Rock GPA: ABC [part 10]

While “Skyscraping” was an exceptional album of the kind that was a resounding artistic success, it’s impact in the marketplace was muted at best. Fry had gotten wrapped up in live performance as a more lucrative path to pursue.  That provided a living, and it was something he’d not really embraced to this extent before, but apart from the live album recorded during the 1997 tour, there was nary a peep from ABC in the album front for eleven years. Since I felt that Fry was now at the top of his form, this was disheartening, to say the least.

In 2006 the ABC/Martin Fry website mentioned a new song that Fry was singing on.  Sonic Hub had an album called “Eye of the Storm” and Fry was their collaborator on the cut “New Man.” Sonic hub was a synthetic dance music conglomeration that Ricky Wilde [Kim’s brother] had started and they were moving in an Apollo 440 direction. “New Man” was cheekily based on Gary Numan’s “Cars” and featured one of Fry’s most robust vocal performances ever. The power and control he exhibits on this track puts him clearly in Tom Jones territory. This was one of the first downloads I ever bought since there was no physical release of this track at the time. It’s subsequently been released as a remix EP on CD but I stuck with the vocal mix since Fry’s full-bodied performance was the reason why I liked this track so much.

ABC – Traffic | 2008 – 3.5

In 2007, word began to filter out on a new ABC album that was in the works. That was about time! It had seemed an eternity since the fantastic “Skyscraping” had been released. Lowndes and Gregory had moved on, naturally, and this album saw him reunited with original ABC drummer David Palmer and a new partner, Chuck Kentis. I had hoped that it would be a worthy companion to “Skyscraping” and it certainly was. The overall caliber of the material is almost as good, which is saying a lot, and overall it shows admirable consistency on Fry’s part to have waited a decade on and produced an album this good.

The biggest difference between this album and the prior one is that it reflects Fry’s formative Roxy/Bowie influences much less that “Skyscraping” did. Better yet, it moves in some new directions that are most welcome for an artist who has been working for almost 30 years. I have to admit, the opening cut “Sixteen Seconds To Choose” set the bar exceptionally high. The ferociously rocking cut sounded like a track that could have rested comfortably on “Beauty Stab” as Fry unleashed snarling fury at “prestige, power, and money, money, money!” One salient fact in its favor is that this is the sort of song that Fry was reaching for in 1983 but not necessarily achieving. Better yet, the horn section ends up giving this track a sneering swagger, not unlike some Jimmy Miller period Stones songs. After such an audacious opener, the senses are braced for anything.

What follows, is the first single; a sprightly confection with a Philly soul feel to the strings although the use of pizzicato strings as well in the arrangement is probably not something that would have occurred to Gamble and Huff. Fry’s lyrics are a delight here and the fact that the track is 180 degrees apart from the opener sets the listener up for pretty much anything. “Ride, ” the next cut is a pulsating ode to the pleasures of the open road, and a real surprise from the pen of Fry.

One of Fry’s earliest influences crops up on the excellent “Life Shapes You.” When they were starting out, ABC were very enamored of the cinematic John Barry sound that he achieved both on his James Bond soundtracks as well as his productions for the likes of Adam Faith. “Lexicon” certainly had nods in Barry’s direction what with the lush and ornate arrangements by the band and Trevor Horn’s Theam. The cut sounds like a fantastic Bond theme; the best such song I’ve heard since Spandau Ballet’s “Gold.” But it’s the middle eight that goes full tilt into Barry territory with an awesome blend of treated bass and strings.

The percolating “Way Back When” is a very unique song, not really like anything Fry [or anyone else] had penned earlier. In it, Fry chides an unnamed female who’s present through the historic periods of his life who sides with conservative, regressive thinkers and forces; castigating those who are moving forward and progressing to the new. As the song moves from Elvis to rave, Fry curtly dismisses her and her brethren.

“I saw you back in ’88
Some place deep in Shoom
Dropping Es like vitamins
You said house was doomed
You say that Izzy made you dizzy
A liar got you higher
Ripping me up like a sabre-toothed tiger
I see you
I see you
I see through you

I’ve seen you before
I’ve seen you back then
I’ll see you again my friend
In the way back when”

The only weak spot in this album is “Validation,” which sports uncharacteristically maladroit wordplay from Fry’s usually dependable pen. It’s a piano ballad with a stilted feel that marks it as B-side material. It’s certainly not up to the standard of the rest of the album. Fortunately, the closing tracks are much improved. “Fugitives” maps out new territory late in the game with its gritty wah-wah funk feel suitable for a Curtis Mayfield soundtrack. The closer, “Minus Love” also deals in wah-wah, but this is worlds apart from the preceding tune. This is a glittery disco-ball of a tune featuring lyrics that sound as if they were left over from the euphoric yet reflective “Up” period as Fry outlines what worth a man can have without love.

Overall, the album doesn’t quite scale the peaks of the preceding one, but as it unfolds, track by track, it’s strengths cannot be denied. The breadth of the material is admirably wide and if the opening pair don’t confound the listener, a good time is assured for all. Fry sounds confident and keeps pushing the vocal envelope and growing in ways we’ve not heard him before. The best thing about this album is that it proves that the plateau reached on “Skyscraping” was not a fluke. The only downside is that there was a interminable eleven year gulf between them!

Fortunately, the ABC website has been dramatically refreshed this summer and reader Jeremy Kennedy indicated way back in the comments of chapter one of this [seemingly endless] Rock GPA that Fry has signed with EMI [again*] and is preparing new material a scant three years later! Hopefully, Fry can juggle the lucrative live performances with work that continues to build his legacy. His chops certainly seem to be honed and seasoned by a life in the game with all manner of fortunes delivered to him by the wheel. ABC fascinate me since they willfully moved at a contrary angle from their debut album, which is rightly regarded as one of the best of all time. Weaker individuals would have milked that cow until it was giving powder, but it speaks volumes of Fry’s [and Mark White’s] strength of character that they took large artistic chances with their careers that had serious financial repercussions. It’s significant that they did this on their first three albums, when most bands would be settling in a predictable groove. Sure, they lost chunks of their audience with each twist and turn. They even lost me when they embraced house music trends, but Fry’s innate talent and intelligence marks him as a man worth following since his path is guaranteed to be worthwhile and illuminating.

– 30 –

* Who else is left to sign with, at this point?

About postpunkmonk

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10 Responses to Rock GPA: ABC [part 10]

  1. Echorich says:

    ABC came through Tampa in 2006 on the heels of their semi successful VH-1 reunion. They played their basic nostalgia set, but included two new tracks that had everyone on their feet in the small theatre somewhere deep in Largo. First was The Very First Time. I have to admit I got out of my seat and ran to the front of the stage ( much to my partner’s embarrassment I later found out). You could see the sense of satisfaction and glee on Martin’s face. He knew he was still on the right track and that his audience was with him. Later in the show they broke out in Sixteen Seconds To Choose and I was now the one with a permanent grin on my face.
    There was a post show meet, greet and sign something session set up in the lobby of the venue and as most 40 somethings at shows tend to be more worried about how long it will take to get home, I found myself near the front of the line. I had my ticket signed and mentioned my previous story of the Limelight Club in NYC back in 85. Martin actually stopped, thought about it and then said to me “Were there water pistols somehow involved?” Well you know I was riding on cloud nine at that point.

    When Traffic finally came out in 2008 I had a copy immediately thanks to Amazon pre order and very good emails from the ABC/Martin Fry website. What a wonderful album. It continues on from the blueprint created on Skyscraping but is bold in it’s updating of many of ABC’s sounds from the prior 27 years. Love Is Strong is the highpoint of the album for me, but I love Ride, Caroline and Life Shapes You. Traffic is a collection of music from a man very much on his game and ready to show more. I can’t wait for that more.

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  2. Brian Ware says:

    Thanks so much for a superb series Mr. Monk. Provocative, informative, and always entertaining!

    Like

    • Echorich says:

      I heartily agree @Brian!!!

      Like

      • postpunkmonk says:

        Echorich – The Rock GPAs are tiring. I can’t dive into the bucket but for every other month or so. It monopolizes the blog something ferocious, but concepts like that have rattled around in my skull for a decade or more. Getting this stuff out of my head and onscreen is why I blog to begin with. Imagine if I did Bowie. It would take six weeks!

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        • Echorich says:

          Bowie, Roxy/Ferry, Simple Minds…There’s your 2012 for you right there!
          It has been ages since I wrote anything in my blog, but I have a couple thematic posts rattling in my mind…I will certainly let you know if I get them to stream through my fingers.

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          • postpunkmonk says:

            Echorich – Actually, I was poking around on my computer the other day and when I did my Simple Minds BSOG® in 2004, the CD-ROM I did to accompany it had an easter egg where I basically reviewed every album through “Cry” in Rock GPA® detail. I could repurpose this huge chunk of text into a blog series with minimal sweat. Bowie and Ferry/Roxy, well, they’re the masters. I need to work up to them in at least a few years of their disciples under my belt! Of my four Rock GPA®s thus far [ABC, Duran Duran, Icehouse, The Cramps] only The Cramps have no connection to those two.

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  3. Taffy says:

    Hey PPM…was on vacation, now all caught up with work (and blog reading) and wanted to commend you on an exhaustive job well done. While I own every ABC album, i don’t really have anything particularly intelligent to add, but I will say that the appearance of Traffic a few years ago took me completely by surprise and I quickly embraced its forward direction with a healthy glance back in the rear-view mirror. Also, wondering if you thought about including the compilation (Look of Love: Very Best of ABC) as it included two new decent songs (Peace and Tranquility and Blame) not found anywhere else. I quite like them both, making this a necessary purchase.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – Vacations are wonderful. I fully approve, but have already used up my sacred ten days already.

      I never bought “Look of Love: the Very Best of ABC” even though it had “Blame” and “Peace + Tranquility.” Why? First of all, I never saw it in a store for sale. Since I was buying it for two cuts, I had held out hope for a used copy that never appeared. Second, after a few years of wanting but not having it, Universal Benelux issued “The Ultimate Collection,” detailed in part 6, and not only did it contain those two non-LP cuts, it also featured the rare, otherwise unissued “Viva Love [brothers in rhythm edit].” With three rare ABC cuts in this set, it more than tipped my hand in the early naughties period where I was seriously filling ABC gaps in my collection for the oft-promised BSOG®. Of course, I had no other recourse but to buy it from Amazon as an import for $30+ in 2004 so the cheapskate in me had to take a powder.

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  4. Taffy says:

    Ah, so sorry to have read right over your mention of the Ultimate Collection. Meanwhile, is that Viva Love remix any good (or to put it another way – is it worth owning for us “not-quite-obsessive-completists”)??

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – Yes, “Viva Love” is excellent. Thanks to the miracle of Soundcloud, you may hear the otherwise unreleased full-length Brothers In Rhythm remix here, courtesy of Steve Anderson [Brothers In Rhythm] himself! Decide for yourself. The edit track is also available on the [UK only] “Abradadabra” download only 18-track dlx RM here.

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