Graded on a Curve:
Roxy Music,
Stranded, Country Life, Siren, Manifesto

Virgin/UMe’s reissue program covering all eight studio albums by Roxy Music is well underway. We covered the initial installments here, and below are hindsight considerations of Stranded (1973), Country Life (1974), Siren (1975), and Manifesto (1979), all out now. And hey, Flesh and Blood (1980) and Avalon (1982) are scheduled to arrive July 1 (separate review to come), with the entire bunch offered as half speed masters. Also of note: the first two are already sold out in the online store at the band’s website, so anybody perched atop the fence on whether to purchase should come to a decision with due haste.

After the release of For Your Pleasure in March of 1973, Brian Eno up and quit Roxy Music. It was Eddie Jobson, formerly of Curved Air, who filled the vacated synthesizer position. He additionally played keyboards and electric violin on the band’s third album, Stranded, which was released in November of 1973, hot on the heels of its predecessor.

I’m guessing many fans rued Eno’s departure at the time and for a long while after, but it was an essentially unavoidable circumstance in combination with another rising inevitability, specifically Ferry’s settling into the role of Roxy’s frontman (rather than merely their lead singer) hot on the heels of recording his debut solo record, These Foolish Things, which was released in October of ’73.

Stranded was a smash in the UK, hitting the top spot on the album chart as it initiated the rise of Roxy’s profile in the US (climbing to a modest 186 on the Billboard 200). The LP showcases Ferry’s utter confidence as a rocker straight away in the opener “Street Life,” and then follows it with a lighter touch in the piano-based balladry of “Just Like You.” Deeper in the sequence, the man gets his croon on in “Serenade” and “Mother of Pearl.”

His bandmates remain active participants throughout the album. Phil Manzanera’s guitar solo soars in “Just Like You,” as he co-wrote with Ferry the structurally wide-ranging (yet unsurprisingly guitar-focused) “Amazona.” Additionally, saxophonist Andy Mackay co-penned (again, with Ferry), the alternately bombastic and sultry “A Song for Europe.” But perhaps the LP’s sweetest maneuver is “Psalm,” a tap into Real Gospel Feeling (a la Ferry’s singing, the churchy organ tones and a rhythmic thrust that’s vaguely NOLA) that never comes off as crass.

Nor does the band’s collective personality get lost in the process. This remains true as the lineup solidifies on Country Life, where the core membership is maintained, with John Gustafson settling in on bass. And it’s immediately clear in the trucking tempo of opener “The Thrill of It All” that Ferry had slid comfortably into his new frontman position like it was a custom made black leather jumpsuit.

But it’s no standard-issue suavity he’s dishing, as the trademark quaver is still in evidence. So is the band’s involvement, with Manzanera and Mackay co-writing with Ferry two songs apiece. Country Life does hint at a couple established patterns, as “The Thrill of It All” gets followed by the more relaxed “Three and Nine,” but counteracting any sense of formula is the bluesy “If It Takes All Night” (with Ferry’s harmonica conjuring a jook joint aura). Also, there’s the baroque-era regality of “Triptych” and the peacock strutting hard rock of “Casanova.”

“Bitter-Sweet” and “A Really Good Time” (which is baroque in a more contemporary, as in post-1960s, sense) continue to evince Roxy’s art-rock ambitions as Country Life effectively extends Stranded’s level of quality. But as if to shake loose the tentacles of enveloping complacency, fifth album Siren opens with their biggest single up to that point, which hit #2 in the UK and stands as their best showing on the US chart ever, peaking at #30.

But “Love Is the Drug” is no sop to the marketplace, as should be screamingly clear by it’s placement in the song order. It is instead a cracking number, something of a party igniter in fact, with funkiness in its corpuscles along with short, welcome bursts of Mackay’s axe (in an era known for toxic pop saxophone). Maybe the best ingredient is the handful of vocal crescendos, with their inclusion reinforcing “Love Is the Drug” as a dependable mood lifter.

What’s nice is how Siren doesn’t falter, as Thompson’s drumming and Jobson’s violin elevate “The End of the Line” (and I swear there is a hint of C&W hiding underneath the surface). Furthermore, Manzanera keeps the art-rock tendencies in the mix during “Sentimental Fool,” with Thompson and Mackay on point in the song’s latter portion as Ferry hits his stride.

“Whirlwind” closes side one with a tough rocker underscoring the band’s influence on the new wave and post-punk just around the corner. And on the flip, “She Sells” starts with a bit of a Beatles nod that’s driven into a glammy-arty near-ELO zone (the springy electric keyboard and Jobson’s fiddle have a lot to do with it). But Siren’s side two reins in the art-rock to a considerable extent, a not injurious turn of events as the record attains a level of goodness that’s roughly comparable to its predecessors.

This sheer consistency (see below for details) is appreciated, mainly because the sound wasn’t stagnating, with Roxy doing their best to integrate the progressions of the ’70s into their sound without coming off like craven trend-hoppers. A lot of this has to do with the lack of anxiety in Ferry’s approach. It was also the third straight LP with this lineup before Jobson and Gustafson made their exit.

A roughly four year break is a dangerous thing for any band, but Roxy came out the other end pretty well, especially considering the upheavals of 1977. They don’t sound rusty on Manifesto, as everyone kept busy in the interim (Ferry released his third solo record Let’s Stick Together the year before), but notably, the opening title track doesn’t come roaring out of the gate; instead, the heat gradually rises before settling into a low simmer. Almost two minutes pass before Ferry’s voice briefly becomes audible, and then nearly another full minute before he begins singing with full force.

The next cut “Trash” also inverts an earlier pattern, as it’s decidedly Cali-new wavy in thrust. Weird. It’s a tangibly pop-rocking undertaking, but overall, Manifesto finds an increasingly mature sense of art-pop sophistication, e.g. the opener and side one’s finale “Stronger Through the Years,” struggling for supremacy with pointed gestures to the dancefloor such as “Still Falls the Rain” (sounding a smidge like the Talking Heads to come), the downright funky “Ain’t That So,” the erudite disco-tinge of “Dance Away,” and the more emphatic moneymaker-shaker “Cry, Cry, Cry.”

Best of all is when the impulses mingle, as in “My Little Girl” (more Heads vibes), “Spin Me Around” (a good one for slow dancing), and my pick for the album’s standout, the buoyant art-wave (with echoes of Robert Fripp) that is “Angel Eyes.” While Manifesto is the least affecting of the four albums considered here, it still it offers enough brilliance to place it in the neighborhood of the excellent. It found Roxy Music roaring back to life and closing out the 1970s in fine, and as said, markedly consistent form.

Stranded
A-

Country Life
A-

Siren
A-

Manifesto
A-

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