Saturday, October 12, 2013

Picture This, Album That?: Yuppie Rock Comes Of Age

You know how, sometimes, a band's initial commercial breakthrough album might actually be stronger (or at least less over-exposed) than the blockbuster album or albums to follow? Maybe the breakthrough album created the hype, and the follow-up album merely cashed in on the momentum? Take Madonna. Her self-titled debut peaked at #8, while Like A Virgin peaked at #1. Well sure - how were people supposed to know who the hell Madonna was when she hadn't even made an album? Sometimes you need that first hit record to generate word of mouth. Still, let's face it, I mean, Like A Virgin's pretty terrific, but it's no Madonna.

This phenomenon probably occurs with greater frequency in rap. Was Wu-Tang Forever better than Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)? Was It Was Written better than Illmatic? Was Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life better than Reasonable Doubt? And yet, the follow-up albums all peaked at #1, while the debut albums peaked at #41, #12, and #23 respectively. This can even happen with entire careers. I'm guessing that few Cure fans would call Wish the band's best album, and yet it went to #1 in the UK and #2 in the US while their more influential early material barely scraped the American charts. See also: New Order and Republic, Depeche Mode and Songs of Faith and Devotion, and Metallica and ... everything post-80's? Although I actually like the Black Album.

All of which is roundabout way of saying that, maybe it wasn't the juggernaut that Sports and Fore! were, but I'm thinking that Picture This, Huey Lewis and the News' second album, might be a sleeper gem. It is, quite possibly, the group's loosest, punchiest, most consistent, and ... best album? The whole platter just goes down so smooth. Also, bonus points for the absence of any awkward gimmick songs like "The Heart of Rock & Roll" or "Hip To Be Square." Both Stephen Thomas Erlewine and "Patrick Bateman" seem to be on the same page this time around. Erelwine writes, "By incorporating stronger elements of R&B and doo wop (their cover of "Buzz Buzz Buzz" is first-rate) and embracing pop to a much greater extent, the News find their own distinctive sound -- clean-cut, steady middle-class rock & roll." Bateman observes:
The sound, though still tinged with New Wave trappings, seemed more roots-rock than the previous album, which might have something to do with the fact that Bob Clearmountain mixed the record or that Huey Lewis and the News took over the producing reins. Their songwriting grew more sophisticated and the group wasn't afraid to quietly explore other genres - notably reggae ("Tell Me A Little Lie") and ballads ("Hope You Love Me Like You Say" and "Is It Me?"). But for all its power-pop glory, the sound and the band seem, gratefully, less rebellious, less angry on this record (though the blue-collar bitterness of "Workin' for a Livin'" seems like an outtake from the earlier album). They seem more concerned with personal relationships - four of the album's ten songs have the word "love" in the title - rather than strutting around as young nihilists, and the mellow good-times feel of the record is a surprising, infectious change.
You took the words right out of my mouth, Patrick - and please put that chainsaw away. It's like the engineer turned off the "Knack" switch and flicked the "REO Speedwagon" switch instead. Forget the "yer average band" schtick; this time, Huey Lewis and the News are larger-than-life arena rock demi-gods. Enough of that bare-bones minimalism shit; now we've got an endless supply of guitar echo, multi-tracked vocal overdubs, and synthesizer embellishments. True, Picture This may have a more muscular, beefier sound than the debut did, but rather than making the band sound glossier, I'd say these more contemporary additions simply make the band sound livelier.

Check out the sweet, slow sway of "Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do," (curiously, a minor hit that peaked at #36):

Get a load of the biting reggae groove that is "Tell Me A Little Lie" (eat your heart out, Sting):

And if you thought the News were eagerly shedding their bar band street cred in a desperate bid to go Top 40, "Workin' for a Livin'" ought to put those fears to rest. The lyrics, chanted over a rhythm that sounds a little like Nick Lowe's "They Called It Rock," paint a pretty bleak picture of life as lived by the world's most inoffensive rock band:
Bus boy, bartender, ladies of the night
Grease monkey, ex-junky, winner of the fight
Walking on the streets, it's really all the same
Selling souls, rock n' roll, any other game

Whoa Nelly! Still, nothing may prepare you for the epic Springsteen teenage male bonding pastiche "The Only One":
He was always the toughest kid
But he never meant no harm
But looking back I could see his fate
Was tattooed on his arm
Walking through the courtyard
Always there to be seen
He and little Janie
Together they were the king and queen

He was the only one, who ever really knew
He was the only one, what can we do
He was the only one, he always showed us how
He was the only one, where is he now

Three years later at the bus stop
I know I'll never forget
He looked smaller in real ways
As he bummed a cigarette
And I asked him what he'd been doing
And how's little Janie anyway
Seems he was drunk
They had a fight
Janie got hurt and they took him away

I heard about the accident
There's not much left to say
He wandered out in the middle of the freeway
It must have happened right away
And I thought about what a shame it was
Now that it's all said and done
And it may sound strange, but even now
He's still the only one
Springsteen scholars often talk about the potentially homoerotic undertones to songs like "Backstreets." Well it sounds to me like Huey might be expressing a little too much fondness for this high school buddy of his. Was Huey Lewis ... a pioneer for gay rights? And what's the deal with the "Leader of the Pack"/"Dead Man's Curve"-style "accident"? Did he just stumble drunkenly out onto the freeway one night? Who does that? I mean, anybody who does that probably deserves to get hit anyway. Or maybe he committed suicide. Or is Huey saying he drove out in the middle of the freeway and got in a car accident? We need answers, Huey. We need answers!

But before you've even had time to recover from that searing adolescent saga, Huey and the boys hit you with an album-closing cover of the Hollywood Flames' 1957 doo-wop classic "Buzz Buzz Buzz." Talk about pulling a 180. Imagine if REO Speedwagon ... could also play doo-wop!

Seriously, what more do you want? Oh I forgot, there's also this little ditty called "Do You Believe In Love." Erlewine describes the band's first big hit (written by AC/DC/Def Leppard/Foreigner/Cars producer and future Shania Twain husband Robert John "Mutt" Lange) as "a stunner, a tight set of polished, anthemic hooks that is one of the best mainstream pop singles of the early '80s." Who else besides Huey Lewis could make the line "I wanna love you all over" sound tender instead of lecherous? And who else but Huey Lewis could make a video featuring he and his band members serenading a woman in her bedroom seem sweet instead of disturbing? Well, some of our YouTube friends may have a different interpretation:
All together now "Gangbang" !

Poor, misguided girl from the 80's. She doesn't believe in love OR orgies.

Coffee and the morning after pill. A remedy for any Huey Lewis and the News sex-train.

You know, if I were a lady, and I woke to find Huey AND the News in my bed.....I think I'd be okay with that.

She bought a king size because you never know when a 6 man rock band will want to get into the bed with you

Sure, the video seems happy and upbeat, but what you probably didn't know is when the camera faded to black, the lady pulled out a gun and shot herself in the mouth after years of being harassed by six men singing to her nonstop.

This is a great band and a terrific song, but what's really interesting about this video is the hair. The News were gradually transitioning from the long shaggy hair of the 70's to the shorter more tamed hair of the 80's. Obviously, the mullet was the intermediate step.

Bottom line: Sports and Fore! may get all the nostalgic pop culture attention, but come on, folks, this is the one you want.

1 comment:

David said...

I thought "Tell Me a Little Lie" was a Men at Work song. Seriously.