Sunday, July 12, 2009

best foot forward

Going into this new venture, I knew I was gonna have a backlog of things about which I could write. Don't get used to these long, intricate entries. And I don't suspect I'll post more than one a day. But since I'm on a staycation this week, I might write more than expected.

A couple of weeks ago, a-ha released "Foot Of The Mountain", their ninth album since their 1985 debut, "Hunting High And Low". Seriously, they have never put a foot wrong. It's interesting to note that they had success with "Take On Me" in the US first and then Europe, along with the rest of the globe, followed. Strangely, although their debut single reached #1 in the US, it only managed to peak at #2 in the UK. It was held out of the top spot by "The Power Of Love" by Jennifer Rush.

Many people don't realize that "Take On Me" was recorded twice. The first version, produced by Tony Mansfield who twiddled the knobs for Naked Eyes and Re-flex, was a total flop. It burns my tail that it has never been made available on CD. And I don't want a crackly, vinyl rip of it either. I want pure digital bliss.

The second version, produced by Alan Tarney, who wrote and produced "We Don't Talk Anymore" by Cliff Richard, is the one that became the classic.

Unfortunately, a-ha have been relegated to one hit wonder status in the US even though they managed to scrape a second song into the Top 20 of the Billboard singles chart with "The Sun Always Shines On T.V.", the follow up to their signature tune. It also gave the group their first and only #1 hit in the UK. 

Many hits followed in the UK while the band became a musical footnote in the country where they originally broke through. A lot of my friends are always surprised when I tell them a-ha still play to crowds of 100,000 plus in places like Brazil.

While a-ha managed a number of hits in the rest of the world, their chart performance started to wane around the time acid house and grunge were in full swing. In 1994, they took a sabbatical and returned re-energized in 2000 with the album, "Minor Earth Major Sky".

Nearly a decade on from their return, the Norwegian trio have dipped their toes back into a more electronic sound with the album, "Foot Of The Mountain".

However, the lead track and first single mines the grand, cinematic, guitar driven, pop sound they've become known for on their three, previous, studio albums. Presumably, it was done in order to ease the public into the album's different, sonic landscape which hearkens back to the group's debut.

It's interesting to note that the verses and the piano figure in "Foot Of The Mountain" are originally found in "The Longest Night" which is featured on Magne's solo album from 2008, "A Dot Of Black In The Blue Of Your Bliss". I've included here for comparison.

"Foot Of The Mountain", the album, is suitably moody and melancholy with Morten's heroic falsetto reaching fantastic heights throughout without ever overshadowing the songs or the production. You can certainly hear where Coldplay and Keane got their inspiration in the song structure and icy grandeur of a-ha's work both past and present.

To these ears, I'd have to say there are at least three more obvious singles on "Foot Of The Album". "Mother Nature Goes To Heaven" wears its "Violator" era, Depeche Mode leanings proudly. "Nothing Is Keeping You Here" is a dead ringer for Keane. And "Riding The Crest" is the closest thing to "Take On Me" they've recorded in nearly 20 years. In retrospect, it's almost as if they purposely never tread that ground until they felt it was safe to go back there. More of a self-referential homage than a desperate attempt to capture past glories.

1 comment:

  1. I got into a-ha in 2009, as well as Duran Duran. Both groups are really prolific and share a lack of respect in regards to their near perfect catalogues. In regards to a-ha, as you mentioned, there isn't too much they've done wrong.

    I like how they eased into a more organic, band sound on records like "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" & "Memorial Beach," and also folded in contemporary trends in pop, rock, and those gamuts on (arguably my favorite from them) "Lifelines." Their last album was a nice look back, but still a great step forward. Here's to time continuing its kindness to their legacy. Cool work.-QH