Production sure did ruin a lot of musical instruments in the 1980’s. It ruined snare drums, which it insisted on watering down in so much reverb that, in any given standard 4/4 rock song, the echo from the beat on the first third note would still be floating obnoxiously around the speaker by the time the next one came crashing, making every snare strike the aural equivalent of one of those inflatable punching bags that, after being punched, falls backwards until it’s almost out of sight before popping up in your face again, tauntingly; it ruined electric guitar solos, look no further than Steve Vai or Eddie Van Halen for documentation of this; I’m pretty sure it ruined keyboards, but can’t be bothered at time present to look and see if keyboards and “synthesizers” are actually two different instruments; and finally, it ruined vocals, drenching them in similar quantities of pointless ambient reverb to the aforementioned snare drum, and in the case of Fra Lippo Lippi and several others, somehow managing to turn even the simplest of phrases into a drama queen’s desperate plea for attention.
But while guys like Morrissey and Robert Smith were both occasionally deserving of a sound and thorough thrashing for their juvenile laments, both got by in the big picture because underneath that whiny, woe-is-me exterior, it was very obvious that a genuine sense of humor did lurk. Their particular brand of humor has caused this consumer’s eyes to roll more times than gleam, perhaps, but I could never really hold them accountable for much, because at the end of any given album I just could never bring myself to take them for anything more than musically apt bozos, embodying in the flesh what Smokey Robinson was on about when he sang about the tears of a clown.
Fra Lippo Lippi’s Per Oystein Sorenson seems to have possessed no such sense of humor. Listening to Songs, the CD re-release of their 1986 album, I found myself waiting endlessly for some sort of punchline, some great moment of levity to lift the weight of lyrical eye-rollers like, “Where is my thought and inspiration?/And where are all the good intentions?/I can’t express myself no longer/Strangled by lies and disbelief,” but nothing came. Sorenson is not a particularly effective singer, which could well be because his songs are in English and he’s a non-native speaker, but nevertheless, phrasing does not come naturally to him, and as a result, a good deal of the lyrics sound ridiculously forced and consequently rather insincere. “Coming Home,” from which the above quotation is lifted, is designed as a ballad of personal reflection and realization, but ultimately comes across sounding like the token sad song in a high school musical; rather than a genuine expression of the artist, it sounds like a calculated part of a plot sequence. And unable to be carried by humor or eloquence, much of the music on Songs ends up too void of personality to transcend its own bleakness.
Which is a shame, because in many places, the musical soundscape of the album is really quite gorgeous. The production is dated to the point of intrusiveness - many of the instruments are doctored so heavily in reverb it almost sounds a guise for crappy equipment - but underneath that, Songs boasts numerous passages of highly enjoyable piano playing and vocal melodies that would have been resoundingly strong in the hands of a better singer. “Leaving” is placid and warm with ambience, intertwining pianos and vibraphones in a remarkable beauty that might well have been a blueprint for a latter-day Mogwai or Sigur Ros, but is ultimately ruined by the same kind of abysmal lyrics that ruin much of the rest of the record. “Shouldn’t Have to Be Like That” has a fantastically catchy melody that puts one in the mood to dust off one’s copy of The Queen is Dead and invite all one’s friends over for a good old-fashioned group cry, but that’s at the same time its greatest weakness; it doesn’t succeed on its own merits, but instead makes you want to pop in a record by one of any number of other groups who did it better, catchier, and with more resonance.
The CD release features a handful of live bonus tracks that sound splendid, and will be of great interest to the Fra Lippo Lippi enthusiast, but won’t do much for the conversion of he who made it through the entire proper album and found himself so depressed that he had to go purchase a Partridge Family album just to feel better about things. Many of the live tracks are replicas of those which appeared on the album, with little variation in presentation between versions. A few of the live versions are a bit speedier, but Sorenson’s singing doesn’t become much more convincing in a concert setting, and as such most of these accessory tracks fall victim to the same trappings that mar their studio counterparts.
But these are all analytical beefs; one the whole, Songs is meant to be a sonically pleasing record, and it succeeds, with an asterisk in the record books in that it takes some forgiveness for its production, a bit more forgiveness for its lyrics, and a little more yet for being so damn depressing. I’ll certainly be glad to get it out of my CD player, open the shades, let in the sun, and enjoy the rest of my day off. Hell, maybe I’ll throw in a Partridge Family album and go for the whole heart attack. I presume Come On, Get Happy is available on a remastered CD with bonus tracks these days?