When you are the son of such famous musician as Ry Cooder, it must be really difficult to strike out on your own and make your own mark in the world of pop while avoiding the shadow of your parent. I wonder if Joachim Cooder deliberately chose a project that was light years away from his father’s work? Perhaps he didn’t even consider it. I mean, if you are striking out on your own, the best option would be to hook up with some unknown multi-instrumentalist and one of your oldest friends and just jam until you came up with stuff that reminded you of your teens. And then when you have just the right sound, ready to record your debut opus, as it were, the best bet would be to get Pappy to produce said record and play on 3 tracks. Oh, you wouldn’t do it like that? Nah, me either.
However, there is something really endearing about this release. If you can get past the honestly, TRULY AWFUL sleeve (which in itself is no mean feat; what were you thinking, people?), you will find some really nice pop tunes. Despite their spiritual genesis in the nineteen eighties, the songs manage to remain relatively non-pompous-mentis, although the cheesy production doesn’t really do them justice.
Mostly what Hello Stranger have recorded are thirteen synth-driven songs that feel like they are being played by a 1980s TV producer’s idea of what a futuristic band might sound like. You can picture the scene in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century where our hero walks into a bar and a female singer scantily clad in aluminium foil croons over futuristic synth sounds. Hello Stranger don’t sound quite like this but one does get a sense that they wouldn’t mind if they did.
Hello Stranger consist of Jared Smith, Joachim Cooder, and Juliette Commagere, and their press release would have us believe that they are a relatively new outfit. In actuality, they used to be known as Vagenious until fairly recently. I can’t imagine why they changed their name. Because Hello Stranger sounds soooo much better. Why is this important? It is important because it highlights the lack of ability to self-edit; Hello Stranger are missing a “this looks/sounds like crap” filter. While they have a number of quite good ideas, they are stamped upon by the band’s failure to pan their river of creativity for golden musical nuggets; we are presented with the stuff silt, rocks, and all.
This is a real pity, actually, because once you get past the we-love-the-eighties façade, Hello Stranger are quite good. Stripped of most of the funky fromage that is present on the preceding tune, “Kubrick Eyes”, “Learn Again to Feel” is a dreamy piano-led ballad that allows Commagere’s vocals to really come to the fore. Similarly, on the final track, the languid, country-soaked “Let it Ride”, the band slip into a more comfortable mode that just doesn’t sound so forced. Here it all comes together; it is somewhat of a shame that I had to put up with the polyester pop that preceded it. Indeed, the other songs are also good but the sounds used to produce them let them down.
Therein lies the trouble: the 1980s were so twenty years ago. It would be lovely if we could just put its monsters behind us and get on with the matter in hand: living in the now. Sure, the Moog was way cool when it first came out, but things have moved on to some extent. If only Hello Stranger would put away the old gear and allow their potential to shine.