Friday, November 17, 2023

The View On Pop Culture: The Police, American Hi-Fi, NoFX (2003)

The Police's Zenyatta Mondatta

During the early ‘80s, the Police were the biggest band on the block; selling millions of records and selling out live shows across the planet. The band’s unique and highly original mix of Britpop, punk rock, jazz, and reggae won critical kudos even while moving many units off the shelves back during the industry’s “good old days.” The band’s success can be squarely attributed to Sting’s pop songwriting skills and the instrumental prowess of guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland. These three talents struck hard and fast, releasing five albums in six years before internal strife broke the band apart. The band’s entire catalog has been reissued on CD with brilliantly remastered sound and eco-friendly digipak packaging.   
As the Reagan era began in 1980, the Police released the groundbreaking Zenyatta Mondatta (A & M Chronicles). The band had enjoyed minor hits with “Roxanne” and “Message In A Bottle” from their first two albums, but hadn’t yet gained the large mainstream audience they would later enjoy. Their third album would change all that with a pair of big hits, the Lolita-tale “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” and the light-hearted, reggae-flavored “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.” The quirky “Canary In A Coalmine” would receive a share of radio airplay while the rhythmic “Voices In My Head” would become a big club hit. The photogenic band members would benefit from the advent of the video age, with MTV asserting its presence on America’s television sets and the Police ready with imaginative videos to broadcast. The band would add more elements of jazz and world music to its palette with subsequent albums, but Zenyatta Mondatta is as straightforward a pop/rock album as you could have asked for at the time.   

Often dismissed as a creative stopgap, 1981’s Ghost In the Machine (A & M Chronicles), the fourth Police album, is nevertheless a vastly underrated collection of songs. The album yielded a big radio hit in “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and enjoyed minor hits with “Spirits In the Material World” and “Invisible Sun.” Musically, Ghost In the Machine features more electronic rhythms and synthesized sounds, mixed alongside jazzy horns and Sting’s most understated vocals yet. The band also experiments with more world beat influences here, such as adding a dub echo to “One World (Not Three),” a direction they would further when they next returned to the studio.

Although not the best-known Police album, Ghost In the Machine served as an important bridge between the punkish pop of their early albums and the complex, culturally-informed sound they would bring to Syncronicity two years later. This set of reissues does the band’s work justice, reminding listeners of just how good a group of musicians the Police were and of Sting’s growing stature as a songwriter. Frontman Sting (née Gordon Sumner) would become the lone solo star of the band, subsequently enjoying a lengthy, high profile mainstream career. None of the seven reissue Police CDs (six studio and one live) includes any bonus tracks or unreleased material, an unfortunate oversight that would have shed further light on the brief career of these hall-of-fame rockers.
American Hi-Fi's The Art of Losing
Back in 2001, American Hi-Fi scored a minor alt-rock radio hit with the hook-heavy “Flavor of the Weak,” a tragic tale of unrequited love from the band’s worthwhile debut. This time out, the band kicks off its sophomore effort, The Art of Losing (Island Records), with a pair of classic pop/rock monsters in the title track and the tongue-in-cheek “The Breakup Song.” With riffs larger than Godzilla and as dangerous as an angry doberman, American Hi-Fi builds on the Cheap Trick tradition with screaming six-string work and explosive rhythms, vocalist Stacy Jones spitting out his lyrics with punkish glee.

The rest of The Art of Losing follows in the much same direction as the two opening tracks, Jones and crew smacking together Nirvana-flavored big grunge beats with Billy Corgan-styled buzzsaw guitars and radio-friendly musical hooks. Jones’ lyrics explore the many facets of love and romance with snarling punk rock attitude and singer/songwriter sensitivity while highly-flammable riffage and crashing rhythms surround his vocals in the mix. This is rock & roll with guts and passion and brains, American Hi-Fi beating the sophomore curse with The Art of Losing. Fans of the band are also encouraged to seek out Rock N’ Roll Noodle Shop (Universal International), a live album from Japan that reprises much of the material from American Hi-Fi’s debut. Available only as an import, this writer has seen several copies in used music stores, so evidently a number of CDs have made their way to these shores, awaiting a pair of sympathetic ears.

As the country prepares for war with Iraq, there has been an uncomfortable silence from the rock ‘n’ roll community. Punk rockers NoFX have never had a reputation as political rabble-rousers like, say, the Dead Kennedys or Bad Religion, but that should change when the band releases it’s The War On Errorism album in May. To give fans a taste of the musical onslaught to come, they’ve released Regaining Unconsciousness (Fat Wreck Chords), a four-song EP with tunes from the upcoming album. Let the Reverend tell you, boys and girls, Fat Mike, El Jefe and the guys have nailed it this time out. Taking aim at the media monopoly, the current administration and the war machine, NoFX brings its snotty punk-pop sound to socially conscious lyrics like nobody else. The album and EP are worth getting if only for “Franco Un-American,” the tune namechecking both Howard Zinn and Ralph Nader even while managing to rhyme “apathy” and “Noam Chomsky,” a first in my book. Stay tuned for more on NoFX… (View From The Hill, January 2003)

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