Saturday, 15 December 2007

Top 100 Albums - #50: The Blue Café (1998)

Chris Rea kicks off the second half of our chart with The Blue Café, his second of three entries. After the success of The Road To Hell (1989), Rea sought to consolidate the sound that had made him a transatlantic superstar. Both Auberge (1991) and God's Great Banana Skin (1992) sought to replicate the dark, rocky sound; however, while Auberge barely deviated from the dark formula and subject matter of The Road To Hell, God's Great Banana Skin was a lighter, more pop-oriented effort that divided the critics. The following year Espresso Logic (1993) continued his foray into pop, just as had done with dance in the mid-1980s, and while it produced two hits singles it was not as well received. The next five years saw Rea in ill health, with no new material beyond a soundtrack album, La Passione (1996), and a greatest hits compilation in 1994.

'Square Peg, Round Hole' kicks us off, and already we noticed a return to the classic blues guitar sound. But here it is backed by very modern, electronic drums - it's like he borrowed the rhythm section from Mike + The Mechanics. This is the first time that Rea has brought these two divergent versions of himself together, proving that blues and pop can easily go to get. In reality, this is a proper 1990s rocker, replete with echoey power chords, powerful and just a little bit of shredding. It's a very, very good start.

Mind you, 'Miss Your Kiss' isn't all that bad either. It begins with a five-note distorted riff which drills into your brain, earworming its way in until you form a symbiotic relationship with it. Rea's gravelly baritone, contrary to expectations, hardly seems to clash with his studio-synthesised background noise. The lyrics may be basic - I miss your kiss/ I miss your touch/ Can't get used to it baby/ I miss you so much - but they more than work. Listening to this you feel like you are cruising through America at sunset in an open-top Ferrari - and it's a brilliant feeling.

So far the album has buoyed us up, made us feel good about ourselves. But now things take a dark turn and Rea reveals why he is among the best at what he does, and why The Road To Hell was as good as was said. 'Shadows Of The Big Man' has Rea's creepy voice all over it, a voice which slowly tears you limb from limb while you stand and take it all in. The keyboard parts are perfectly balanced, one low and sinister, the other high and edgy. It's a proper atmospheric rock song, right out of its time but without any of the slushy trappings.

'Where Do We Go From Here?' is an indictment of the consumer culture, set against a muzak-esque backing track. The lyrics successfully depict people being alienated from each other and obsessed with possessions. Lines like They're 34, they're 45/ They're so obsessed with the car they drive/ "Where do they go?" she said,/ "Where do we go from here?" have a subtle bite to them, which might take a few spins to come out but at least they are not preachy. Look out also for the silky smooth bass guitar in the middle section.

'Since I Found You' returns to the feel-good formula, having spent the last two tracks trying to shock us out of our nightmarish stuppor. This is a classic love song, complete with harmonious piano, ride cymbals and bright, melodic chord progressions. Some may call this cloyed or clichéd, but look closer and you'll realise that is isn't. And unlike his work pre-Shamrock Diaries (1985, #91), his voice is not the only get-out-of-jail-free card. His guitar work, which has a lot more slide on it, is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and a nod to your head.

So far, then, Rea has presented us with four very good and one great examples of pop rock without pretentions, slush or nonsense wrapped up with it. 'Thinking Of You' is another four-star song; it may not have the direction of the other five, but it features the same glorious slide guitar (on what sounds like a Fender Stratocaster - and judging from the album cover, probably is). It's a similar story on 'As Long As I Have Your Love'. Here we have some very attractive bass work, some interesting percussion and, as always, Rea's throaty tones. All create a very nice feel despite being relatively insubstantive tracks.

'Anyone Quite Like You' is quite brooding, with its prominent and slide guitar. But before you can catch your breath, it transforms into a deep-hearted pop song with electric drums and synthesisers. The rhythms are bluesy despite the melody having a quite rocky feel to them, it's almost edgy in a controlled sense of the word. The first real sense of error only comes with 'Sweet Summer Day'. This does sound fake and hollow, not just in the drum parts at the start, but the guitar feels lazy. It's like airport music, being played on Spinal Tap's amps. Compared to all that has gone before, it's rubbish.

Despite the obvious blues touches on 'Stick By You', don't be fooled - this is just as guilty. The lyrics are even weaker than usual, and Rea's delivery gives the impression that he not only doesn't care, but that he doesn't care to try. The licks are short and tepid, reminscent of the crap that graced the charts in this period. This is definitely one to avoid, skip over or record over.

'I'm Still Holding On' is a (very welcome) return to form. The guitar is understated, with the electric howling in the background while the acoustic plucks the rhythm part away. The drums are suave, and the cymbal crashes add a jazzy, sophisticated feel to things. Most importantly of all, Rea is putting some effort into the vocals and the lyrics. It's another long-driving song, albeit with a less transatlantic feel to it. If only the title track, the closer, were as good. Instead, it's a continental-style guitar workout, with vocals from the 1940s and guitar work straight out of a tacky Spanish restaurant. It's a poor way to end the album - very poor instead.

The Blue Café is one of Rea's best and most consistent efforts, taking a song structure and sustaining its best features throughout, in the absence of any lyrical concept. Rea's critics will seize upon this and claim that this is Rea in a holding pattern, maufacturing pop rock songs that exist only to replicate his early commercial success. They may have a point which its successor, The Road To Hell Part 2 (1999), but this album is very different. In the first two thirds at least, it's vibrant, it's relaxing, it's compelling - every that Rea can be and is at his best. Things definitely turn sour towards the end, and indeed the album could have done with being a bit shorter, both in the number of song and the song lengths themselves. But overall this is a fine effort from Rea which will stand the test of time.

3.83 out of 5

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