Saturday, October 30, 2010

Heavy Fog: Bryan Ferry's Olympia

Bryan Ferry
I have a lot of respect for Bryan Ferry, a vocalist who's always had a flare for the glamour of the music business. He is classier than David Bowie, for instance, yet not too pretentious. Roxy Music, a band I've been fond of since the late '70s, offered music that was glam-rock, but with atmospherics thrown in for good measure. Recognizing his role as the front man, Ferry chose the high road by presenting himself without any theatrics, in spite of the pink suit he once wore when I saw the band in 1978. The band may have appeared stiff on occasion, but Ferry would soften the group with a dedicated vocal and presentation that was at once romantic and hip. Inspired by the music of Stax artists such as Sam & Dave and Otis Reddin et al, Ferry loved the notion of presenting his music as big as possible, with female back-up singers and reeds usually played by Andy MacKay. 

Ferry was also instrumental in putting a beautiful woman on the cover of Roxy’s albums who was usually a fashion model. But for his solo work he put himself on the cover most of the time to distinguish himself and to allow him to present his favourite cover songs either from the American jazz songbook (These Foolish Things) or Bob Dylan (Dylanesque). This is no less true of Olympia, Ferry's new recording of cover songs produced in his lavish style. The cover features an image of model, Kate Moss, upside down, similar to the Jerry Hall photo on Siren. The album also features stalwart producers Rhett Davies and Johnson Somerset who shaped Roxy's sound into a more palatable, dream-pop configuration. 

This is no less interesting to my ears, but with Olympia it fails on a number of counts. And while the appearance of original Roxy Music member Brian Eno is notable, it’s only because his name appears in the credits on a few tracks. Eno makes no significant contribution to the music that is drowning in over-dubs. The mix is so bad that Ferry can’t be heard on “BF Bass” or “Tender is the Night.” For some strange reason, the lush production values collapse under their own weight. This is a record that’s basically an audio mess: unfocused, over-mixed and suffers from too many participants. The liner notes list multiple guitarists, synth-players and more on top of an 11-piece “band.” And while the participation of Brian Eno, David Gilmour, Flea, Dave Stewart and Marcus Miller looks good in print, the over-wrought mix marginalizes their participation because their voices are suppressed rather than highlighted. 

“Song to the Siren” is probably the strongest song on the record, a '60s classic by Tim Buckley. And while Ferry captures the sentiment of the song, the lavish production values, once again, drown the feeling Ferry so effortlessly tries to express. With the Stax records so beloved by Ferry, the singers were always front & center and backed by a kick-ass rhythm section. On Olympia, the band is often louder than the lead singer which makes little sense on an album by the lead singer.

In defense of the album music critic Richard Williams goes to great lengths to qualify every song on the album by referring to Ferry’s past recordings. But the bombastic liner notes end up repelling the reader from getting any closer to the music. On “Tender is the night,” Williams writes, “ It fades as the plunge and swerves, the drift and skirt, silenced, and another dawn breaks over Olympia.” With all due respect, this is music in a heavy fog.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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