Realer Than Real
The point of “reviews” on the web is obviously to pretend to wax lyrically/blabber about something that interests you and that you feel everybody else should know about, ostensibly making connections and sharing a field of interest with other fellow fetishists, while in fact you are waxing lyrically/blabbering about something you find far more interesting, namely yourself. I admit it freely: I will surely be guilty of the same. A random anecdote seems far more pointed if it’s presented along with something seemingly substantial. That’s how it works on the world wide web, for better or (mostly) worse.
Anyway, like many boys growing up in the 80’s, I had a major crush on Belinda Carlisle. And Susanna Hoffs (all of the Bangles, actually, except for the big, tall one), but that’s a different review for later. I never liked Madonna much, so there you go. As anyone can tell you, Belinda Carlisle is a major babe. While Samantha Fox rather forcefully dragged us into puberty in the mid-80s with Touch Me, a track only slightly subtler than Je T’Aime, Belinda represented something slightly more sophisticated, making impending adulthood less frightening. I won’t divulge any secret fantasies I had (and still have) and I am convinced you, my dear reader, will be all the better for it. Belinda obviously had two monster hits with Circle in the Sand and Heaven is a Place on Earth. Suddenly, after slogging around the early ‘80s punk scene with the seminal Go-Go’s, and overcoming the usual addictions, she was a major star. She followed that album with Runaway Horses which in my humble opinion is a MOR masterpiece. Sure, it’s overproduced, but it’s still great. Leave a Light On even features the late, great Dark Horse himself, George Harrison, MBE, on slide guitar. Then followed her third solo album, Little Black Book aside, a relentlessly dull affair, completely lacking in songs, a rather jarring problem for any musician (unless you’re like Fugazi; too hard for tunes). As I remember it, it didn’t do much for anyone, myself included, and sank quietly. Myself, I was busy discovering AC/DC, Metallica, Jellyfish and the like. A greatest hits compilation followed, a perfectly servicable affair, but ultimately begging the question “can songs be this nice?”.
Then, in 1993: Real. Welcome!
Yes, Real is still MOR, AOR, ETC; this in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a myth perpetrated by indie bands lacking sales, production values and, frequently, tunes, that accessibility is bad. No, what really makes MOR rock bad so often is the frequent lack of wit and passion, indeed of any kind of vivaciousness. Take Oasis’ debut Definitely Maybe, as an example; it was a spirited affair, hungry and rough, but firmly rooted in a retro vein, lifted (mostly) from the Beatles. Of course, after half of Bolivia’s GNP disappearing up their noses, a promising artistic (note: artistic, not commercial) career fizzled out in a few notoriously torpid and dull albums.
But I digress. Real is a gem, power pop mined from the same vein as classic Cheap Trick, Big Star, the Ramones, the Go-Gos (duh) et al. It’s full of memorable choruses and soaring melodies. The then-current grunge wave seems to influence somewhat the slow verse/loud, big and in fact, FUCKING HUGE choruses. The first thing to strike you is that it’s less orchestrated, opting for a more straightforward guitar pop sound. Belinda’s voice was always a force to be reckoned with and here it’s displayed prominently, as is right. This is a good thing: She pushes her voice far beyond the climes she inhabited on her last solo effort and on some of the songs contained herein, she pushes her voice to a throaty rasp that you just can’t argue with. Check out her wail on Windows of the World, for example, or Here Comes My Baby, where she effortlessly extricates herself from the overwrought stylings of the Celines and Mariahs of the world. And when she’s not busy shattering glass, she delivers her lines with a lazy, near post-coital drawl.
The most profoundly important change was, of course, the songwriting team. Production/writing team Rick Rowley and Ellen Shipley were swapped for (former) Go-Gos Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffrey and some ex-Bangles, among others. The garage-pop edge shines through all the way. Lay Down Your Arms and Wrap My Arms (Around the World) have the sort of soaring choruses that grab you by the throat; it’s custom-made for your car stereo. Man.
Some Go-Go’s show up to play, the odd ex-Bangle, and for some added hipness, guitarist Pat Smear, briefly of Nirvana and Foo Fighters. I have a feeling this album was sort of a warm-up for the reasonably successful Go-Go’s reunion that followed a few years later, when they were finally acknowledged as an influential voice on the LA pop scene. Here, Belinda sounded like a rock chick again, and more importantly, as if she’s having fun.
Real did rather poor business, and is currently out of production, I think, but all the same, I wanted to pay tribute to its inherent great popness; it’s become a minor favourite of mine, resting comfortably among my Semisonic, Teenage Fanclub and Jellyfish CD’s. So now you know. And knowing…is half the battle, says Duke.