Thursday, May 8, 2008

a-ha - Scoundrel Days

a-ha - Scoundrel Days
by Ned Raggett

Theoretically any album with a line near its start that goes "Cut my wrist on a bad thought/And head for the door" would have me following the narrator out, then running away. So much for theory.

Scoundrel Days, the second album by the Norwegian trio a-ha, probably ranks up there, somewhere, in my ‘most played albums’ list, assuming some gremlin has been following me around copying down this information. Gremlins are that way, but the larger point stands: This 1987 effort is pretty close to impressed into my skull. Somewhere, somehow, there's a part of me that wishes I was Morten Harket, former Lutheran priest in training, now worldwide pop icon, even if only for a little while, standing above a landscape not dissimilar to the wider-than-widescreen landscape of green fields, distant hills, and blue but cloudy skies on the cover of the album, a fjord behind me or something, filming a video for the soaring title track quoted above and therefore getting the chance every so often to let fly with a huge, pure, perfectly sung, "And SEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"

You laugh, but you're not me.

It's different in Europe, I gather, for a certain generation—there a-ha was a reliable pop fixture for most of the second half of the 80s, one of those simultaneous boy-band/actual-band incarnations that the 80s was littered with (see also Duran Duran and Guns 'n' Roses—and don't give me that look). In America, ask most people about a-ha's second album and you'll be lucky to get a “What?” Heck, ask about the first album and you'll be lucky. Go, "Look, you know, 'Take on Me,'" then while people go "Oh yeah, that video!" in response, take advantage of their distraction by stealing their wallets and figuring out their PIN numbers. These are troubled times after all, might as well take advantage.

I sorta half-remember "I'll Be Losing You" surfacing on MTV briefly in an attempt to make a-ha's initial burst of fame in the States last, but it didn't quite work. It's at once a pity and somewhat understandable—it's a strange song still; in fact the whole album's a little strange. But this song in particular substitutes the clean charge of the first album's impact for a shuffling, roiling punch, driven in part by secret weapon Michael Sturgis, a session drummer whose three appearances here helped cement this album into the pantheon (well, MY pantheon, which is all that matters). The distorted brass samples are like a cleaned-up Yello, but buried in the mix that much more, while Harket himself sings against his overdubbed self, as well as huge samples of sighs and breaths. He eventually delivers what seems like an ending before Sturgis unleashes a massive drum roll and BAM we're back.

I only first heard this album in full when I went to college in 1988—one of the guys on my dorm floor had it, Scott Rafferty by name (if you're out there somewhere, drop me a line). I heard it from him enough times to want to pick it up, which I did on clearance or something at some point that year. Now there's a huge amount of stuff from that time, which I read, listened to, or watched that you couldn't get me to touch now. Scoundrel Days, though, I'll play that whenever. It's a standby album. It's like, I dunno, the Cure's Faith or Lull's Cold Summer—reliable, something that'll make me happy.

I figured out this album had a certain cachet a few years back thanks to a cover version from another Norwegian band. I guess the Kings of Convenience are only remembered now as being some sort of transitional figures for the fame of Peter, Bjorn and John or something similar, but I remember reading a live review that said they covered "Manhattan Skyline," the centerpiece of Scoundrel Days. It's a-ha’s big ol' rock song, riffs piled on in the first part of the chorus after serenely tense verses, Harket's seemingly calm take on a breakup suddenly turning into rage. But this is well-sculpted (very well-sculpted) rage; he doesn't growl or scream in those verses. He wails in perfect counterpoint, which makes the second part of the chorus, when the feedback drops back, the tempo slows down and he turns everything into an operatic aria in miniature (or is it Roy Orbison? Scott Walker? someone else entirely?) I can’t imagine the Kings of Convenience reached those levels—but you know, they recognized “Wait, this song is great!” at least. Which it is.

And yet there's other material on here that is all the more curious. "October," for instance—demi-lounge jazzy synth-pop that begins like calm Organisation-era OMD, but there's still a core melody at heart, at once a swinging tune and something cold and fragile. Harket's whistle during the break gets lost somewhere in the softly drawing murk, confident and chilly. Then there's much of the second half of the album, which isn't filler at all but also is...well, of its time. Things start to blend into each other a bit more, at least structurally, so I focus in on the variations. For instance, the way that the massed vocals on "The Weight of the Wind" work way more for me than the comparable moment on "Cry Wolf." I want to assume that the title of "We're Looking for the Whales" is a result of the band not having English as a first language, but then again perhaps that's just Anglocentric. I'll take the flutes-as-whalesong and the soft synth-beat shuffle starting it all off over a lot of other hoohah out there.

The album’s ending saves it all, though—"Maybe Maybe" is the definition of a perfect trifle, two-and-a-half minutes of sprightliness that I bet the St. Etienne folks have on secret replay somewhere (I'm pretty sure I remember Bob Stanley once praising the first two a-ha albums, so I wouldn't be surprised). "Soft Rains of April," though, there's your album ender, as melodramatically perfect as "Manhattan Skyline" and a bookend to the title track; slow, majestic, a waltz of sorts, but one where one partner is miles away from the other and is so utterly desperate. Hell, Morrissey could have sung this, writing letters, counting down days, years. Everything wraps up with all the music cutting out right after Harket sings one last "The soft rains of April are over," leaving nothing but one repeated, purred "over" that could have ended a contemporary Prince album. (In fact, this came out a couple of years before "Batdance." Conspiracy!)

I haven't mentioned the third song, "The Swing of Things," because I talked about it here already. So read that. Yeah, lazy, I know, but I already said it all once before! And the song’s that good!

Ned Raggett gets all his work—for the All Music Guide, the OC Weekly, Plan B and wherever else he writes far too earnestly—confused sometimes. Then there's his blog, where all the confusion gets worse.



Blogger toddthesecond said...

Ah, but Ned -- what do you think of the marginally more famous debut album?

May 12, 2008 at 11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh that's pretty good too.

May 16, 2008 at 2:41 PM  

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