And I admit I’m surprised I made it this far with my blog titles on the concert series before giving into a joke. Had to happen.
The Propaganda set was the best yet from a technical standpoint in terms of viewing online — a couple of small glitches aside the irregular audio and, more often, video lags seem to have been worked out a bit. I’m not figuring they’re going to go away completely but better to have fewer than greater. As for the show itself, another crackerjack — the band seems to be at its most comfortable yet, while Ron busted out the Ron Dance towards the end for the first time in the series. Always good to see.
Somehow Ron and Russell ended up topping their previous album cover with this one – having Russell sprawled coquettishly in the street in front of a nice enough suburban split-level while Ron, dressed in a sleeveless undershirt, tan pants and hat, looked down at the road, would be odd enough, but having both them in that location because of the small crashed plane scattered about them in all directions is a bit unusual, at least. That the back cover shows Russell dressed to the nines in jodhpurs riding a polo pony, attended by a soberly attired Ron while the rest of the band lounges by a Southern California clubhouse pool (or rather, a painted backdrop of same…but everyone looks cozy on the Astroturf) seems perfectly appropriate.
Indiscreet ended up being the conclusion of Ron and Russell’s residence in UK singles hitville, at least at that time. If nothing else they wrapped it up with an emblematic producer of the era – fellow US expatriate Tony Visconti, whose work with Marc Bolan and David Bowie helped define the times as much as anything. It turned out to be an inspired combination since his encouragement helped bring the Maels back a bit to their earliest albums, bringing back out a range that had been hidden a bit on Kimono and Propaganda. It helped that Visconti’s ear for orchestral arrangements was also in top form, and the result is a rich sounding album throughout, a touch crisper in sound as well.
“Hospitality on Parade,” meanwhile, made an absolutely crackerjack beginning to the album, very much recalling the minimal compositions like “Wonder Girl” and “Girl From Germany.” It’s probably their greatest triumph in a Gilbert and Sullivan vein – its closest cousin anywhere might be “The Moon and I” from The Mikado – while the droning keyboards set against a steady piano punch makes a lovely contrast. When the band comes in towards the end, for the first time it’s almost an interruption rather than a sudden twist, a sense of disruption that both captures and unsettles.
The band personnel remains essentially the same from Propaganda, though in ways songs like “Hospitality on Parade” suggest that the Maels might almost have been feeling like the way David Bowie did towards the end of the Spiders from Mars era – aware of the strengths of his support but feeling that more, or at least something a little different, could be done. That tension shoots through the entire album, with the more ‘conventional’ rock-band compositions contrasting sharply with songs like the merry 30s cabaret kick of “Without Using Hands” or the wonderfully energetic big-band recreation of “Looks, Looks, Looks,” combinations that more than once align Indiscreet with the contemporary work of Roxy Music on Country Life – fully appropriate given the similar sense of musical range in the worlds of both the Maels and Bryan Ferry. “Under the Table With Her” is that tendency in excelsis, with string and flute accompaniment the sole musical element to match one of Russell’s most elfin vocals (singing lines like, but of course, “I give a yelp and they throw me a cutlet”). Later years would see this one song diversion be the roots of something else entirely, though that’s a subject for much later on.
All that said, the ear for pop smashes in their own particular vein remains strong, if now just starting to turn into a bit of a formula. Still, it’s almost impossible to complain about the careening blast of “Happy Hunting Ground,” especially the sheer pleasure of the midsong dropout to just drums and vocals, not to mention the followup to the sweetly descending spiral as Russell croons “It’s fair, fair game inside” again and again. Opening single “Get In the Swing,” meanwhile, was an everything-and-the-kitchen sink affair with a marching band strut complete with band majorette whistles, a message from God to his creations and the emblematic line “Well I ain’t no Freud, I’m from LA.”
Ron and Russell’s strengths remains in fine display throughout the album – the former’s melodies stick like glue from almost the first listen, while his performing is as sharp as ever – moments like the electric piano lead on “In The Future” are sudden bursts of merry energy. Russell’s vocal range here is in excelsis, meanwhile – his astonishing range was long apparent, but whether it’s Visconti’s skill at recording vocals or some other unknown quantity, he sounds just spectacular here, from sudden pronouncements on high to low-key cartoony trips and trills.
Lyrically, besides Ron’s portrayals of the continuing desire of the species to interact on various personal levels, Russell’s one songwriting credit, “Pineapple,” is a bonkers highlight, discussing everything from vitamin C content to the all-too-true observation that while schools might want it for lunches, “The kids will throw it real far/’Cause it ain’t a milk chocolate bar.” “It Ain’t 1918,” meanwhile, is practically a Flannery O’Connor short story (or perhaps more appropriately O. Henry), talking about a couple who married in the final year of the Great War but who are so content to stay with the technology and comforts of life as they understood it then that a later generation of St. Louis, Missouri citizens, where said couple live, first attempt to buy them modern conveniences and then implicitly threatens them with death when they refuse. All this, of course, over a (mostly) merry hoe-down of an arrangement, complete with fiddle.
The sleeper hit, though, has to be “Tits” – a thematic sequel of sorts to the previous album’s “Who Don’t Like Kids,” but which in its slow unfolding musical drama resembles the epochal “Moon Over Kentucky” shot full of sequins. For all the celebrations of the female bosom in pop music before and since, it’s pretty unlikely that any song other than this one consists of a married man complaining miserably to a friend named Harry over an increasing number of ‘drinks that are something warm and watered down’ about how the presence of a kid alters a certain dynamic in their household:
“For months, for years
Tits were once a source of fun and games at home
And now she says, tits are only there to feed our little Joe
So that he’ll grow.”