Graded on a Curve:
Roxy Music,
Flesh + Blood, Avalon

We conclude our series spotlighting Virgin and UMe’s fresh reissues of Roxy Music’s studio discography with the last two in the chronology, Flesh + Blood (1980) and Avalon (1982), both available July 1, and don’t forget; the entire run is offered as half-speed masters. Taken together, this final pair of LPs effectively represent the band’s late period, while simultaneously presenting a contrast in quality.

After dishing a remarkably consistent span of albums between 1972-’79, Roxy Music began the ’80s with something of a creative stumble. While acknowledging that the band’s studio work is often divided into three distinct phases- the S/T debut and For Your Pleasure (i.e. the Eno-era), followed by Stranded, Country Life and Siren (the only three with a stable lineup), and last, Manifesto and the two under review here (the post-hiatus LPs), it’s also useful to isolate the last two, largely because of the obvious streamlining alongside Roxy’s breaking away from a few of their established discographical patterns.

Foremost, Flesh + Blood opens with a version of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” the first of two covers on the album, additions that can’t help but suggest a scenario nearer to what Ferry was up to on his covers-dominated solo albums; please understand that no other Roxy studio LP features any material that wasn’t at least co-written by Ferry. It’s a development insinuating a shortage of ideas on the singer’s part, if not the band’s, as three of Flesh + Blood’s songs were co-penned by guitarist Phil Manzanera.

Roxy once made a habit of bursting forth energetically on their albums, but with drummer Paul Thompson gone, a departure that tightened the core lineup to a trio of Ferry, Manzanera and saxophonist Andy Mackay, the music became firmly rooted in the zone of pop refinement. That is to say, “In the Midnight Hour” is given a decent enough treatment, but it’s notably lacking in soul grit.

Refinement? “Oh Yeah” is positively swimming in it. On the plus side, Ferry seems fully engaged. However, the downside is songs that run low on instrumental personality, sounding little like peak Roxy (when the guitar solo arrives in “Oh Yeah,” nothing audibly tips off that it’s Manzanera). Rather, the sound falls securely into the territory of ’80s sheen, even as the next cut is something of a disco holdover. But hey, at least “Same Old Scene” captures the band firing on full cylinders.

And yet, the song establishes slippage in how contemporary styles were applied in Roxy’s overall scheme; for a long stretch, they were pretty firmly on top (if not necessarily ahead) of musical trends, but Flesh + Blood captures them on the brink of falling behind. But then, right on time, the art-pop-tinged title track and the lounge-funky “My Only Love,” the latter complete with alternately darting and wailing guitar and injections of sax smolder, deliver an upswing to end side one.

The momentum isn’t fumbled on the flip, where the glistening-gliding slice of ’80s pop “Only You” flows directly into the record’s other non-band original, The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” which gets an art-funk revamp. Of the two covers, it’s easily the stronger of the two, eschewing the predictable in favor of an imaginational flex. From there, “Rain Rain Rain” works up a slinky-spongy groove that’s over too quickly, though “No Strange Delight” exudes enough sophisto-bounce to keep the positivity rolling. That leaves “Running Wild,” which doesn’t frankly, instead upping the erudite for the record’s close.

Flesh + Blood’s lesser stature, while far from disastrous, didn’t portend well for Roxy’s future, but Avalon is something of a bounce-back, or maybe better said, an upward climb, existing safely inside the realms of mature smoothness. The edge that was tangible across the ’70s records remains absent, and missed, but it’d surely be worse if the band forced the issue.

If nothing on Avalon hits the highpoint of “Only You” (the title track does come close), the record benefits greatly from consistency in songwriting coupled with a sound that lands firmly in the post-new wave ’80s pop zone. And if the edge is missing, opener “More Than This” establishes a sound that’s sturdy, and lively, and likely to appeal to folks into Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

The energetic “The Space Between” maintains the band’s art-funky streak with subtle touches of Talking Heads in the mix. “Avalon” comes next, settling down and introducing an interweaving of melancholy and prettiness that’s nicely enhanced by the backing vocals of Yanick Étienne. But even here, the song has backbone, particularly in the latter portion as Étienne’s voice soars.

As outlined above, Avalon lacks any cover selections, but it does offer a more productive wrinkle, namely two short pieces sans vocals, “India” on side one and “Tara” on the flip. Rather than space fillers (neither breaks the two-minute mark), both add value. “India” is a showcase of guitars (Manzanera’s plus Ferry on guitar synthesizer), segueing into the tough and noirish “While My Heart Is Still Beating,” while “True to Life,” synth and sustain-laden and retrofuturist-tinged, gets followed by the mingling of Mackay’s soprano sax and the sound of surf in “Tara,” the piece lending the LP a drifting finale.

Further proof of Avalon’s reenergized core trio comes via inspired percussion (specifically, an army of faux-handclaps) in “The Main Thing.” And after an extended instrumental buildup of its own, “Take a Chance With Me” shifts gears into a catchy and robust mid-tempo with appealing guitar and keyboards. That leaves “To Turn You On,” which spotlights Ferry’s always impressive croon; there are even quick flashes of that quaver of old.

A final observation: Roxy Music’s sense of weirdness is long gone on Flesh + Blood and Avalon, and like the edge mentioned above, ‘tis missed. But even so, the albums do make a solid case that if you can no longer be weird, then by all means, be unflappably suave.

Flesh + Blood
B-

Avalon
B+

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