is a panoramic, anthemic pop gem that finds Anni-Frid Lyngstad, rather oddly, proclaiming that she is “not too old for sex.”

Other oddities include the Bjorn-sung “Two for the Price of One,” which strays uncomfortably into the prospect of threesome territory; the (melo)dramatic “I Let the Music Speak,” which features one of Frida’s best vocals and is one of ABBA’s finest examples of merging their classic pop sound with the stage-musical style they had flirted with for a number of years;  and the haunting closer “Like an Angel Passing Through My Room,” where all the extraneous arrangements and production are completely stripped away. It’s decidedly un-ABBA, but pretty great. And I haven’t even mentioned the utterly superb “Soldiers” yet, an indisputed highlight with its atmospheric arrangement and beautiful, sad minor-major chord melody.

The CD editions of The Visitors bolster the original nine songs with some extra tracks from ABBA’s later recording sessions, the highlight of which is definitely “The Day Before You Came,” quite possibly the most miserable ABBA song of all time (with a brilliantly matter-of-fact vocal from Agnetha), but this is also one of the prime examples of ABBA doing that grey, lonely, isolated Scandinavian melancholy to perfection. The synths are cold and bleak, and it’s one of the jewels in the group’s catalogue. Needless to say, it wasn’t a hit.

The Visitors wasn’t exactly a huge leap from ABBA’s previous works; songs like Super Trouper‘s “Me and I” had introduced a quirkier, synth-laden quality to the ABBA sound, and they had been playing with stage-musical melodrama from the mid-’70s on songs like “I Wonder (Departure)” and “Thank You for the Music,” but still, The Visitors was a surprisingly cold, bleak record borne out of the group’s personal turmoil (divorces galore.)

No ABBA record is really found in those ‘Best of All Time’ lists, which is a shame because they’re all great in their own way. I suppose they are seen more as a “hits” group than an album-driven one. Certainly, The Visitors features some curios that won’t be to everyone’s taste. But it’s actually one of ABBA’s best and most significant records. An odd, yet oddly fitting, note on which to end a glittering career.

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