Shocking Blue: At Home

[19 September 2004]

By Rob Horning

While the Dutch Invasion never caught on the way the British Invasion did, it still produced lots of great music by a gaggle of bands from the Netherlands who all deserve to better known than they are today: the Outsiders, Q65, Cuby and the Blizzards, the Golden Earrings, and above all, the Shocking Blue. The Shocking Blue achieved a blip of international fame with their single “Venus”, an irresistible and nonsensical confection that stuck them with the one-hit wonder label in America, where none of the band’ s subsequent singles caught on. But the silly mythological trappings of the lyrics and the wall-shaking declamatory vocal style of chanteuse Mariska Veres only hint at the wonders to be found if one delves deeper into the Shocking Blue’s much-deserving oeuvre.

Formed by guitarist/songwriter Robbie Van Leeuwen after quitting the Motions (another excellent Netherlands beat group, whose “Everything That’s Mine” and “For Another Man” can be heard on the Nuggets 2 box set), the Shocking Blue seem like they set out to be the Dutch Jefferson Airplane, with acid-rock guitar, a full-throated Grace Slick wannabe in Veres, eclectic instrumentation, and semi-hallucinatory lyrics about free love, voodoo, California, and the like. But unlike the Airplane, the Shocking Blue never succumb to pretentiousness through either diffuse experimentation or ponderous songwriting. Instead the band churns out pseudo-psychedelic bubblegum, with all the precision and eagerness to please that one would expect out of Katz and Kasenetz or Mike Chapman productions. On At Home, the hooks are copious and clean, fashioned out everything from sinewy sitar licks to vibratoless moaning to recontextualized rockabilly riffs to well deployed silence. Even the instrumental “Acka Raga” is turned from a throwaway sixties-soundtrack groove into infectious ear candy. Van Leeuwen has a uncanny knack for concise fills and quirky musical phrases that stick with you like a jingle, most noticeably in “Love Buzz”, which Nirvana later covered, and “Long and Lonesome Road”, which elegantly pieces together its seemingly incongruous parts in a beautiful Chinese box of a song, which keeps opening itself up to new surprises.

But as crisp and addictive as the music is, Mariska is the real attraction. Not only does she have a superlative shiver-inducing banshee wail, but she seems altogether unencumbered with a knowledge of the language she’s singing in, and when you combine that with Van Leeuwen’s own uneasy grasp of English, you have a recipe for utterly inimitable genius. Mariska delivers her lines full throttle without any regard for the words she’s saying, so “Her weapon was her crystal eyes” from “Venus” is delivered in the same stentorian tone as “Silence is the only sound” from “California Here I Come”. The lack of any attempt to nuance her delivery creates some fascinating cognitive dissonance between the words and how they’re expressed, and this itself becomes a new kind of nuance to pay attention to as you listen. It’s like the feeling the beginning of “Love Buzz” generates: the sinewy riff opens the song, and when the drums kick in, it always sounds for a moment sounds completely wrong, as though they’ve come in early on what can’t possibly been the right count. But while your conviction that the band’s wrong settles in, you realize that they are completely right, the drums mesh perfectly, and it’s you who have been totally wrong. I’ve heard that song a thousand times, easy, and I’m still thrown off by it, and amazed, every time.

Even more intriguing nuances lie in the seemingly inadvertent poetry that emerges from the imaginative syntax. The first few times you play At Home, only the most overt malapropisms and idiosyncratic pronunciations will strike you: “The love ma-cheen makes za wald feel round, makes za woman feel bound” (from “The Love Machine”); “I’m a voman, yes I am, make souls grow wild,” (from “I’m a Woman”); “I need you like a desert needs rain, I vould rather like to die” (from “Love Buzz”). But repeated listens reveal the lyrics to be bizarre and inscrutable on several different levels. What, for example, does it mean to “write your name through the fire,” as Mariska promises repeatedly to do in the song of the same name? Does “Hot Sand”, a song about making love on the beach, really call for an image as apocalyptic as this: “Summer day is over and darkness spreads its mighty wings”? (Does it call for an ominous sitar accompaniment, for that matter?) When she sings “The butterfly and I have a message from the dawn,” in “The Butterfly and I”, what is the message? Is the fact that “love whispers through the air” the message or simply the medium? The more you listen to the album, the more troubling epistemological and psycholinguistic questions are raised. Don’t try to solve them, though, let them hover unresolved in your mind like the Zen koans they are; play At Home until it carries away whatever trivial concerns you have for logic and comprehensibility. Soon you’ll be writing their name through the fire, too.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/shockingblue-athome/