Most pop comebacks, particularly recent ones, are pathetic. Disastrous. Mortifying. (Case in point: Bauhaus.) So when Blondie, a band that defined new wave while somehow managing to maintain street cred, reunites after almost 20 years to release a CD of new material, should we be cringing in our seats? Could No Exit be a smart move on the part of the new record company or a mercy release?
The New York phenoms captured the quintessential candy apple, zebra skin, CBGB's-meets-Studio-54 vibe, in both sound and image, like few groups of the late '70s/early '80s could. They were figuratively in rehab before heroin was cool, and they relished their status as pure pop hitmakers. And brats. Their response to "Disco Sucks"? The No. 1 single, disco strutter, "Heart of Glass." And while the rest of the group (guitarist Chris Stein, drummer Clem Burke and keyboardist Jimmy Destri) can bitch about it all day long if they want, their snarling, sexy, chick frontwoman, Punk magazine cover girl Debbie (now Deborah) Harry is what made them superstars. Her wide vocal range and razorblade-sharp come-hither look helped her oust Farrah Fawcett (and her nipples) as queen of the pinup gals and start some sort of musical revolution all at once. So what happened?
Since the early '80s, Harry has led a forgettable solo career, taken on a few small film roles and spent the last couple of years warbling with a mediocre experimental jazz group, the Jazz Passengers. (Which is not to say she hasn't been a constant source of inspiration for female rock goddesses. She has.) So might there be something to the "it takes chemistry" theory? Considered an innovator within the '70s New York club scene, Blondie released its first record, Blondie, in 1976. Plastic Letters and Parallel Lines followed, on major label Chrysalis, then came megahit after megahit ("The Tide Is High," "Call Me"), platinum LPs and the inevitable-though-sudden split in 1982 -- partly due to infighting, partly due to the rapid demise of Stein, Harry's partner for more than a decade, who had developed a nearly fatal degenerative illness. There's always been a lingering feeling that the band never got a chance to finish, or at least continue, what they'd started. Until now. Stein has recovered, two semisignificant members have been kicked out, and the rest of the original boys have returned. Nearly two decades after its debut, Blondie is once again a group and appears poised to prove it can still make some good music.
There's an undeniable thing that happens with this renewed Blondie, whose members seem to be their Yberselves without becoming caricatures simultaneously. Pretty amazing for a band that has managed to, in the words of a Dazed and Confused writer, "arc the three most significant cultural movements to exit New York in the last three decades: punk, disco and rap." And how can it be that Harry's voice sounds exactly like it did in those days of yore? Amazing. Same floating, pop-ambient sound, highlighted by crunchy guitars and, yes, jazz blips.
The truth is, any one of these songs could have been an outtake from any Blondie album. And, taken apart, they stand on their own.
"Maria," the first single, is extremely catchy, is the worst song on the album and is most likely to be a big hit. The lyrics are lame ("cry" rhymed with "die"), and it's got that '80s-Molly-Ringwald-movie quality.
On the other hand, the title track, "No Exit," is as hot as it gets, what with ominous Gothic organs in the fore and rap on top -- real vampire-gangsta-like. Great choruses, "Bye, bye to another life" and "Who's gonna cry over you?" make for a metal mood worthy of Sabbath. And it's fun to hear Harry rap because she sounds like a British schoolgirl. The cameo by hip-hopper Coolio is welcome.
And an interesting choice, that Coolio. If Blondie had worked with, say, anyone from Wu-Tang Clan, this cut might've smacked of a Pathetic Attempt to Be Cool; instead, Harry and Coolio trade slams back and forth like the two heavyweight contenders they are. Blondie helped bring rap into the mainstream of pop music with "Rapture," and Coolio ... well, he's done his share, too.
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"Double Take," a whispered ballad, shows how Harry still gets out those little Betty Boop vocal ticks and sultry growls with great ease. "Nothing Is Real But the Girl" is spooky but jaunty, in the same way "Dreaming" was. Clever, too, as a lament of the high life, jet planes and money. "Who's gonna love me if I liquidate?" she croons.
"Night Wind Sent" is old-school Blondie. An oblique, pretty song you go back to later, while "The Dream's Lost on Me" is near-country, what with violins and nasty noncountry country lyrics: "Bright as Tijuana / like a dose of belladonna / I could cry but I don't wanna," yeee-hahhh! And "Dig Up the Conjo" could be the companion piece to "No Exit," pseudo-voodoo theme and all, conjo in the bayou or some such thing.
Somehow the nouveau-ska inflection of "Screaming Skin" doesn't make the flesh crawl the way, say, a No Doubt tune may. And in the hands of the masters, such as Stein and company, "Skin" comes across as genuine homage rather than gimmick. (The tune actually refers to Stein's horrible bouts with his illness, during which time his whole body would be covered with blisters.) The lyrics are ironic, and the song has qualities of both the Weimar Republic cabaret songs and reggae.
-- Liz Belile