College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #293 to #291

293. Cocteau Twins, Blue Bell Knoll (1988)

After Cocteau Twins were given their U.S. coming-out party with the release of the 1985 compilation The Pink Opaque, fans had to wait a long time for a proper new studio album from the trio. Victorialand followed a couple months later, but bassist Simon Raymonde didn’t appear on the album (he was distracted by work on the second This Mortal Coil album), and it wasn’t included on the U.S. distribution deal with Relativity Records that prompted The Pink Opaque. There was an EP and and side-trip collaboration with neo-classical composer Harold Budd that wasn’t officially billed under the Cocteau Twins name, though all three members played on it. Three full years passed — an eon in the lifecycle of nineteen-eighties college rock — before the arrival of Blue Bell Knoll, the band’s fifth studio album. If it took a while to make the album, that was partially by design. Cocteau Twins worked on the record in their own, newly assembled studio because they wanted to explore without the tested patience of others dictating when the creative process was complete.

“We basically were plugging our guitars and pianos and basses into weird bits of shit that we bought and creating sounds out of which our songs came,” Raymonde later explained. “Most people couldn’t be bothered and didn’t want to spend the time doing it. We could. We found it really fun.”

Blue Bell Knoll bears out the value of that deliberate creative restlessness. As before, the band crafts intricate, elegant soundscapes that Robin Guthrie’s rich vocals can drape over like a silken shawl. The shiny title cut and the exuberantly beautiful single “Carolyn’s Fingers” are strong examples. Really, though, everything on the album travels the same elevated path. There might be occasionally divergences hinted at within the mass of music — like the hint of Yazoo-like plinka-plinka tones on “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat” — but descriptions of the individual tracks mostly involves different ways of trying to capture a tingly sort of ethereal (which is the phrase I wrote down after listening anew to “The Itchy Glowbo Blow”). “Athol-Brose” has sounds tumbling over each other like a landslide of glossy pebbles, and “Spooning Good Singing Gum” is a cut set adrift on a sea of caramelized cotton candy. The official lyrics are often indecipherable in Guthrie’s rendering; evocative tonality superseseds discernible pronunciations throughout, which nicely in keeping with the overall aesthetic of dreamlike bliss.

By the time the album was released, Cocteau Twins had signed a major label deal with Capitol Records, and Blue Bell Knoll was given a reasonably robust push. It brought the band to the Billboard album chart for the first time and effectively laid the groundwork for them to have a nice run as mainstays of college radio with a sonic territory that was pretty much all their own.

292. Pat Benatar, Precious Time (1981)

Pat Benatar didn’t enjoy working with producer Keith Olson on the 1980 album Crimes of Passion. Her label, Chrysalis Records, didn’t particularly care. That album was a major hit, logging multi-platinum sales and spending weeks near the top of the Billboard chart. They wanted Benatar to work with Olson again. The only concession was allowing Benatar’s romantic and creative partner, Neil Giraldo, to have an official co-producer credit on the new album. According to Benatar, he’d done a significant amount of production work on Crimes of Passion when Olson essentially checked out of the process. Making Giraldo co-producer on the follow up, Precious Time, simply formalized a reality that was bound to happen. Benatar later explained that Olson’s displeasure with sharing credit led to him removing himself almost entirely from the process.

“As a result, he did even less than he had on Crimes of Passion,” she said of Olson. “On that record he at least had a face of involvement. This time he was much more blatant about checking out. His attitude…was basically, ‘You want to coproduce? Have fun. I’m outta here.'”

Olson’s surly exit gave Benatar and Giraldo exactly what they wanted. Chrysalis execs could content themselves that their chosen super-producer was in the studio buffing everything until it was was rock radio–radio when the duo were actually left alone to largely make the record they wanted. And what they wanted was clearly a survey of everything happening in mainstream rock at the moment. If it were roughed up a little, “Take It Any Way You Want It” could be worthy of Joan Jett, and “Hard to Believe” is like a rawer version of a Cars song. Album opener “Promises in the Dark” comes close to the wondrous bombast of a Jim Steinman production. Even the bland hard rock of “Fire and Ice” feels forgivable because it’s so clearly of the era. Benatar offers a state of union for the United States of Rock ‘n’ Roll, suggesting she has as much right to be declared ruler of that raucous nation as anyone.

A couple covers on the album provide a solid illustration of the lengths and limits of Benatar’s range. “Just Like Me,” a cover of a Paul Revere and the Raiders hit, is uncommonly good example of reimaging a bygone original and claiming modernized ownership of it. On the other side of the lazy Susan, her pass at the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” is mediocre. When inviting a comparison with real masters of the form, Benatar’s shortcomings start to show.

Benatar and Giraldo worked well together in the studio during the making of Precious Time. It was a different situation outside of those soundproofed walls. They’d broken up not long before making the album, and the schism only intensified during the tour that followed. They did reconcile, and their bond was evidently all the stronger for making it through the stormy weather. Around a year after the release of Precious Time, Benatar and Giraldo married. They’ve been together ever since.

291. The Who, Face Dances (1981)

So much had changed since the Who had last gotten together to make a full studio album. Most notably — and most painfully — the lineup was different. Drummer Keith Moon died a few weeks after the release of the Who’s previous studio effort, 1979’s Who Are You, and Kenney Jones, formerly of the Faces (both the Small and unsized iterations), was now ensconced behind the kit. Guitarist Pete Townshend was also growing more interested in his solo career, spurred by the chart success of the 1980 album Empty Glass, which went platinum in the U.S. and yielded a Top 10 single. He later conceded that he’d started holding back his best songs from the Who, hoarding them for future outings on his own. Among the most bruising of the rock bands that helped build the form, the Who were perplexingly partnered with producer Bill Szymczyk, who was best known for helping the Eagles to mega-selling tepidness. In almost every respect, a haze of compromise hangs over Face Dances.

But the Who are still the Who. When every piston is pumping, few bands can match them. “You Better You Bet,” the album’s opening track and lead single, is a corker. Built with nimble keyboard runs, a thumping heartbeat bassline by John Entwistle, and densely detailed lyrics that Roger Daltrey sings the hell out of, the song is a thrilling pop epic of middle-aged horniness. When Daltrey gargles,”But I drunk myself blind/ To the sound of old T-Rex” and then flirty adds, “Oh, and Who’s Next?,” the tracks soars into the stratosphere where only the most irresistible satellites of pop playfulness orbit. “You Better You Bet” was the second song to top Billboard‘s new Rock Top Tracks chart (the first was a typical Eric Clapton remedial-blues-theft snoozer, taken from the album Another Ticket), and it’s plausible that the tally was added to the publication primarily to ensure there was an official avenue available to give the track its due.

The rest of Face Dances suffers from comparison. “Don’t Let Go the Coat” is an especially drab single, and “Did You Steal My Money” could be a discard from the Police’s Ghost in the Machine (Daltrey’s phrasing even has a Sting-link lope to it). “Another Tricky Day” is such generically catchy pop-rock that it’s like it was made to soundtrack a sitcom’s opening credits, probably ending with the show’s lead good-naturedly shrugging (“Another tricky day/ Another gently nagging pain/ What the papers say/ Just seems to bring down heavier rain”). “The Quiet One,” one of two token Estwistle compositions on the album, is a little more interesting for tinkering with sloppy glam rock. Entwistle also handles lead vocals on the track, his warble nicely a complement to the willful raggedness of the music and production.

Although Face Dances was a strong performer, issues were developing within the Who. There were disputes about whether they should tour extensively to support the record, and side endeavors were splintering the band’s cohesion. After Townshend went off to make his next solo album, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, he returned to the Who to find rifts had grown into ruptures. The next album? It was going to be hard.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

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