Foreigner

Foreigner (Atlantic '77) Rating: A-

I'll be honest, I had no intentions of reviewing Foreigner until I happened upon their Behind The Music Remastered episode on VH1 Classic the other night. But I always liked the band, after all I grew up with many of their biggest songs, many of which were FM mainstays and some of which still make the regular rounds on "classic rock radio." Sure, critics hated them, much like they hated AOR peers like Journey and Boston, but for all the nonsense talk about how the band was "corporate rock" you have to remember that at the time of this album's release it was very much a surprise hit. After all, a band of six largely unknown musicians (including ex-members of King Crimson and Spooky Tooth) was hardly a foolproof formula for platinum status, and they weren't exactly pin ups in the looks department, either. This album was extremely successful because of the high quality of its songs, which had the heft of hard rock but with polished pop hooks. Led by primary songwriter and guitarist Mick Jones and powerhouse singer Lou Gramm, the album peaks immediately with its two top 10 hits, "Feels Like The First Time" and "Cold As Ice," both of which have been played to death over the years but for good reason. "Feels Like The First Time" has big hooky riffs and those memorable synth washes plus Gramm's undeniably impressive vocals; the chorus is absolutely huge, there's a nice moody bridge at around the 2 minute mark, and the song climaxes with a guitar solo before the 3-minute mark followed by Lou really belting out the outro. "Cold As Ice" continues with memorable piano, great vocals, memorably venomous lyrics, and catchy synths too; just try not to sing along with this one, it's damn hard! The third well-known song on the album was the top 20 hit "Long, Long Way From Home," which has more great riffs and burbling synths, plus some cool bass too and of course Lou is in excellent voice; at around 1:50 the sax solo into the guitar riffs provide another memorable climax, as the band really knows how to build the dramatic tension. Although the hits are probably the best songs, this album is no hits-plus-filler affair, as there's also atmospheric tracks such as the spacey power ballad "Starrider" (a killer deep cut) and "At War With the World" (which is atmospheric yet rocking). "The Damage Is Done" is a soulful ballad, "Fool For You Anyway" has tuneful harmonies and acoustic pickin', and "I Need You" is a good mid-tempo rocker carried by Lou's passionate vocals and Jones' intense guitar playing. True, "Head Knocker" is a weak rocker and "Woman Oh Woman" a bland ballad, but on the whole the hits here easily outnumber the misses, and though this isn't the most original or imaginative album around, it is filled with well-crafted songs and passionate performances (the album was banged out quickly but efficiently). For my money this first album is the best that Foreigner ever did, though the next three albums (Double Vision, Head Games, 4) were also solid efforts and huge sellers that spawned further hits such as "Hot Blooded," "Double Vision," "Blue Morning, Blue Day," "Dirty White Boy," "Head Games," "Urgent," "Juke Box Hero," "Waiting For A Girl Like You," and "Break It Up." The band's biggest hit of course came with 1984's #1 hit "I Want To Know What Love Is," but the crossover success of that ballad ultimately hurt them as they lost support with their original fan base. The band has also been plagued by tons of lineup changes over the years, with even Gramm briefly leaving in the early '90s and then for good in 2003. Jones still successfully tours the oldies circuit with a brand new version of Foreigner, but the band's reputation primarily rests with those first four albums. Again, Foreigner may not have found favor with the critics of the day, but while those scribes were waxing poetic about the punk movement that was peaking at that time, far more American listeners were listening to Foreigner than the Sex Pistols or The Clash, and their best music still rocks hard and sounds good.

Records (Atlantic '82) Rating: A-
I was only going to review the first Foreigner album, but a friend of mine convinced me to review this one as well. Anyway, as previously noted, the second, third, and fourth Foreigner albums were a solid continuation of the first album only not as good. The second album, Double Vision, was even a bigger smash hit, helped by two top 5 hits: "Hot Blooded" (yes the horny lyrics are ridiculous but this riff monster still provides plenty of hard rocking fun) and the title track (an evocative yet rocking number about getting wasted!). The moody mid-tempo rocker "Blue Morning, Blue Day" was also a minor hit (#15 U.S.), but the album on the whole was less consistent than the debut as the hits distanced themselves even further from the album tracks, plus it had more ballads which wasn't a good thing. Produced by Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, The Cars, etc.) and with Rick Willis replacing Ed Gagliardi on bass, Head Games was a comparative disappointment commercially because it only had two rather than three hits and they were only minor successes: the good straight-up riff rocker "Dirty White Boy" and the dramatic, thoughtful title track, a rare Foreigner song that doesn't have terrible lyrics (a common theme on the album seems to be troubles with untrustworthy women, and the controversial album cover also likely did them few favors with feminists). Still, the album was another good, more consistently rocking effort overall that became a steady seller (over 5 million total in the U.S. alone), but it was the adventurously titled 4 that would prove to be their biggest success. Pared down to a leaner four piece (bye bye multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald and keyboardist Al Greenwood) and produced by noted hitmaker Robert John "Mutt" Lange, 4 is probably my second favorite Foreigner album and it spawned three smash hits in "Urgent" (dig its pulsating mid-tempo groove plus its spectacular Junior Walker sax solo is surely the greatest moment on any Foreigner album), "Juke Box Hero" (an air guitar classic, this is probably the most arena rock song from this most arena rock band), and "Waiting For A Girl Like You" (a pretty if sappy "easy listening" ballad and a pre-cursor to "I Want To Know What Love Is" though I frankly prefer this more modest effort). "Break It Up" (love those airy backing vocals) was also a minor hit, and though the hits were again the highlights the album as a whole is consistently fun and listenable. Still, when all is said and done Foreigner is a singles band first and foremost, and as such the Foreigner album I turned to 90% of the time during my teen years (when I actually actively listened to Foreigner) was Records, which contains the ten biggest songs from their first four albums. The album isn't perfect, as it's skimpy at a mere 10 tracks totaling under 40 minutes in length; top 40 hits "Blue Morning, Blue Day" and "Break It Up" at the very least should've been included, plus I prefer the studio version of "Hot Blooded" to the live one included here. There are many later collections which include subsequent hits such as "I Want To Know What Love Is," "That Was Yesterday," "Say You Will," and "I Don't Want To Live Without You," but whereas this one is too short (I wouldn't have minded a few well-selected non-hits as well, "Starrider" and "Love On The Telephone" for example), most of those compilations are too long or aren't as well-selected. So, flawed though it may be, Records (itself going platinum seven times over) and its cool jukebox cover is still the best Foreigner collection for me, and it's certainly the best starting point for any newbie looking to get acquainted with the band.

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