Friday, November 30, 2007

The Bongos - Drums Along the Hudson

What is the perfect pop song?

In the aftermath of the punk implosion, when it was cool to actually know how to play your instrument again, The Bongos burst forth from the mean streets of Hoboken, New Jersey, asking that very question. What is the perfect pop song? Combining driving acoustic guitars and throbbing bass with edgy, often quirky song structures, nearly impenetrable lyrics and the perfect-pitch, quavering tenor of Richard Barone, Drums Along the Hudson emerged as their answer.

Hanging onto the D.I.Y. ethic of punk, but abandoning its posturing for craft, The Bongos created beautiful post-punk melodies, dripped in honey and wrapped up in the guise of pop songs. Drums Along the Hudson, collects their initial singles and serves as their first full-length L.P. Recently reissued by Cooking Vinyl, and blessed with the inclusion of a literal ton of unreleased live tracks and a new mix of “the Bulrushes” by Bongos fan Moby, Drums Along the Hudson is a must buy for any fan of power pop.

Whereas other bands of the time, like The Beat, or the Plimsouls infused basic sixties song structures with a new found energy, The Bongos favored offbeat song signatures, unexpected tribal drum breaks, punchy guitars and avant-garde sax riffs. “In The Congo,” starts off with a stuttering electric riff, before the acoustic guitar bursts forth, strumming the song to a frenzy. “The Bulrushes,” perhaps the Bongos most beautiful melody (apart from “Sweet Blue Cage” from the Numbers with Wings EP) thrives off the acoustic guitar, the strumming keeping time for Barone’s lyrics of vague religious epiphany. At all times, the excellent rhythm section of Norris and Giannini never falters, propelling the song forward.

Now, don’t let all this talk of acoustic guitars lull you into thinking that this is folk music. The Bongos rock with the passion of the Minutemen, the acoustics offering a unique aural texture to their punchy songs. Lyrically, the Bongos can express great sentiment or sinister mystery, often within the same song. On "Telephoto Lens," hiding behind a war drum intro and a staccato guitar burst, Barone’s sweet, innocent tenor sings, “Telephoto lens/Alone in the City/I’m making some friends/tonight,” adding a new twist to urban voyeurism. The meanings of other songs like “Clay Midgets,”” Video Eyes, “and “Certain Harbours,” are anybody’s guess.

But again, don’t let the slanted lyrics lead you to believe that the Bongos are obtuse or inaccessible. The exact opposite is true. The absolute simplistic pop beauty of “Hunting,” and “Zebra Club,” are as readily accessible as anything by Squeeze or Talking Heads. This is quite simply beautiful music, catchy, punchy and fun.

The strength of the original release of Drums Along the Hudson propelled the Bongos to go on and sign with a Major label, where they released the tantalizing Numbers EP and their only true full-length LP, Beat Hotel before they were lost to time. Richard Barone went on to craft an adventurous solo career, while the other members broke off to other projects, yet still, the Bongos music lived on. Now thanks to Cooking Vinyl, we can all relish once again in the sumptuous melodies of some of the early eighties most perfect pop songs.

–Racer X

Buy here: Drums Along the Hudson

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