Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Curved Air - North Star

Mixed Endurance

The new Curved Air’s new album North Star is a mixture: new and old and covered songs; dynamic and sweet and not so successful songs. Seeing them live recently, the one indisputable fact is they are an excellently tight band, and Sonja Kristina can still sing powerfully and beautifully as she did when starting so successfully with the band’s first album back in 1970.

Opening track Stay Human is riff-driven, with guitarist Kirby Gregory offering the start of many fine guitar solos on the album. Second Time Games provides the first of the jazz-infused numbers, with Paul Sax on violin – a key, scrutinised role as he has replaced original violinist Darryl Way – and to the fore, and Kristina’s vocal is more ethereal here than on the opener as it rides in tandem with guitar and keyboard, though also soaring powerfully at times: no vibrato-overload [more on this later]. Her repeat of the word ‘Time’ echoes Curved Air familiarity, and that’s what one inevitably listens for.  Gregory again pans out a fine solo. Keyboards are jazz-busy in the undertow and Paul Sax’s first real outing gives us classic, classical melodic lines.

Next Puppets is the first of three reworkings of Way/Kristina penned original Curved Air songs, this from their Second Album, and it is successful [despite my initial reservations on knowing these were on the album] with sweet self-harmonising by Kristina. Kept to a slow and even pace, the melody is allowed to speak for itself and it always was and still is a beautiful song. Violin and piano close it prettily. Fourth Images and Signs has military drums in the regular opening beat, then it is geared up to another relentless beat. Impressionistic lyrics of  The silver tongued boy and the golden eyed girl/Deciphering symbols in their virtual world suggest rather than explain, but that’s not a new trend. I like the piano break with Robert Norton on keyboards which slows the song down before winding back up to the core rhythm and beat.

Fifth Interplay presents Paul Sax with a strong melodic line on violin: the strongest new song overall I think. Gregory’s solo here is wonderfully wah-wahhed and fuzzed and sustained so. Sixth Spider is a jazz fusion instrumental that opened the live gig I saw: happy to hear much more like this. It’s a scorcher with violin al la Way’s take on Vivaldi. Next in this chronological account is Magnetism and I wasn’t initially sure about the opening staccato talking - the spoken poetry of marginally pretentious lyrics

You attract and you propel
Orbiting between the poles
Of sub-atomic worlds
Radiant and full of grace
Smiling, mesmerising gaze

but this provides a contrast to the eventual sweet melody of the song, and some more psychedelic delivery of the lyrics. It is a song with some clever complexity to maintain interest. Gregory on guitar solo again is excellent.

Just in case you hadn't noticed that Sonja signed it for me......

The album takes a downward turn for me from here, though not completely. Eighth Colder Than a Rose in Snow is a reworking of a song Sonja has recorded solo and is rather twee for me and allows Kristina here to indulge her vocal vibrato too much. Like trying too hard. This song takes prettiness to excess. Ninth Spirits in the Material World is a Police cover and its lyrics sound remarkably heavy-handed in the vocal clarity and slowed pace of Kristina’s delivery. I’m not interested. Old Town News follows with more Kristina vocal vibrato tendency. Not the strongest of the band’s self-penned numbers which is why, presumably, it’s nearer the end.

Eleventh Situations is the second Curved Air revisiting from first album Air Conditioning. It is very similar to the original, Kristina’s vocal demonstrating strength hasn’t waned across the years. The other survivor from the original band, drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa, provides a signature military snare that leads into Kristina vocal perfection.

Twelfth is Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol. Why?

Penultimate number is Young Mother, again from Second Album, and is another ‘straight’ version. The vocal is exact; the violin solo more original [I really mean different to Way’s original]. Gregory’s solo is great once more; Robert Norton recreates the original and distinctive synth sound. The closer is a Beatles’ cover, Across the Universe, and it is subdued version and I don’t really know why it is here.

As I said at the outset, it is a mixed album. But for this fan from day one in 1970, it is always good to see any incarnation of the band, and I think this album is strong enough to tell us that talent endures – and I have the strangest feeling that I have said this before, and about Curved Air. Must be true then.

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