New Musical Express NOVEMBER 9, 1974 - by Nick Kent


A country mile ahead (of any other brand of poseur)

So the baron displayed a certain lack of sartorial "chutzpah" in his last choice of onstage image-tackle. So blame his tailor. Country Life is so good, you see, we may yet have to step down and reverently refer to the Big F forevermore via his given moniker. The first answer is, yes, the album is a thoroughly worthy successor to the truly wonderful Stranded, even if there is perhaps nothing here quite as weightily inspired as Mother Of Pearl. But then Stranded was, after all, something of a flawed "Meisterwerk" with twenty-four-carat gems like Song For Europe and the aforementioned Mother having to parlay attention with the exquisitely dull Psalm.

On Country Life no such overt displays of the erratic are present, though a couple of tracks do tend to fall below the exhilaratingly exalted mean of creativity Ferry and his cohorts have established for themselves on this outing. Ferry and his cohorts? Make that Roxy Music if you please. I can't seem to recall a display of instrumental kineticism executed in the recording studio with such inspired finesse this year.

Like our inestimable Mr. MacDonald, who sauntered in during an airing of Out Of The Blue and left sometime later pontificating dogmatically that the Paul Thompson-John Gustafson rhythm section was now absolutely the best in the country. I'll concur with that, and go one better by unambiguously pointing out that Phil Manzanera is currently our most creative guitarist. Here he transmutes the sparse grizzled excellence of his session work on John Cale's Fear into a kind of omni-sustained polished ferocity that would make a whole brace of killer axemen - particularly those boastfully adept in the heavy metal regions - break down and weep at their comparative impotence. Messrs. Mackay and Jobson are similarly inscrutable.

O.K. then, so consequently you know a band are up to something of a weighty import, when they lead off a set with what could arguably be evaluated as the album's ace-up-the-proverbial-sleeve track. The last time I spoke to Ferry he muttered with a certain pride that a track called The Thrill Of It All could well end up the magnum opus of Country Life. It certainly has that "grand" quality - an ear to ear wall of sound married to a kind of mannered arch-frenzy which permeates both lyrics ("The time has come / It's getting late / It's now or never / Don't hesitate or stall / When I call / Don't spoil / The Thrill of it all") and vocal performance (which kicks off with Ferry yowling like some anguished highwayman). On one level the song is total camp (can you honestly keep a straight face through lines like "And before you go to sleep at night/ Preying shadows - do they ask you why?" - not to mention Ferry muttering "Oy veh" during one of the later verses?), but then there is the tension wrought via an arrangement which fortunately knows how to transform the aesthetics of bombast into something truly invigorating. The real star here must be Paul Thompson who impels the whole heady schmear like a veritable gangbuster; the vital anchor for all the filigrees garnished throughout the mix.

So we're underway, having already been presented with a full compliment of Roxy's token flourishes/special effects which are all very appealing but... well they're nothing new are they? Just old tricks executed with a kind of super-charged panache. Three And Nine, the second track, fortunately quells all fears of Country Life, presenting the Roxies as a kind of grandiosely quaint parody of their own stance. The song is whimsical in the finest tradition - like Ray Davies at his best, but without the obvious stylistic parallels. Mackay's melody may well be the strongest on the whole album while Ferry, lamenting the loss of innocence personified in the death of the grand celluloid fantasy and the coming of decimalisation (I know it sounds ridiculous here, but it actually works) but resolved at the same time to face the oncoming changes, even cracks a joke at his own expense in the first verse - "You might remember / How it used to be / Three and nine could show you / Any fantasy / Parti-coloured pictures / Now and then 3D / No cheap nostalgia / Conjured up by me." The song is important because it shows Ferry's finally discarded the already-tried-and-tested gestures of his previous work, and has lost that constructionally "taut" quality which so often could be translated as "coldness". Without trying to sound overtly twee, the song does possess a warmth to it which is particularly heartening, simply because Ferry isn't trying as obviously hard as before. Instead of his work depreciating, it is instead starting to take on a charmed simplicity and directness.

The same can be said for the blithe twelve-bar If It Takes All Night, which again flirts with camp (but to good effect) and in particular, A Really Good Time. The message on the latter is almost self-effacingly direct here; against a melody used previously for Just For You with one chord added plus a potent arrangement even utilising some quasi-Lalo Schafrin devices at various junctures, Ferry addresses a shallow dissatisfied debutante-type harshly ("You're well-educated / With no commonsense / All your troubles / Come from yourself"), turning to a bit of self-analysis halfway through ("You know I don't talk much / Except to myself / 'cos I've not much to say / And there's nobody else / Who's ready and willing / And able to know me - I guess" A-w-w-w) finishing off with a reference to "A girl I used to know / Her face is her fortune / She's got a heart of gold" holding her up as the "golden mean". A well-starched morality tale, if you like - certainly devoid of hidden subtleties or strained metaphors. Just direct reportage - and it's exquisitely fine.

Ferry only lets his guard down badly when he attempts to be a touch too clever with his literary devices as on Bitter Sweet - a sequel of sorts to Song For Europe, which fails pretty miserably, complete with laboured metaphor of wine and love ("These vintage years", "to taste - both sweet and dry", "Lovers you consume, my friend," etc., etc.) plus an unnecessary extract sung in guttural German. Both Roxy, and Ferry in particular, really don't need to involve themselves in what can only be now defined for them as depleted gestures. The only other appreciably "odd" choice is a short bout of ersatz-olde English pageantry called Triptych which is very strange, and in the final analysis should have been left to the likes of Steeleye Span.

After that, though, it's all aces a-plenty. All I Want Is You is Roxy Music's idea of a "fun track with lyrical sentiments worthy of Bobby Rydell. Yes, it's good, but then you already know that from the single. Out Of The Blue reminds me of the cold melodies that graced the first two Roxy sets, but with far more of a sense of instrumental pyrotechnics and sheer dynamism than those early Velvet Underground-type anarchic splurges could ever have dreamed of possessing. Manzanera (who wrote the tune) and Gustafson in particular excel themselves. Prairie Rose is more Manzanera-thick strident technicolour chords while Ferry in full Randolph Scott drag evokes the memory of "Texas - the Big Country". Vague echoes of Giant here, while Manzanera's twelve-string Richenbacker solo zeroes in momentarily on the spectre of a thousand and one cacti on the rampage. Barbara Stanwyck, eat your heart out!

And then there is Casanova which is possibly the best number here - full of bristling venom, utilising Ferry's taut approach to the fullest degree. Strained, leering vocals, a singularly eerie organ solo (Ferry himself) and couched, prophetic lyrics which seem to almost gloat at the terminal condition of the classic reckless nouveau-romantic gone awry. The approach here is incredibly powerful: a series of incisive three-line stanzas built up to portray the victim's predicament - "Now you're nothing / But second-hand in glove / With second-rate now / Now you're flirting / With heroin / - Or is it cocaine?"

O.K., O.K., so there you have it, and I'm not even going to start bothering on about this being one of the best albums of the year and Roxy being a good country mile (sic) ahead of the Bowies, Reeds and Sparks of this world, but... well Ferry is the most important songwriter so far to grace the '70s and my only advice would be maybe to loosen up even further, mannerisms being only useful for so long, etc. Otherwise, Country Life displays healthy growth in just about all regions for Roxy. (Oh, one point: John Punter's excellence notwithstanding, I would have still liked to have heard the finished product wrought via the ubiquitous Chris Thomas). So what if there isn't another Mother Of Pearl this time around. That would be like expecting another Like A Rolling Stone to have divinely occurred on Blonde On Blonde. And you can take that parallel any way you want!