Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Blue Nile, A Walk Across the Rooftops and Hats (Virgin Records, 2012, Collector's Editions)

Just a few months ago, I reviewed The Blue Nile frontman Paul Buchanan’s solo album Mid Air for my blog, so I was totally excited when brand-new Collector’s Editions of The Blue Nile’s first two albums, 1984’s A Walk Across the Rooftops and 1989’s Hats, arrived in my mailbox this past week.  When you’ve spent over two decades listening to music that’s as indelibly crafted as these two albums are, the songs set up residence somewhere inside you, and both of these albums by the quietly lauded Glasgow trio of Buchanan, Robert Bell, and Paul Moore are, without reservation, contemporary classics.  Despite its aura of enchantment, the music is so unassuming and real that calling it genius almost isn’t enough.

The true cause for excitement for longtime devotees of The Blue Nile is the bonus disc that’s included with each remastered two-disc set, both of which feature a generous handful of rarities, remixes, B-sides, and live tracks.  With these two albums in particular, it feels like a bounty, considering that the original track-list for each record was only seven songs per album, clocking in at a running time of just over half an hour.

First, a little history on how these two unique, enigmatic albums came about.  At the dawn of the 1980s, as electronic technology and synthesizers were beginning to dominate the mainstream music industry, a company called Linn had manufactured a drum machine that it sought to find a band to promote.  The Blue Nile became that band, and its first two albums were recorded as a sort of showcase for Linn’s drum machine.  Though released five years apart, the band’s debut and its sophomore effort garnered enough critical acclaim and modest commercial success that Virgin Records picked them up and delivered the distinctive, contemplative sound of The Blue Nile to a wider international audience.

I love the story of how I first discovered The Blue Nile as a teenager living in the sprawling Midwestern suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio.  Aside from the city’s best pop radio station, Q102, my only other link to the greater world of pop music at that time was the lone copy of Billboard magazine that sat on the shelf in Waldenbooks every week at our local shopping mall.  I’d spend an hour browsing through it from cover to cover, poring over the music charts and new releases.  Once, late in 1989, I spotted a tiny, text-only advertisement somewhere in the back pages of the magazine.  “Call this toll-free 1-800 number,” it said, “and we’ll send you a free promotional copy of The Blue Nile’s latest album Hats on cassette tape.”

I had no idea who The Blue Nile were, but I called the telephone number, left my name and mailing address on their recorded answering service, and the free cassette showed up about a month later.  Hearing those songs for the first time was a strange experience for 16-year-old me, who’d grown accustomed to the 80s pop/dance music of the era in which I came of age.  This unusual music by The Blue Nile was dark and moody, pulsing and vaguely shimmering, a stretch for me to connect with back then; to my young and unsophisticated ears, the songs sounded as far away as the country of Scotland did.  Without articulating it to myself entirely, somewhere in the back of my mind I thought, “File this tape away for future reference, and come back to it in a few years when you’re ready.”

Fast-forward to my college years in Boston, when I finally worked my way backwards in The Blue Nile’s catalog and purchased an import CD of A Walk Across the Rooftops at Tower Records on Newbury Street.  Listening to the remastered versions of the seven songs again now, I’m struck by how eccentric and reserved they are at once.  Specific locations are rarely mentioned in The Blue Nile’s songs, opening them up to a universe of associations, but the palette of motifs is consistent and palpable:  rain, traffic lights, railroads, cities and countrysides.  Love-weary or ecstatic people traversing diurnal landscapes.  All long-standing, reliable images and themes, and that’s helped to make The Blue Nile’s albums so durable.  Just when they’ve lulled you into a meditative state of drum beats and guitar hooks and piano notes, they’ll toss in a lyrical surprise; “caught up in this big rhythm” of Los Angeles on “Tinseltown in the Rain,” suddenly “there’s a red car in the fountain.”  The jubilation of a pure pop track like “Stay” is tempered by the solemn, downbeat urban portrait of “Easter Parade” (“I know you, birthday cards and silent music / Paperbacks and Sunday clothes… / And then the people, all running forward”).

The final two songs on A Walk Across the Rooftops, however, have always gripped me most.  “Heatwave” blends Buchanan’s pleading vocals with both cosmic and earthly concerns:  “You live beneath another star / You are pretending love is worth waiting for / You always breathe another air / The rivers in the distance must be leading somewhere.”  The album’s closing number, “Automobile Noise,” constructs a lightly industrial soundscape around its commentary on the meaningless yet hypnotic swirl of capitalist pursuits, “Climbing a ladder to all the money in the world / Watching it blow across the wire.”  Rare bonus songs like “Regret” and the previously unreleased “St. Catherine’s Day” provide the album with a gorgeous denouement here.

Hats is, in my estimation, an even more perfect album overall.  I’ve occasionally played it in my classes when I’m teaching about blues.  The songs on Hats are far from blues music sonically, but their lyrical roots and somber rhythms are based in a similar idiom.  Structurally, Hats is one of the finest pop albums I’ve ever heard, and it might well be the top contender for the very finest.  Its seven tracks seem to move through the seven days of the week, starting with a late Sunday night train ride on “Over the Hillside” and ending with the understatedly joyous celebration of “Saturday Night.”  The album distinctly etches out a trajectory through time, maybe even through a work week, and just as in our everyday lives, “Saturday Night” is its reward (“Quarter to five, when the storefronts are closing in paradise”).

“The Downtown Lights,” the second track on Hats, is probably The Blue Nile’s most famous song, in part due to Annie Lennox’s dramatic rendition of it on her 1995 album Medusa.  A quintessential encapsulation of longing that both embodies and transcends its own era, the song projects itself into a nighttime skyline, drifting over the exquisite loneliness of metropolitan life:

“The neons and the cigarettes
The rented rooms, the rented cars
The crowded streets, the empty bars
The chimney tops, the trumpets
The golden lights, the loving prayers
The colored shoes, the empty trains
I’m tired of crying on the stairs…”

That potent crescendo segues into the slow-drip seductiveness of “Let’s Go Out Tonight,” which the late Isaac Hayes once covered in a soulful nine-minute version.  “Headlights on the Parade” whisks Buchanan and Company back to the main thoroughfare in their hometown of Glasgow, perhaps explaining that song’s shift to up-tempo percussion and sweeping orchestral flares.  One of the package’s previously unreleased bonus tracks, “Christmas,” nestles deep into archetypal Blue Nile territory with delicate bleeps and swoons, amidst images of twinkling holiday lights.

At one point Paul Buchanan had considered titling his recent solo album Minor Poets of the Seventeenth Century, and it would have been an appropriate move, in light of his own lasting and poetic songwriting sensibilities.  Of all the records that get re-released with deluxe Collector’s Edition treatments these days, the two 1980s albums by The Blue Nile are easily among the most warranted and most overdue reissues.  The new audience that will gradually discover and experience these extraordinary songs for the first time absolutely deserves to be found.