Wednesday, May 19, 2010

May 19: Roxy Music, "Mother Of Pearl"

Artist: Roxy Music
Song: "Mother Of Pearl"
Album: Stranded
Year: 1973

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In nearly every band in history, there is at least one, sometimes two members that are so essential to the band that if they left, one could safely assume that the bands' career would be over.  Whether due to their creative control over the band, their stage presence, or simply some intangible element that they provided, one can see examples of this idea all over music history.  Yet there are also a small group of bands that have managed to persevere after such a departure, though in most cases, the band had to alter their sound somewhat to compensate for the departed member.  Having already established themselves as one of the most innovative and unique groups on the planet with their first two albums, it would be Roxy Music's third record, 1973's Stranded, that would prove to be the turning point of their career.  Following the release of their previous album, For Your Pleasure, the band was forced to deal with the departure of one of music's greatest minds, Brian Eno.  Due to increasing artistic differences with Bryan Ferry, Eno left the group and was replaced with classically trained pianist and violinist, Eddie Jobson.  Though many feared that the loss of Eno would spell the end for Roxy Music's brilliantly unique sound, the group answered the doubters by releasing back to back records that one can easily argue as just as good as their two records with Eno.  As listeners experienced Stranded, through the first half of the album, it is certainly high quality music, yet there is nothing that really stands out.  It is not until the albums' second-to-last track that Roxy Music showed that they were still one of the finest bands on the planet, when they unleashed one of their most stunning compositions in the form of 1973's "Mother Of Pearl."

In nearly every sense, one can easily label "Mother Of Pearl" as an "epic" song, as it contains a number of very distinct musical passages, all combining together in uncanny fashion.  The song opens at full speed, with Ferry spinning a strangely sinister vocal over the fast-paced drums and winding guitar loop. After a brilliantly brief guitar solo from Phil Manzanera, the song drops into a stunningly soft, almost jazzy piano-based movement, and the beauty of this shift has never been duplicated.  It is at this point that it becomes clear that though they had lost an amazing mind in the form of Eno, the group is as creative as ever, and it is much the reason that "Mother Of Pearl" remains one of the most impressive moments in the Roxy Music catalog.  During this middle section, bassist John Gustafson drops a uniquely groovy bassline, and the entire song seems to slide from jazz to swing to an almost hip-hop feel at some points, giving it a mood unlike anything else ever recorded.  Using layered guitars and keyboard pieces, Roxy Music creates one of the deepest and most sonically adventurous songs of their career, and it is often the lighter, more subtle sounds that make "Mother Of Pearl" just an amazing musical experience.  The song slowly builds both speed and tension as it moves to an unparalleled "drop out" as the song ends with one of the most perfect moods ever captured on tape.  Truth be told, this unique musical arrangement would be blatantly copied years later on Simple Minds' "Chelsea Girl," and though that song is good in its on right, there is simply nothing that can compare to the sonic beauty of "Mother Of Pearl."

No longer having to deal with the artistic constraints of Brian Eno, on "Mother Of Pearl," the full brilliance of Bryan Ferry shines, and it becomes instantly clear that he is one of the most uniquely talented vocalists in the entire history of recorded music.  Sticking to his almost rap-style vocals for the entire song, it is moments like "Mother Of Pearl" that one realizes what a massive influence his performance style was on later artists like David Byrne and Ian Curtis among many others.  Throughout the song, Ferry seems to experiment with different vocal inflections, and the song remains one of the most amazing musical experiences from any era or any genre.  The other aspect that makes the vocals on "Mother Of Pearl" so unique is the groups' use of panning, as at times, Ferry seems to "ask" a question on on side of the track, and he "answers" from the other.  Though a simple "studio trick," it has rarely been used in this manner or carried out with such a fantastic effect, and this is one of many small things that pushes the song into a class all its own.  The song then moves into a brilliant word-play that runs through a majority of the song, the only constant being a return to the phrasing, "...oh, mother of pearl, I wouldn't trade you for another girl..."  As Ferry weaves in a wide range of allusions and metaphors, the song takes on a life unlike any other in history, and there are so many different pieces to the song that each listener is able to find their own, unique moment in the song to "call their own."

Making a significant lineup change can set any band back a few years, as they are forced to adjust to the new sounds and musical restraints of this new member.  Losing a member with the reputation of Brian Eno, one could have easily understood of Roxy Music had folded or never made another decent studio recording.  Yet quite the opposite happened, and the first few albums following Eno's departure from the band stand as some of the greatest recordings in music history.  Clearly only needing a short amount of time to understand how Eddie Jobson would fit into the bands' sound, the group took less than a year to record Stranded, with the highlight of the album being the unparalleled song, "Mother Of Pearl."  Taking on an almost classical form, with distinct sonic transitions, the song soars and dives seemingly at will, making it a musical experience unlike anything else ever recorded.  Bryan Ferry delivers one of his finest performances, as his sometimes detached, sometimes sarcastic, yet unquestionably distinctive vocal approach has rarely sounded better, and "Mother Of Pearl" remains a song that you simply "cannot turn off."  The band finds a way to inject a groove into the extremely unorthodox musical arrangement, and this proves to be one of the most important aspects of the song, as it is not quite rock, not quite jazz; it is simply a sound and style that can only be defined by the name of the song itself.  Taking all this into account, while Roxy Music certainly made two stunning records with Brian Eno, it was not until his departure that the group was able to find their "true" sound, and it is perfectly captured in their stunning 1973 song, "Mother Of Pearl."


Anonymous said...

I'm so thrilled to find someone else who feels about this song what I feel. I'm listening to it now and I have chills. CHILLS!

Anonymous said...

Great blog about a great song!

Angel said...

I can't believe i found this blog and can't believe either the fact that i'm reading it and i love it! I feel exactly the same about this song and as anonymous said, i'm also thrilled to find someone else (now two different people) who feel the same i feel about it. I would like to comment that i also love and enjoy Bryan Ferry's version of the song which he recorded in the 90s and that i only know has been featured in the film Ordinary Decent Criminal. Cheers!

Steve said...

Excellent commentary on this song! I've only recently discovered it, but it has quickly become an all-time favorita.

It was great to read your points about the song having an almost rap-like vocal pattern during the "groovier" 2/3rds of the song. I tried explaining the rap similarities to someone the other day and it fell on deaf ears.

Similarly, I can see direct connections between Joy Division's "Interzone" and the opening 1/3rd of Mother of Pearl, so it was interesting to see someone else connect the influence of Ferry on Ian Curtis!

Thanks! Gonna have to check out the rest of your blog now!