Intelligent and idiosyncratic 50s inspired rock-n-roll.
Scottish band The Strange Blue Dreams release their second album of genre-defying curios: ‘Simple Machine’. Recorded before the big C and languishing on a shelf for a couple of years, there was fortunately no risk that this music might date or miss some passing bandwagon. As the band’s website cheerfully proclaims, this is a serious mash-up of styles and sounds combining (according to the record label) “Doo Wop, Bollywood and Spaghetti Western themes with Joe Meek’s reckless invention”. It could be the next new sound or simply sound like nothing else.
That’s the easy bit done – yes, it’s eclectic and unique, but what does it actually sound like and is it any good? Well, actually there is a strong 50’s aesthetic here and a continuity to the sound coming from the tremolo, twangy guitars and the ‘doo wop’ backing vocals. And while a love of early rock-n-roll seems to underpin everything on this record, it’s got a personality of its own. For example, the title track ‘Simple Machine’ takes a 1950s crooning ballad complete with sweet pizzicato guitars and dreamy melody and twists it into something darker. Jazzy notes, discordant chords and weird sounds work to unsettle the song, rather as though Tom Waits had taken over production duties. ‘Strange Paradise‘ and ‘For My Sins‘ follow a similar recipe – the foundations of both songs could be turned into something fairly conventional, but the band seem determined to defy expectations.
Listening to the lyrics provides a clue to this approach. If there is a theme to these opening songs it seems to be about the lost promise of modernity, the jaded technological optimism of the post-war period. ‘Simple Machine’ opens with the lines: “I’m the wonder of the age, I can make your life complete, I can measure I can gauge, build the world you wanna see, I’ll give you anything you want, take your troubles, lift the load in your cart, but I’m a simple machine, when you take me all apart.” With the robot image on the cover, it’s hard not to think this is commentary on the directions technology is taking us. On ‘Strange Paradise’, they sing “I used to dream I’d wake up in a wonderland, Of flying cars and harmony”, before the lament “In this strange paradise, Ours is not the power to be questioning why, Am I fool, am I wise, Is this myself or my disguise? Can I stay? In this strange paradise”. The twisting of the 50’s sound and look (including in some videos) takes on another meaning – more than musical nostalgia, but something deeper.
Inventiveness is generally a good thing, and there is plenty on display on this album. These are carefully crafted arrangements, with lots of nice moments and interesting sounds. Still, the barrage of musical ideas – delivered with verve and commitment – can sometimes be fatiguing over the course of a number of songs. Thankfully the album has some welcome quieter and simpler moments. ‘A Space is Hard to Find’ is mostly picked guitar and vocals, providing a more intimate and reflective vibe.
The Strange Blue Dreams have made a unique and satisfying album. It will be interesting to see what they come up with next.