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Roxy Music’s groundbreaking first two albums would be hard to follow up by anyone, let alone the band that created them. But singer Bryan Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera, woodwindist Andy MacKay, drummer Paul Thompson, new keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson and their various bass players had no problem building on the foundation set by those two masterpieces, even with the loss of anarchy agent Brian Eno to a solo career. Thanks to Virgin’s current reissue series of half-speed vinyl remasters, music lovers can rediscover the power of the post-Eno albums for themselves.
Released in 1973 with bassist John Gustafson, Stranded picks up where For Your Pleasure left off, smoothing out any remaining bumps in the road while retaining its edge. One of the band’s hardest rocking songs and a hit single, “Street Life” opens the record with a blast of art-damaged proto-punk & roll, Ferry sporting a growl that might surprise anyone most familiar with the smooth pop of his later solo years. In what sounds like a deliberate attempt to ape Eno’s chaos magic, “Amazona” boasts ricocheting synth noises splashing the background over which Manzanera applies his distinctive riffola, while the anthemically melodic “Serenade” features the band at its most soaring – how this one escaped the soundtrack compilers for Velvet Goldmine is a mystery. The record also features the band at its most epic, from the the creeping crawl of “Amazona” to the lusty noise rock of “Mother of Pearl” to the thrilling drama of “Song For Europe,” the tune that’s likely responsible for their induction into the progressive rock fraternity. Though relatively slicker than its immediate predecessors, Stranded still possesses Roxy Music’s distinctive Je nais se quois, and maintains its adventurousness.
Retaining Gustafson, 1974’s Country Life keeps to its antecedent’s style and form, with only incremental developments. That’s not in and of itself a bad thing, given that Roxy’s songwriting mojo was still in full effect. “Prairie Rose,” “The Thrill of It All” and “All I Want is You” (a top twelve hit in England) keep the band’s propensity for bristling rock alive, as much showcases for Manzanera’s six-string magic as Ferry’s detached croon. The magnificent “Bitter-Sweet” continues the Roxy tradition of grand, sweeping ballads that both celebrate romantic gestures, while draining them of any real significance – cf. also the lothario takedown of “Casanova.” The band indulges itself in more stylistic digressions than usual, touching on baroque prog pop on “Triptych,” roiling funk rock in “Casanova,” and tough blues rock (!) on “If It Takes All Night.” The string-laden “A Really Good Time” even makes a case for Roxy’s influence on the widescreen balladry of seventies singer/songwriters. Possibly the album’s highlight, the gorgeous, vibrant “Out of the Blue” practically encapsulates the group’s ethos, the song you’d hand to space aliens when they land and ask about this Roxy Music thing.
With Roxy having mastered its unique sound, these records concentrate on songcraft, with Ferry able to flex his muse any way he chooses, knowing his bandmates can do anything – and are willing to try anyway if they can’t. While Stranded and Country Life don’t have the shock of delight that accompanies the discovery of a new sound (by both band and audience) that the first two albums carry, they’re still classics that have held up beautifully.
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