Friday, December 12, 2014

Album Review: Bryan Ferry, "Avonmore" (2014)

Album cover of "Avonmore," showing a young Bryan Ferry from the 1970's.

This is the cover image that Amazon showed for Bryan Ferry's "Avonmore" before it was released.

Bryan Ferry, mid-1970's, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary.

Bryan Ferry in 2014, still as handsome and well-dressed as ever.
Bryan Ferry’s 15th solo studio album “Avonmore” was released last month, and it’s yet another excellent piece of smooth pop from the former Roxy Music frontman. Ferry’s music hasn’t changed a great deal since 1980 or so, when the rough edges got sanded off of Roxy Music, but he still puts out perfectly glossy, elegant records full of beautiful midnight ennui. Ferry’s solo albums since 1985’s “Boys and Girls” are usually as smooth as a pane of glass, and “Avonmore” is no exception to that. 

“Avonmore” features eight new Ferry originals and two covers. Ferry is in great voice throughout the record. His voice has been burnished by the years, and that brings a certain melancholic quality to it that fits his songs very well. Ferry’s voice now sounds as world-weary as his songs have always been. “Avonmore” was produced by Ferry and Rhett Davies, who has worked with him off and on since the Roxy Music days. There are a lot of layers of sound going on, but “Avonmore” never feels overproduced. Ferry is supported by an all-star cast of musicians, including Nile Rodgers, Johnny Marr, Mark Knopfler, and Flea. Ferry’s son Tara plays drums on all of the songs, except for “Johnny and Mary,” and Ferry himself plays keyboards throughout the album. 

The track listing for “Avonmore” is as follows:

“Loop De Li”: A catchy song, featuring some hallmarks of Roxy Music’s sound, like an oboe and a saxophone. Ferry’s lyrics tell the story of someone caught in a pattern or loop with no way out. Ferry sings, “Well I know you know/we’re killing time/we’re on an up down see-saw/loop de li.” A beautiful portrait of alienation.

“Midnight Train”: There are 9 guitarists on this song! But somehow it doesn’t sound overstuffed, just polished like a smooth river stone. “Midnight Train” is one of my favorite songs on the album. Ferry has a way of making lyrics that could sound like clich├ęs sound fresh. The song is full of romantic yearning, as Ferry sings, “I’ll never know/the meaning of your kiss/midnight train/must it end/like this?” I can just imagine Ferry standing forlornly at a train station, waiting for his girlfriend to come back, looking sad and handsome in a trench coat smoking a cigarette. 

“Soldier of Fortune”: Co-written with Johnny Marr, the guitarist from The Smiths. It has a laid-back insistence. Features some great guitar playing, this time from only 3 guitarists. As usual, Ferry is in pain in this song, as he sings, “I’m going out of my mind/and I won’t be back again.” 

“Driving Me Wild”: This song has something of an ominous feeling, as Bryan sings in the first verse, “My heart is pounding/I’m trembling with rage/I’m wrestling with my demons/on every page.” A woman is driving him wild, and Ferry sinks deeper into anguish: “No dream will ever be the same/everything around me calls your name.” This song has one of my favorite lyrics on the album: “I’m dealing with a feeling/that nobody knows/an unkindness of ravens/a murder of crows.” I knew that the proper term for a gathering of crows is a “murder” but I had no idea until I heard this song that the term for a gathering of ravens is an “unkindness.” Those very loaded terms just add to the unease of the song.

“A Special Kind of Guy”: Ferry is once again lovelorn, as he wishes that he could have the love of the girl in this song. Ferry sings that she needs “A special kind of guy/would take you by the hand/for all the world to see/wish it could be me.” This song is a good showcase for Ferry’s piano and keyboard work. It’s a beautiful song, melancholy, elegant, and yearning. 

“Avonmore”: This is one of my favorite songs on the album. There’s an intensity to the rhythm of the song that I really like, and that reminds me a little bit of the Roxy Music song “Both Ends Burning.” Once again, Ferry plays the yearning romantic, as he sings on this chorus: “I want a love that’s never ending/through all the thunder and the rain/but there’s no sense in pretending/I know I’ll never fall in love again.” Features a lovely saxophone solo from Richard White. 

“Lost”: A slow ballad that features Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits on guitar. Another romantic song for late at night.

“One Night Stand”: A funky song about the possibility of finding love with that stranger on the dance floor. Like “Midnight Train,” this song also features 9 guitarists, but again it doesn’t feel like too much. Ferry sings, “In the mood and in the dark/can you mend that broken heart?” We don’t know what the answer will be, but I’m guessing from the melancholy nature of this album it’s probably no. 

“Send in the Clowns”: Bryan Ferry singing Stephen Sondheim? Sure, why not. Ferry has always had success with unlikely cover versions, from the very beginning of his solo career. This is a lovely version of this standard from “A Little Night Music.” Ferry’s voice adds the necessary pathos, but he keeps it from going over the top. Nice trumpet solo from Enrico Tomasso. 

“Johnny and Mary”: Ferry’s cover of Robert Palmer’s 1980 hit single jettisons the nervous, New Wave energy of the original, drastically slows it down, and strips the song down to its basics. It’s brilliant and beautiful, and it starts with just a murmuring synth line and finger snaps. This version was originally recorded for Norwegian DJ Todd Terje's album “It’s Album Time,” released in April, 2014. I really love Robert Palmer’s version of “Johnny and Mary,” so I was excited to hear what Bryan Ferry would do with it. I love the lyrics to this song, as Palmer paints a vivid picture of this couple: “Johnny’s always running around/trying to find certainty/he needs all the world to confirm/that he ain’t lonely/Mary counts the walls/knows he tires easily.” Ferry’s version plays up the paranoia in the song, inherent in lyrics like “Scared that he’ll be caught/without a second thought.” “Johnny and Mary” moves at a languid pace, stretching out over nearly seven minutes, and I find it mesmerizing. A great ending to a marvelous album. 

My three favorite songs from “Avonmore” are “Midnight Train,” “Avonmore,” and “Johnny and Mary.” If you like Bryan Ferry or Roxy Music, go out and get “Avonmore,” pour yourself a drink, listen to it late at night and let the music wash over you.

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