Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Bongos - Numbers With Wings / Beat Hotel

Way back in 1983, I was a young disc jockey at KSPC FM in Los Angeles. A great time to be in the industry, music was changing back then more than at any other time before or since. Not just bands, but whole new genres emerged overnight; The New Romantics, Synth pop, Gloom and Doom, Gothic, Post-punk funk, LA punk, the Athens sound, Power pop, Rockabilly, Cow punk. It was endless, the variety, the choices, the styles.

So what was a young DJ to do? Being the owner of the prime-time slot on Saturday night, my job was to warm up the party hounds before they hit the road (hopefully not literally) and partied it on til dawn. Get the revelers revved, but not burned. There was only one problem. I couldn't find my vibe. Sure, I liked lots of the tunes coming out at the time, but I wasn't a fan of the overproduced synth stuff, hardcore made my ears hurt and frankly, nobody has ever partied to an R.E.M. record. No, I was a DJ in search of a sound. I needed a mojo.

And the Bongos came to the rescue.

Coming on the heals of their debut collection of singles, Drums Along the Hudson, their new EP Numbers with Wings arrived just in time. Combining the urgency of their prior singles with a lusher production and the benefit of second guitarist James Maestro, The Bongos made a quantum leap forward in terms of craft and musicianship.

From the very first moments of the first track, "Numbers With Wings," its apparent that we're listening to something special. As the muted guitar synth gives way to a driving beat, highlighted by the passionately strummed acoustic guitars, Richard Barone's gorgeous tenor lilts across the melody. This is impeccably crafted pop, beyond the league of nearly every other band of its time or since. The instruments layer effortlessly onto each other, guitar notes here, a rolling bass line there. The result is timeless, a sumptuous transportation of listener into a lush magical land. Guitar pop nirvana.

At his best, Richard Barone always had this ability. Barone's melodies are so sweet, they're like a confection, dipped in honey, dripping in sugar. Never bubblegum or saccharine, Barone's greatest talent is his ability to take this perfect melody and marry it to that essential beat, that exquisite guitar chord, that driving passion. Like Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel, when it all comes together, it can take your breath away.

Whereas on Drums Along The Hudson, the Bongos concentrated on short, punchy songs, brimming with melody, but driven by an undercurrent of quirky time structures and lyrics, here, the band take their time and allow the songs to unfold leisurely, losing themselves entirely in the beauty of the melody. And beautiful it is. Take one listen to "Tiger Nights," and I defy you to find a more beautiful melody anywhere. Now, add to that the fact that the crystal-clear guitars are chiming over a beat full of life and energy, one that can energize a listener, and this DJ suddenly found his mojo.

"Barbarella" keeps things moving briskly, pounding out after one of the most perfect drum beat intro's since the Knack's "My Sharonna." And just when you begin to think that the extra production may have stripped away a touch of the quirky spontaneity that made Hudson so special, the strumming guitars give way to a funky tribal break, drums pounding, Barone's vocals calling in hoots and emotive fits. "Skydiving," oozes out next, percolating over a dynamite funky bass line by Rob Norris, underscored by bongo percussion. A guitar chord. A single note. Shimmering. Glistening. Another triumph in melody and dynamics. "My Sweet Blue Cage," the final song on the Numbers with Wings EP, is pure honey. There's no other way to describe it. Achingly delicious.

Just the five songs of Numbers With Wings should be enough to entice any lover of perfectly crafted power pop to plunk down their hard earned dollars, but add to that the inclusion of The Bongos only real full-length album, Beat Hotel, and it's an embarrassment of riches. For some reason, Beat Hotel at the time didn't seem to generate the vibe it deserved. Perhaps it was the band's return to slightly shorter, punchier compositions that left behind the lovers of the Numbers EP. But, give it another listen. What Numbers had in atmosphere, Beat Hotel has in energy. And underneath it all is that damn perfect Barone melody.

"Space Jungle," launches off as fast and furious as any power-pop of the time, easily on par with the best of the Plimsouls. "Apache Dancing," brings in that Bongos percussion, off-time signatures and a soaring chorus. "Brave New World," steps out as the true successor to Numbers. "A Story (Written in the Sky)" chimes and weaves like the best of the Athens pop. And "Come Back to Me," is simply perfect. In retrospect, Beat Hotel is the faultless union of the quirky themes explored on Hudson fused with the more mature craft of Numbers.

The two-fer CD released by Razor and Tie can still be found without too much digging, but now both albums have finally been added to itunes. Check it out. If you got a thing for that perfect guitar pop sound, you won't be disappointed.

In fact, it just may be the mojo you've been searching for.


Buy here: Beat Hotel/Numbers with Wings

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