First, silence. Then a lone trumpet cries out, and from the very first note it was apparent that this was something different. The debut album from a relatively obscure Scottish trio called The Blue Nile, A Walk Across The Rooftops is comprised of seven long songs that are largely built around slow, spacious structures whose repetitions become trance inducing. The end result is dreamy, highly visual soundscapes that are the band’s own unique vision. Paul Buchanan’s weary but impassioned croon focuses on the joys of love (“I am in love with you,” “yes I love you”) and its darker side (“sticks and stones are your broken promises”), with the overall mood of the album being both melancholic and romantic. But this isn’t merely a relaxing adult album, as jarringly edgy interludes can also unexpectedly surface alongside the album’s more warmly inviting tones. The experimental end result will keep most listeners on their toes, but more often than not the rewards are sumptuously inviting for all manner of sophisticated tastes. Musically, these strange songs are generally built around lush synthesizers, melodic bass, and a healthy sprinkling of piano. However, don’t be surprised at the brief but seemingly necessary appearance of a trumpet, or if a string section, guitar solo, or some scuttling percussion lend a helping hand. “Tinseltown In The Rain” and “Stay,” ironically the album’s two most straightforward (and danceable) songs, are the album’s high points for me, or at least they’re the ones that I most easily remember, but even the lesser songs here hold creative moments of interest. There are times when I wish the band would be a little more straightforward (some songs don’t need any gimmicks) and a little less long-winded, but overall this was a highly impressive debut album that seemingly came from out of nowhere. Critics quickly spread the word, and a small but loyal following eagerly awaited second helpings.
Hats (A & M ‘89) Rating: A
However, their fans’ patience would be tested. Obsessive perfectionists, it would be five long years before Hats finally appeared (in the meantime, the band completed and then scrapped an entire album’s worth of material!). It was worth the wait, however, as Hats actually surpassed the lush beauty of its predecessor. The primary reason for this is that Hats is more easy going and accessible, as the jarringly jagged interludes that sometimes appeared on A Walk Across The Rooftops have largely been scrapped. Instead, the band focuses more on relatively straightforward melodies this time out, and this more focused approach allows less empty spaces (and, consequently, less down time) into the band’s cinematic music. The closest comparison might be Colour Of Spring-era Talk Talk, but fans of other classy, melodically astute artists such as Aja-era Steely Dan (who shares with the band a fondness for sparkling sound quality), Avalon-era Roxy Music, or Van Morrison would also do well to seek out Hats. Like A Walk Across The Rooftops, Hats contains seven long songs, most of which ride lush grooves over which Paul Buchanan croons repetitive chants. “Working night and day I try to get ahead,” Buchanan sings on “Over The Hillside,” and his weary vocal makes the lyrics sound quite convincing. Mostly, though, we get Buchanan’s thoughts on love. For example, he’s racked with self-doubt on “The Downtown Lights” (“how do I know you feel it?”), while on the devastating “From A Late Night Train" he somberly declares “it’s over now, I know, it’s over now but I can’t let go.” Elsewhere, Buchanan provides the simple sentiments of “Let’s Go Out Tonight,” while “Seven A.M” questioningly asks “where is the love?” Fortunately, on “Saturday Night” he finds his answer (“an ordinary girl will make the world all right”), thereby ending a triumphantly sedate album on a bright high. Comment from my friend Doug: "I just realized reading your review, even at 7 songs you didn't mention my favorite song "Headlights on the Parade!" Though I'll admit there are only so many times one can say, smooth, lush, dreamy, nighttime, and Steely Dan-like in one review!"
Peace At Last (Warner Brothers ‘96) Rating: B+
After a seven year absence, The Blue Nile returned with Peace At Last, an album that again completely ignored what was going on in the world around them (musically speaking). The ten songs here are simpler, less cinematic, and more concise than the lush soundscapes that were previously offered, and the songs as a whole are less memorable. That said, Peace At Last was still a welcome return, because even though they too often coast on atmosphere alone here, the band has retained their gorgeous sound. In addition, although these songs are more conventional as a rule, there are some surprises in store, such as the gospel chorus that appears from out of nowhere on “Happiness,” arguably the band’s best song ever. The brightly upbeat “Sentimental Man,” on which Buchanan notes “I do the best I can,” and “Body And Soul,” on which Buchanan breaks out his falsetto, are other obvious highlights. "Tomorrow Morning" also sees the band at their best, but "Love Came Down" and "Holy Love" are lightly funky yet forgettable, and the pace slows to a ponderous crawl on "Family Life" and "War Is Love." Fortunately, the pace picks up on "God Bless You Kid," while "Soon" is an ambitious album closer that provides a solid if unspectacular example of an increased soul influence (there's that falsetto again). Anyway, to make a long story short, Peace At Last lacks some of the cohesiveness and originality of their first two albums, but it was still another elegantly enjoyable effort overall. Here’s hoping that The Blue Nile don’t take quite so long to deliver their next batch of romantic introspection.
High (Sanctuary ‘04) Rating: B+
Released eight years after the band’s ode to domesticity, Peace At Last, which itself underwent a seven year gestation period, High is more of the same from The Blue Nile, who continue to do what they do for their small cult audience regardless of what everyone else is doing. Resolutely adult, these vibrant urban dramas again see Paul Buchanan and company in a downcast mood, but the album lacks the sparse adventurousness of A Walk Across The Rooftops and the consistently stellar songwriting of Hats. Still, if you like those albums and have eagerly awaited album #4, then you likely will enjoy this one as well (though newbies are advised to start with the earlier albums). After all, luscious synths, sparse guitar, slow beats, and Buchanan’s melodramatic but charismatic croon again carry the day, and though few of these melodies are especially memorable, the album evokes an enticing overall mood, in large part due to Buchanan’s ability to paint vivid pictures (even if those pictures are often of mundane everyday events) with just a few well chosen words. Sure, given the 8 year wait you’d figure that the band could’ve come up with another song that's better than “Broken Loves,” and only the lushly romantic “I Would Never” and the lone livelier number, “She Saw The World,” even so much as sniff classic status. Yet the band continue to deliver delectable easy listening pleasures, with “The Days Of Our Lives,” “High,” and “Stay Close” (the album’s extended finale) arguably being the best of the rest on an album that rarely sinks too low or rises too high (ironic given the album’s title, I suppose). Perhaps a little variety would be welcome, and part of me gets a feeling of “been there, done that” when listening to this album, but equally undeniable is that The Blue Nile continue to produce elegant, sonically superlative mood music that most band’s would do well to aspire to. See ya in another 9 years, fellas?
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