Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Stranglers - Feline

The beasts from the end of the century adorn themselves with jewelry

Feline (1983) ***1/2

Perhaps the success of "Golden Brown," encouraged the Stranglers to pursue this direction, a complete return to their soft-rock roots that owes precious little to punk or much rock, for that matter.  This album gets short shrift from many fans as boring for that reason, but the elegantly chilled atmosphere and lush melodies are top-notch; anyone who enjoys Roxy Music's swansong Avalon should find much to luxuriate in here, but with more grounded and less ethereal songwriting.  It's deeply European in tone, combining the cold Teutonic elements of synthesizer pop with the warmer Mediterranean touch of acoustic and Spanish guitars.  The band themselves were not wholly satisfied with the blend, and the drum machines mark this as a dated product of the early '80s.  Sadly, La Folie was the last Stranglers album that Jet Black didn't program his drum parts for; the end of a mighty rhythm section is a thing to mourn.  Unlike La Folie, however, this is not an overtly commercial album; the tunes are a tad too arty and abstract, with the emphasis on moody atmosphere more than immediate hooks and choruses.

"The European Female," was the obvious choice for a single, and it did manage to scrape the Top 10; like the rest of the album, it's a lushly chilled ballad, at first glance hook-free and overly reliant on atmospheric, painterly touches.  I do realize that not all European females are sophisticated ingenues breathily intoning in sexily vampirish accents about erotic existentialism, but allow a Yank his fantasies of exotic beauties across the pond, eh?  "Midnight Summer Dream," was another single, which just shows how uncommercial the album was:  Hugh talk-singing a tale of a remote night long ago spent listening to an old man impart wisdom, with the music recreating the appropriately somber and slightly mystical backdrop.  Far superior to either of those, however, was the third choice for a single, "All Roads Lead to Rome," a Kraftwerk rip that in the tradition of "Dead Loss Angeles," criticizes decadent modern American society, but in a much more subtle way with its parallels of ancient Roman society and its chariots and peasants.  It's easily the best track on the album, perhaps because it's the liveliest; the rest of the songs barely creep by this side of lower-mid-tempo.

The other six tracks are of uniform quality and roughly uniform sound:  a bit of a Caribbean rhythm on "Paradise," a critique of modern colonialist exploitation; more emphasis on Spanish guitar when it gets to the chorus of "Let's Tango in Paris" - enough subtle touches to give the album a bit of variety and color, but the songs flow together all as a piece very smoothly.  Too smoothly for a lot of listeners, but get past the snooze factor and you'll find the loveliest melodies on any Stranglers album ever.  Just be forewarned and know what you're getting into:  this is a soft-rock album, full stop.  I believe it was at this point that the Stranglers actually momentarily considered changing the band name, since 'the Stranglers' did not reflect at all the elegant, Eurosophisticate music they were then making.

Of the six bonus tracks (seven on the U.S. edition), they're mostly not worth mentioning.  "Vladimir and Olga," is very much the exception, a hysterical spoken-word Cold War spoof involving drugs and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.  It's the type of B-side that was made to be a B-side in all the right ways, and gave the band material for a running gag that would span three more B-sides (unfortunately separated on several different album reissues; would be nice if someone programmed all four in running order as one uninterrupted track, wouldn't it?)  Also, "Golden Brown," was tacked on as a bonus to the American edition; stylistically it fits on better with the rest of the moody soft-rock here than it did on La Folie, not that it really meshes that well with any other songs in the Stranglers' ouvre.

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