Thursday, 10 June 2021

Bite-sized Bryan

These are Bryan Ferry's studio albums, together with introductions from my longer reviews (which can be accessed here) :-

These Foolish Things (1973)

Bryan Ferry was the first, in 1973, to release an album of cover versions of some of his favourite songs, just prior to David Bowie with Pin Ups and a bit longer before John Lennon’s Rock n Roll. While Bowie ploughed the mid-sixties British r’n’b furrow and Lennon looked to the late fifties/early seventies US rock ‘n’ roll that he so loved, Ferry, with impeccable taste, covered Motown, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and even The Rolling Stones, among many others on a veritable cornucopia of influences. The results were patchy, to be honest, as some of the covers certainly do not come off, but it was a brave album, and one that I have finally warmed to over time. One had to question why Ferry did it, though - was it all one big hoot, a raised finger to the cognoscenti that hung on his every lyric after the seismic impact of the first two delightfully avant-garde Roxy Music albums? Was he trying to show that beneath all that classy, sophisticated glam posturing he was just a fun guy underneath that liked a sixties pop tune or two? I can still remember a music paper article from the time that led with “Bryan Ferry - the guy that took the piss out of Bob Dylan and got away with it...”. It was presuming that A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall was done as a joke. I am not so sure, as Ferry’s many Dylan covers since, including one entire album in Dylanesque, would surely prove that he was covering Dylan for more than a throwaway laugh. You have to remember that at the time, many people laughed and scoffed at Ferry’s voice, claiming “he can’t sing”. Indeed, this album highlighted his quirky, quavering voice even more than on Roxy Music material, because well-known songs were suddenly being sung by a man with an odd up and down, totally unique (at the time) delivery. For many, therefore, in 1973, these covers were seen as a travesty.

Another Time Another Place (1974)

Released in 1974, I find this, Bryan Ferry's second solo album, to be a better and far more enjoyable effort than his first, These Foolish Things, which contained, in my opinion, a few truly awful, ill-considered covers. I prefer the choice of material on here, more soully and rocking country than some of the sixties pop of the first album. These Ferry solo albums should be taken for what they are though - not Roxy Music albums. Ferry covers stuff he liked. If he liked You Are My Sunshine then that is his prerogative. Obviously, it is then down to how he covers the songs. His Sympathy For The Devil on the first album is a million times worse than anything on here. He covers the material on here well, overall. What is still shining though, brightly, however, is Ferry's love of soul, something that dated back to his mid-sixties Gas Board days.

Let's Stick Together (1976)

Bryan Ferry trod water to a certain extent on this 1976 album, carrying on the cover versions tradition of his first two solo albums, but also, rather surprisingly, re-recording five of Roxy Music’s earlier songs. Four came from Roxy’s ground-breaking debut album and one from 1974’s Country Life. Quite why Ferry chose to re-do these songs is not known, maybe he was exorcising demons, maybe he wanted to record them as he felt they should have sounded, free of Bryan Eno’s influence. Maybe he just felt like it. He never really said. As it happens, sacrilegious as though it may seem to re-work these classic songs of the avant-garde they all scrub up in their new garb remarkably well. As someone who had revered the originals, I have to say that these do it for me too.

In Your Mind (1977)

After two albums of cover versions and one of half covers and half re-workings of older Roxy Music tracks, Bryan Ferry returned, at the height of punk in 1977, with an album entirely made up of his own compositions. While it may have appeared to be a bit culturally irrelevant, it was actually a pretty good album, and was received as such by fans and the music media alike. I remember getting into punk at the time but still buying this with no feelings of shame. I had liked Roxy/Ferry from 1972 anyway. It wouldn’t be long, however, before Ferry entered “guilty secret” territory for me. Anyway, it was an energetic, lively, rocking, horn-powered album and featured Phil Manzanera and Paul Thompson from Roxy, along with sometime Roxy bassist John Wetton and several other notable sessionists such as Chris Spedding and Mel Collins. Thinking about it, it would actually have done pretty well as a Roxy album, following on, as it did in many ways, from the accessible sound of 1975’s Siren. Indeed, I prefer it in many ways to both Manifesto and Flesh & Blood and it bristles with far more energy and verve than Ferry’s eighties solo output - in these respects it is a bit of a forgotten gem. Although recorded in London there is a slick Transatlantic sound to it that brings to mind Rod Stewart's Atlantic Crossing, Ian Hunter's All American Alien Boy or even, vaguely, David Bowie's Young Americans. Horns, soul influences and Dylan lyrical acknowledgements were de riguer in 1975-77. It is no coincidence, therefore, that I also find myself thinking of Dylan's Street-Legal, from the following year, when I listen to this. Maybe these artists/or the general sound influenced Dylan? That was more than possible, as Dylan would freely admit. In early 1977, when it was released, punk was still a bit cult-ish and Ferry was certainly not considered old hat just yet, his persona as the epitome of cool was still intact and generally admired, as opposed to scoffed at. He appeared on the cover suntanned, with neat hair and a bit over-heated looking in a plain white t-shirt and aviator shades - sure, it was hardly full-on punk, but in 1977 anything that was not typical Peter Frampton-esque long rock star hair gained a certain amount of respect from those determined to eschew traditional seventies rock styles. David Bowie also now had shorter hair, Freddie Mercury was getting there and even Marc Bolan’s corkscrew curls had gone. Ferry, actually, had always been his own man, image-wise - think of the-shirt of These Foolish Things or the tuxedo of Another Time, Another Place or the moustache/floppy hair of Let’s Stick Together. That was one of the reasons the punks didn’t turn on Ferry as they did other supposed “dinosaurs”.

The Bride Stripped Bare (1978)

This is one of Bryan Ferry's solo albums that has sort of slipped under the radar (comparatively). Being really into all things punk and new wave in September 1978, when it was released, it was the first of his solo albums that I didn't buy. In fact at the time I paid it little attention. I subsequently bought it several years later, but don't return to it that often, which is a bit of a shame as it isn't a bad album. It is a healthy mix of Ferry original compositions and covers and it contains probably Ferry's bluesiest material too. It was a funny thing that in 1977 I was quite happy to listen to Ferry's In Your Mind, yet by 1978 he had no relevance. That's the young for you. Thankfully a few years later I restored the balance. Briefly, in that glorious autumn of 1978, all that mattered was The Jam, The Clash and Elvis Costello. 

Boys And Girls (1985)

After a seven-year hiatus, this was the album which saw Bryan Ferry cement the laid-back, slick, immaculately produced smooth brand of lounge bar rock that would take him from 1985 to the present day. The album stands as probably one of the best of the many that he has put out since then. The musicianship and indeed the sound quality is exemplary, (Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour and Nile Rodgers appear on the album) setting standards in hi-fi quality for the time. It still sounds great today, its easy rhythms washing over you gently, drawing you in, siren-like, as Ferry’s distinctive, mellifluous vocals float over the intoxicating rhythms.

BĂȘte Noire (1987)

Bryan Ferry’s albums didn’t divert from their easy, slick, smooth course from 1985’s Boys And Girls onwards. This one was pretty much more of the same “wine bar” fare, although there a few subtle differences. It is more than just a Boys And Girls part two, though, being a bit more dance-ish. The music, of course, is of the absolute highest quality. Listening to the two albums one after the other, you can definitely detect the change. The nonchalance of the previous album is a tad more peppy, more lively, while still retaining that effortless rhythmic groove.

Taxi (1993)

This was a bit of a “treading water” album from Bryan Ferry, after Boys and Girls and BĂȘte Noire, which were full albums of original material, this was a collection of cover versions, apart from one song. They are all pretty well delivered, in a very laid-back, bass reverb-heavy way. Lounge bar music with a bit of resonance. Within a year, the Mamouna album of originals was released, albeit performed in the same laid-back style as this album. It is a most enjoyable listen, nevertheless. I know there will be people who say "how can you listen to this from the man who wrote all those early Roxy Music songs". Fair enough, I suppose, but I like both. I like early Roxy Music. I like this too. So there you go.

Mamouna (1994)

Mamouna is absolutely jam-packed full with top notch musicians, including Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, and Brian Eno is back working with Ferry for the first time since he left Roxy Music in 1973. All that consideed it would not be unreasonable to expect a corker of an album. Actually, although the sound quality and muscianship on the album is first class, somehow there is a sameiness to it that ensures it never really takes off. Rather like Boys And Girls it continues at the same slick, immaculately-delivered lounge bar pace without ever changing its mood or ambience. In many ways it is too polished for its own good. Which is a bit of a strange thing to say, considering it is Bryan Ferry, who wrote the book on that sort of thing. Listening to it, though, it is remarkably pleasant, assured and classy, but it never hits any highs. You get the impression that Ferry could do stuff like this in his sleep.

As Time Goes By (1999)

Bryan Ferry has always loved a cover or two - particularly Bob Dylan songs, but also pre-WWII crooning classics like Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and You Are My Sunshine. On this album he delves completely into that luxurious twenties/thirties era, an era of lavish hotels, grand dining rooms, beautiful ladies in elegant dresses and men in tuxedos, overnight cross-Europe steam train travel and so on. You would expect the album to be hugely orchestrated - full of strings played by a large orchestra. To a certain extent this sound is replicated, but not nearly as much as you may have expected. The band is a small combo, with some strings, but not the full Monty. A lot of the material has been given a smoky, jazzy soulful makeover that, while still retaining a lot of the music's original flavour and atmosphere gives it a jazz club-ish feel. All very intimate. Dinner for two by candlelight. Ferry's vocals are his usual - slightly quavering in his delivery with his instantly recognisable mellifluous warble. The whole sepia-tinged ambience that these songs deliver is entirely suited to Bryan Ferry, let's be honest. He has donned a tuxedo many times in the past, so this album is no surprise at all. In fact, the only surprise is why it took him so long to release it. Nobody does lounge lizard, smooth, suave, casual elegance like Bryan Ferry after all.  

Frantic (2002)

This was Bryan Ferry's first album not completely of covers since Mamouna in 1994, eight years previously. The only album in between had been the thirties covers of As Time Goes By from 1999. It is a most underrated, varied and satisfying album. Some of Ferry's albums suffer ever so slightly from getting into one vibe and staying there. Comparatively, this one is more varied in styles while still obviously containing Ferry's laid-back lounge-bar vocal style. 

Dylanesque (2007)

It is an easy thing to criticise this album. Laid back master of the lounge bar releases an album of covers of songs from possibly the most talented singer/songwriter the world has ever known. Lots of reviewers have queued up here to exactly that. I am not going to do that. I like Bryan Ferry. I like Bob Dylan. Of course, there is no comparison with the originals. That doesn't matter. They are good songs. Bryan Ferry likes them and he wants to cover them. Fair enough. I don't have a problem with that. Bob Dylan is an artist whose work has been covered by lots of artists, often enhancing the songs in comparison to Dylan's sometimes questionable vocals. This is one more artist covering the great poet's songs. Nothing wrong with that. People will be doing it for many, many more years to come. I enjoy this album every now and again and am perfectly happy to admit it. I am listening to again as I write this and loving it. I have no shame in admitting that.

Olympia (2010)

This Bryan Ferry solo album, his first containing self-penned material since 2002's Frantic was also notable for, at various points on the album, featuring old Roxy Music mates Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay. It wasn't a Roxy Music reunion album, though (despite the Roxy-ish cover) - it was far more in the traditional Bryan Ferry style of a selection of sublimely created and played tracks running as one seamless, stylish whole. Seductive, sophisticated - dim the lights, you can guess the rest...Overall the album is a quality one that explores various textures and beats while never straying too far from the one ambience that runs through the whole album. Yes, there is nothing new, save some contemporary beats, but did you really expect anything else? This is a master craftsman doing what he does best. 

The Jazz Age (2012)

This is a very odd curio of an album. Although titled The Bryan Ferry Orchestra, Ferry himself doesn't feature on it at all. It is a collection of Ferry's solo material and Roxy Music numbers played by Ferry's regular backing musicians from the time, in a 1920s ragtime-ish jazz style. There are no vocals on the album at all, and, what makes it a flawed album, for me, is that the music is played in a deliberately "lo-fi", muffled mono sound. This is done, presumably, to add a 1920s authenticity to it, rather like some artists have added scratches to songs to make them sound like old blues numbers. Personally, I would preferred it if they had applied contemporary, decent sound to the music. It is a nice concept, but I feel it could have been so much better.

Avonmore (2014)

This album continues in the same vein as Mamouna and Olympia - high class, sophisticated art/pop, delivered with the class of a 1930s Parisian nightclub singer yet with a sumptuous contemporary, laid-back, polished backing. "Here it comes - that old ennui..." is a line from Roxy Music's If It Takes All Night from 1974's Country Life. It is so apt here. Ferry is a master of his craft, the relayer of reserved romanticism and the purveyor of polished perfection. As with those previous albums, the pace never gets above walking, gliding over the floor. It doesn't need to. It is all exquisitely seductive. Strangely, though, for such a mature, accomplished album, the cover shows Ferry as a callow youth. 

Bitter-Sweet (2018)

After the slightly ill-conceived project of 2012's The Jazz Age, which saw The Bryan Ferry Orchestra (sans Ferry) playing several Roxy Music/Ferry solo numbers in a muffled, mock-1920s mono way. For me, the deliberately lo-fi sound did not work, and furthermore, many of the songs were unrecognisable from their originals (to me anyway). Here, however, although The Bryan Ferry Orchestra are back, there are considerable improvements on this one. Ferry makes an appearance on several songs and the sound is notably improved. Having said that, several of the numbers sound decidedly mono. Either way, there is much more clarity of sound on these recordings. Indeed, I am pretty sure they are mono. Good mono, however. There is still a bit of "muffling" here and there. I guess that is just the "smoky" sound they are trying to achieve.  



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