In an effort to maintain the “write to keep myself entertained” mantra of a couple days ago, I’ll be featuring a different album on here a few times a week. It’ll be something formative – something that got me hooked as a nascent music fan, something that helped reify my tastes in my 20s and 30s, or something that’s speaking to me now, as a grown man on the cusp of total decrepitude. You’ll get some commentary and some videos, and, as always, I invite your feedback. So here it is, then, the inaugural edition of Listening Post.
This shouldn’t work. Some guy recites free-verse poetry over indie-rock guitars, occasionally abandoning his own verse to use that of Sylvia Plath’s. There’re songs about fossils and androgyny and the symbolic power of colors. Oh, and of the seven band members listed on the album sleeve, someone named Wojtek Dmochowski is credited with “Dance.” It should be terrible. But for thirty years The Blue Aeroplanes have been pretty fantastic. They hit an early 90’s high-water mark with Swagger (1990) and Beatsongs (1991), and I probably could’ve featured either (or both) here. But Swagger, their fourth album, was my introduction to the band, and remains my favorite.
You get a pretty good feeling for what you’re in for from the offing. Vocalist Gerard Langley intones, “Pick a card, any card/Wrong!” over Angelo Bruschini and Rodney Allen’s film-noir guitars, and opener “Jacket Hangs” lurches into motion.
Langley gets most of the attention, and with good reason. He doesn’t sing, not even in the way Lou Reed and Bob Dylan “sing,” and his spoken-word approach – which should come off like a gimmick but doesn’t – inevitably makes the listener focus on his poetry. It’s surprisingly good stuff, certainly better than a lot of conventional song lyrics, turning on striking sensory images: the “sound of violins drowned in gunfire”; hands that “flutter round the neck/like nervous birds”; the “grass bank ghosts” left by a riverside. Langley doesn’t do anything flashy with his vocals, and his unadorned recitation allows the music to do most of the heavy lifting.
And Bruschini and Allen truly do yeoman’s work on this album. Like I said, Langley commands a lot of the attention, but it just wouldn’t work without the dual guitar accompaniment. They do the bluesy spy-movie stuff on “Jacket Hangs,” unleash an echoing whirlwind on “…And Stones,” work themselves up into a righteous fury on “Weightless,” and exercise some sheer pop smarts on “Love Come Round” and “Anti-Pretty.” And then there’s what is, for me, the album’s highlight: the delicate, pastoral “Your Ages.” Over chiming guitars Langley recites some of the most vivid, affecting verses on the album, urging a lover to take advantage of the time they have: “In ten years everything will bleach to primer/And we’ll lie in the light, grass bank ghosts.” As Langley makes his final exhortation, the guitars pick up the pace and build to a churning crescendo before slowly tapering off. Strong stuff.
There are some other tricks that add to the enjoyment of the album. Michael Stipe guests on “What it Is,” adding some distinctively Stipeian “oh”‘s and “ah”‘s, guitarist Allen takes the mic on the pretty, mandolin-led “Careful Boy,” and “The Applicant” is the previously-mentioned Sylvia Plath adaptation. The band makes the poem its own, turning it into a muscular, percussive tune, climaxing as Langley bellows, “Will you marry it?” The album ends with the relentless drone of “Cat-Scan Hist’ry,” the building storm of guitars and Langley’s repeated vocal line complemented by the squeal of violins and clouds of feedback. This is a band that does a lot of different things well, and they’re all pretty much on display here. Swagger, indeed.