Decisions, decisions. Would I devote this Round and Shiny to the reissue of a classic album that lit up my teen years, I wondered, or to a fantastic new one that makes me FEEL like a teen again? Then it hit me: It's my damn column. I don't HAVE to choose.
The latest box of treasures to thump against our front door included Roxy Music's "Country Life," the Beach Boys' "Surf's Up" and Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried." But the LP that sent me tumbling back to my youth? The 1980 debut by British ska-punk band the Specials.
Produced by Elvis Costello, it's a scruffy delight — energetic, smart, brash, funny, furious and surprisingly hopeful. Some readers are no doubt old enough to recall the brilliant lead single, "Gangsters." With its careening groove and spooky melody, the track could be the theme to some mad Guy Ritchie heist flick. It's about street life and street thugs, a frequent preoccupation of the Specials. But I was surprised, upon revisiting the album, to hear how idealistic it seems, attacking violence, intolerance and teen pregnancy with a bubbling mix of vinegary humor and righteous anger (given contrapuntal expression by Terry Hall's singing and Neville Staple's toasting).
Still, what keeps this record in rotation is its phenomenal sound: the pungent amalgam of primary songwriter Jerry Dammers' stinging organ riffs, Horace Panter's indefatigable bass lines, Roddy "Radiation" Byers' razor-sharp lead guitar, Lynval Golding's ruthless rhythm chop and the swooping horn lines of unofficial members Rico Rodriguez and Dick Cuthell. Cuts like the bouncy "A Message to You Rudy," "Nite Klub" and "Concrete Jungle" still pack a wallop. It's a rough-and-tumble dance party with brains and heart.
The Boston-bred singer-songwriter Bleu (né William James McCauley III) writes huge pop-rock melodies. Fortunately, he also has a voice big enough to hoist them into the sky. His criminally neglected debut album, "Redhead," was chock full of monster hooks (and had the quality-pop imprimatur of co-writers Andy Sturmer of Jellyfish and Semisonic's Dan Wilson, among others). The intervening years have seen him collaborate fruitfully with other artists; put together an homage to Electric Light Orchestra, L.E.O.; toss off a goofy holiday collection; and even pen a number for the Jonas Brothers.
But the new set, "A Watched Pot," marks the return of full-strength Bleu. With his riveting dynamics — he can fly from a basement whisper to a penthouse wail in the space of a heartbeat — and unfailing instinct for a satisfying chorus, he reminds us what's largely missing from today's crop of tasteful tune-mongers: commitment. Indeed, Yeats' formulation "the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity" pretty well describes the post-millennial popscape, but Bleu is a true-blue exception. In a field of artists who'd prefer to bunt, he swings for the fences.
In a field of artists who'd prefer to bunt, Bleu swings for the fences.Witness the utterly irresistible "Boy Meets Girl," which ingeniously frames a romance with a collage of radio references: "It's like Twisted Sister/ Meets Mr. Mister/ It's like Shout at the Devil/ Meets Careless Whisper/ It's like Motörhead and the Grateful Dead in a game of Twister." The refrain is a canny distillation of how the genders meet on the goofy playground of record collections and chart hits. But it's also a breathless, unironic paean to the way songs blasting out of speakers make us feel (to quote Jonathan Richman) a rockin' modern love.
"A Watched Pot" is stocked with plenty of other tasty morsels, such as the gorgeous "There's No Such Thing as Love," the go-for-broke Philly soul of "Kiss Me" (replete with disco strings) and the R&B loverman plea "I Won't F*** You Over (This Time)." Bleu is particularly at home with the meaty midtempo ballad, and he luxuriates in the swells and storms of "Go," "When the Lights Go Out" and "Come 'N' Go," his startling voice working miracles of nuance and phrasing.
Bleu begins a weekly residency at L.A.'s intimate Hotel Café on June 30, with weekly guests including Drake Bell, Mike Viola and Jellyfish/Beck/Moog Cookbook veteran Roger Manning. Having experienced his explosively emotional live show, we couldn't recommend it more highly. This is one watched pot you'll want to see boil over.