[…continued from last post]
Following on from the high water mark of “Sweet Murder,” the next step in the “Animal Magic” plan for world domination was to have an even better song follow it. “Aeroplane City Lovesong” kicked off with peals of languid guitar one could fall into. Then congas and a circular guitar riff from Dr. Robert heralded a swell of swaggering brass that coalesced to form a widescreen epic of a song. A crescendo of uplifting strings swept the memorable chorus into the forefront while Dr. Robert scatted off of the back-end of it and let trumpeter Guy Barker have the spotlight as he echoed The Doctor’s scatting into the song’s brash coda. No matter how many times I hear this one, it always assumes an epic stance in my mind for hours at a time afterward.
A change of pace came with the Memphis Soul of “I Nearly Died Laughing” with the strings and saxes staking a claim immediately on the slow, promenading tempo of the song. If we can discount the s-bomb in the first verse, the berserk whammy bar workout from Dr. Robert on guitar was the only jarring factor in this song-as-comfort-food.
The album’s fourth and final single was the cotton candy pop of “Don’t Be Scared Of Me.” The strings led and the saxes followed as the sweet melodies painted this song as the most lightweight offering on the record. On one hand, a logical pick for a single, but unsurprisingly, it failed to do much business. Fortunately, the rest of “side two” of the album offered much more substance both separately and in the form of an accomplished album arc.
Never one to shy away from politics, though often wedded in the past to obscure and tortuous metaphor, Dr. Robert tried the direct approach on the incendiary “Burn The Rich.” It was definitely a song that wore its heart on its sleeve, and the mixture of Dr. Robert on acoustics and the wicked slide guitar of Joe Brown made it all go down with ease. The socialist hoedown was gifted with gently loping strings and a full-bodied vocal by the Doctor.
Then a sharp left turn [no pun intended] with the acoustic barber shop quartet of “I Backed A Winner [In You].” This had been the B-side of “Digging Your Scene,” but as it sounded like nothing else out there in the entirety of the 1980s, I’ll grant them a pass on putting it on the album. Everyone needed to hear this track! Dr. Robert delivered acoustic guitar and a slice or Roaring Twenties Jazz, but it was the close harmonies of the backing vocalists, The Demon Barbers, who made this one utterly memorable, and a real delight.
The album’s first single then placed in the flow at last. “Forbidden Fruit” was an easygoing groove of a single with the lyrics positing the singer as in inveterate rake who was beginning to have doubts about his penchant for sweet young things, though undoubtedly drawn to their many charms. While the melody and strings carried the song, it was anchored on this particular time by the bongos of T-Rex’s Mickey Finn. Dr. Robert had leaned hard in the direction of T-Rex as one of his main influences, so this pairing undoubtedly must have thrilled.
The subtle fretless bass line that Mick Anker slid into this song was its ace in the hole as it filled the spaces between the string and horns with great care. Swooping through the song and leading us deeper into its paradox of desire and restraint. Strange bedfellows for a pop song yet we’re all the richer for it.
Then the ultimate song on the album closed it on a reflective note. “Heaven Is A Place I’m Moving To” was yet another unpredictable move on an album that juggled the familiar with the unexpected. The fruity soprano sax of Dick Morrissey immediately grabbed my heart and didn’t let it go for the whole song. The intimate breakup ballad further held only Dr. Robert and his acoustic guitar, with the double bass of Mick Anker and eventually, the strings to keep company. The contrast between the yearning, minor key verses and the triumphant chorus was profound, and having the album conclude on the unresolved strings fading out abruptly was a powerful way of ending the album.
As good as the first album was, the level of songwriting on “Animal Magic” showed that songwriter Dr. Robert was not content to have the band’s chops be the whole of the show as he grew considerably to meet their level of playing. I joined the caravan at this point and began collecting the band in earnest; enjoying everything that reached my ears. The production largely stayed with the rich, natural sounding music of the debut while topping off the complexity and burgeoning melodicism of the songwriting. The Jazz notes of the debut were largely jettisoned for Soul music this time out.
It was also a treat hearing guitarist Dr. Robert dig into the acoustic guitars and pull out a wah-wah pedal to rehabilitate that once-tired affectation right when the time was nigh for its return. The role of second time producer Peter Wilson certainly plateaued here. His peerless string and brass arrangements were the melodic foundation for all of the album’s songs. Given that he also played all of the keyboards on the album, it’s difficult to imagine where the band might have gone with Wilson in place for a third time. The work had a climactic air this outing.
The harbingers of their next move were definitely the two singles: “Wicked Ways” and “Digging Your Scene.” The synthetic rhythm section on those tracks was the outlier to how the band would drastically mutate going forward, but the joy of “Animal Magic” was how it largely resisted those 80s trends [for the second album in a row] to make a warm, analog album reaching back to the Soul music of the 70s with all of its trappings to stand apart from the 1986 environment that was caught between the tail end of the tech-drenched ZTT sound and the rise of the soap-starred PWL sound starting to happen. “Animal Magic” was one more glorious touchstone on the 70s Soul that was foundational to the songwriting development of Dr. Robert before moving on.
Next: …Machine + Soul [With A Side Order Of Funk]
As someone who listened to — and deeply enjoyed — a lot of soul records at the time of its heyday (a byproduct of capping off the Saturday morning cartoons with an hour of American Bandstand followed by Soul Train as my routine), the soul undertones of Animal Magic married to forward-looking white jazz-pop was a real mind-expander for me, but the tracks that still resonate most strongly were “Wicked Ways,” and “I Backed a Winner in You,” which could hardly be more different and yet sat comfortably on the same album.
This was truly one of the strongest new albums out in 1986, and although it wasn’t the band’s debut it was our introduction to them, so one thinks of it in line with other stunning debuts like ABC’s opening opus or Soft Cell’s debut from years earlier — records that came out of the gate with a fully-formed vision, with an execution that gave you their mission statement in plain, bold text.
chasinvictoria – Wow, so you watched American Bandstand and Soul Train? I never did that. As much as I loved music, I just didn’t want to watch what was mostly the audience dancing. In retrospect, I really should have caught Soul Train. I would have caught a lot of great music that never made it into my lilywhite Orlando Top 40 world. I always resented that. The L.A. station that I cut my musical teeth on [KHJ-AM] was much more musically integrated and I missed a lot of Funk that I was enjoying in 2nd and 3rd grade [Joe Tex, Jimmy Castor Bunch] when wwe moved to Orlando in 1972.
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