Monday, March 19, 2012

The Chords - So Far Away

So Far Away (1980) ***1/2

A band as startingly original as their name, the Chords were actually one of the better bands to emerge from the quixotically brief '79-'80 Mod Revival, and like every single one of those power-pop revivalists, will forever live in the shadows of the Jam and the Jam's modfathers the Who.  Unlike many of their contemporaries, though, the Chords had - at their best - both the songs and the muscle to render those comparisons irrelevant, at least for the duration of their best songs.  This is essentially the first two Jam albums beefed up with a twin-guitar attack that enables the Chords to rock more mightily than all but Paul Weller's very finest tunes.  The Jam never rocked this hard (or one-dimensionally); after The Modern World, the Jam actually didn't do punchy mod rave-ups that often, opting for a thinner, more expressively colored pop sound that owed more to Revolver than My Generation.  So the Chords are 'purer' Mods than the Jam were in 1980; the Jam if the Jam really were the hard punks punching out "Substitute" rewrites that some people mistook the Jam for.  And if you're already sick of the Jam comparisons, well, I'm sorry; every single reviewer who has ever reviewed the Chords' one and only studio album has to, because - have you heard them?  Inexplicably, the singer even goes so far as to mimic Weller's colorless bark (why would anyone want to do that?!).  The good news is that this album is easily better than the first two Jam albums (not the rest of the Jam's output, no no no - I'm not crazy!).  Like I said, the presence of two guitars enables the Chords to punch you in the ears with a sound that corrects the thin production mistakes of Weller's sadly one-guitar lineup:  this rocks as hard as any (non-hardcore) punk band of the era - the Buzzcocks or early Clash wouldn't have been ashamed to sit in this company.

At their best the Chords perform what a great punk band should do:  to make the listener think, for the three minutes that it's flowing through the speakers, that this is the greatest song ever by the greatest band ever.  Of course once the thrill sweats off, the rational mind rejects such a thesis, but while they're on, they're on - singles "Maybe Tomorrow," and the even better followup, "Something's Missing," feel perfect:  as perfect as raw, angry intelligent hard rock gets (which, seeing as that's one of my favorite kinds of music, means as close to perfect as music gets to me).  The title track might even roar mightier, the nearly five-minute epic that takes a more measured pace to arrive at a surgingly bitter chorus, and may stand as the band's signature tune.  And then --

-- and then.....

-- and then.....

....the Chords suffer the same problem the Jam suffered on In the City and This is the Modern World:  for every hit there's a miss.  They even have to pad out the original 12-track album with a pair of covers:  Sam & Dave's "Hold on I'm Coming," raves up excitingly enough, but is unnecessary, as is "She Said, She Said," - the lads do a fine job and it's a highly enjoyable listen (how could it not be?  What a great song!), but by no means replace the original (how could they possibly?!).  More problematic is the banality of such material as "What Are We Going To Do?" and "Breaks My Heart," and....frankly, half the album.  As such, the original 12-track album would likely garner a mere three stars, but an extra half-star is appended due to the appendages of bonus tracks that append contemporaneous singles A's & B's, bringing the total of memorable and exciting songs on the disc to an acceptable dozen or so, more or less.  Less, actually, and I should still not give the CD a particularly high grade, except that as I said when this band gets it all right, it's more than just alright - it's as awesome as stumbling across an undiscovered 1966 Who A-side.  And since occassionally soaring to greatness matters more than sustained goodness that never gets transcendent, this album earns a higher score than many technically "better" albums.

And angry young men these south London mods are.    Like the Jam, the Chords lack a sense of humor, but likewise their fierce righteousness only adds to the intensity of their music.  No time to crack jokes while the British welfare state is crumbling to bricks and mortar around you, eh mate?  Songs like the single, "The British Way of Life," paint as grim and bitter as possible a picture of the land of tea & crumpets & passive-aggression behind a veil of clenched-teeth politeness & civility.  "In My Street," may overdo it with the "we're all potential suicides," chorus and its ultra-cynical portrait of English neighbors that smile in your face and laugh when you fall, but hey - life was pretty miserable back in the pre-Thatcherite U.K., wasn't it?  Not that I was there or anything.  I've only got my info second-hand from the one million late '70s punk era records offering one billion complaints. 

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