Monday, August 1, 2011

I wish there was a word other than "mystery"

Richard Barone
I wish there was a word other than "mystery" to describe the mood cast by the early songs of Richard Barone.  Besides being overused, mystery doesn't quite capture the songs, which are haunting, ethereal, special, inexplicable, ecstatic.  Of course, those adjectives aren't much better.

Like so many, I'm embarrassed by a lot of what I listened to in my late teens and early 20s.  (I don't spin Pop Art or The Style Council too often these days.)  Much of the jangly pop I swore by in my R.E.M. trance-haze is terribly slight and twee to my ears now.  But many of Richard Barone's songs from the early 80s—on singles, 12-inches, and EPs with the Bongos, and on a duo album with James Mastro—have aged very well.  I got a bit of grief from some of my fellow DJs at WMUC at the University of Maryland as I spun, and earnestly enthused about, the pop I played on my show; they rolled their eyes at the Bongos while clutching their 4AD, Homestead, and early Sub Pop records.  It turns out that they were often right, and I was sometimes wrong: I did play a lot of lightweight stuff on the air during my Pop phase (a lot of great stuff, too, the Flaming Groovies, Slickee Boys, Paul Collins' Beat, etc., etc.).  Barone's songs, amazingly, surprise me as much as they did when I first heard them.

I cock my ear to the era: there's a bit of the first blush with a first girlfriend, the newness and excitement of early 80s New Wave and indie pop, the up-all-night buzz of being college-aged, but I can't put my finger on the all of the sources of all of the pleasures that Barone's early songs gave, and give, me.  They were little fragments of pop bliss, and they seemed to come from a (yes) mysterious place.  The melodies were galvanizing, strange, instantly memorable, but quirky.  As played by the crack musicians in the Bongos, the tunes were wire-tight but lovely, too, angular but breathtakingly melodic, tiny but immense, lo-fi but sweeping.  I still hear it:

"Glow In The Dark," The Bongos, b-side, 1980

"Hunting," The Bongos, 12", 1980

"The Bulrushes," The Bongos, single, 1981

"Zebra Club," The Bongos, single, 1982

"Lost Like Me," Nuts and Bolts (with James Mastro), 1983


The Bongos ca. 1981
The hypnotic opening 35 seconds of "Lost Like Me"—dreamy and childlike—the heart-catching harmonies in "Zebra Club," the evocation and strangeness of "Glow In The Dark" and "The Bulrushes": it's all there, decades later.  These are little pop gems just beyond rational explanation of their urgency, their brief pop translation of something nameless but human.  These songs have small moments that are among my favorites in pop music.  The songs are like little toys; if you were to break them open you'd find something infinite inside.

Later tunes like "Numbers With Wings" and "Barbarella" (from 1983's Numbers With Wings EP) saw Barone fit his small-scale pop sensibility into larger, more radio-ready forms, with glossy success (artistic, not commercial). I grew less enchanted with the Bongos with Brave New World, an over-produced album with slight songs that came out in 1985.  Barone embarked on a solo career soon after, playing chamber-, acoustic-, and the occasional electric Bongos-style-pop.  I lost touch with his music by the mid-90s—his songs became melodramatic, their sentimentality overt, and he sounded impressed with his own seriousness.  I wonder if New Wave's punky insistence on two- to three-minute masterpieces might have served him better (ie, the mania of "In The Congo").  I'm beginning to catch up with his more recent online releases, but I don't expect to be as transported as I was in the early- and mid-80s.  That's OK; that wouldn't be fair to Barone to demand that.  My low expectations say more about me, and the impressionable age I was when I heard the songs, and the heady era that produced them, than it says about the work of an honest, working, capable songwriter.  But it also says a lot about the—oh well—mysterious songs themselves that originated from a pop universe very close to ours, but somehow not ours.  The songs sound so fresh, still.  If Barone had failed to catch them back then, they might've been lost for good. 

Photo of The Bongos via, of Richard Barone via Musoscribe.


thesoulphonics said...

My old band, The Rattlecats, got to open for The Bongos at The Island in Houston in 1982. They were great! Loved their use of the E-Bow (most bands abused it!) I have their first album, and the two EP's, but my favorite tune is 'In The Congo' - Killer!

Joe Bonomo said...

Yeah, In The Congo's great, alright. I missed seeing Barone down at SX,

Cassy said...

Currently listening on the music. Thanks for sharing.

Cassy from Play Electric Guitar