Monday, May 15, 2017

Review of Blondie's "Pollinator"

I posted this review earlier this afternoon on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: While the new Blondie album is inconsistent and Harry's voice has frayed over time, it's still a pretty entertaining listen.

The new Blondie album is a bit of a mixed bag. Entitled Pollinator, the LP is more of a collaborative effort than any previous Blondie project. Only two of the its eleven tracks were written by the band's usual songwriting team of Deborah Harry and Chris Stein. Two others were penned by their keyboard player Matt Katz-Bohen and his wife (and childhood sweetheart) Laurel, and one other was composed by Harry and Dev Hyne. The rest of the album was farmed out to the music community in general, so tracks are included that were written by a smorgasbord of other artists, including new wave legend Johnny Marr, pop songstress Charlie XCX, singer/songwriter Sia with Nick Valensi of The Strokes, David Sitek from TV on the Radio, and Adam Johnston from And each of the Harry/Stein tracks features a guest appearance: by Joan Jett on "Doom or Destiny" and by actor/comedian John Roberts (of Bob's Bergers) on "Love Level".

The result is a product that's fairly entertaining but also somewhat uneven. In the pantheon of the band's post-1980s studio output, it ranks far below 2014's Ghosts of Download and 1999's No Exit, and it's also probably a grade below their 2011 Panic of Girls album. On the other hand, it's way better than 2003's The Curse of Blondie.

This next paragraph hurts my heart to write, but it needs to be done. Let's talk about Deborah Harry's voice. I love Ms. Harry dearly for the years of entertainment she's given me, but those years have taken their toll. At 71 years of age, she deserves credit for hanging in there this long, and honestly, she's cheating Father Time to still sound as good as she does. But you can clearly hear that her vocal chops aren't what they once were. Her voice is thinner, and when she's forced to hold her notes, they wobble a bit and then wander off in different directions like a pack of kindergartners scattering in a Toys "R" Us store. She has finally drifted into the territory (and you have no idea how much I hate myself for saying this) of "old lady voice". Think Granny on the vintage TV show The Beverly Hillbillies. (That actually sounds like a much worse insult than it is. Listen to a track called "No Time at All" on the original Pippin Broadway soundtrack album, and you'll find that Granny/Irene Ryan also had a much stronger pair of pipes at an advanced age than she had any right to have. But you get what I mean.) 

You could hear this vocal decay a little on Blondie's previous album, but on that one, the songs were so strong that it was easier to ignore. On Pollinator, there are some weaker tracks like "Best Day Ever" and "Gravity" where you can't help but notice it on the choruses. Even on "When I Gave Up on You" (which I actually like), she double tracks her vocals an octave apart, and you can hear on the high part that she's totally straining her onions to keep from going out of key. Mick Jagger nailed it completely when he wrote, "Time waits for no one/No favours has he".

Nevertheless, you see that I still rated the album 3 out of 5 stars, so let's talk about some of the goodies here. My favorite track on Pollinator is "Already Naked", one of the numbers written by the Katz-Bohens. This track lets Harry use some of her unique vocal stylings, and while I could be out of my mind here, I get the feeling that it was actually written about Harry and Stein -- it's kind of a lusty number about a pair of older lovers reliving the passionate days of their youth. "Doom or Destiny", meanwhile, is a throwback to the type of songs Blondie wrote in their heyday. It's kind of a pop punk anthem that gets extra points for giving Deborah Harry and Joan Jett the chance to sing one together.

Other highlights include the Johnny Marr song "My Monster" (one of the more upbeat tracks on the album), and the synth-pop ditty "Long Time". And "Fun", the 4th track on the album, is a dance-friendly disco number that might just take you back to "Heart of Glass". Both "Fun" and "Long Time" were released as singles, and "Fun" charted #1 in the U.S. on the Billboard dance chart.

Pollinator is an inconsistent album, but it shows that Blondie does have some gas left in the tank. The LP has been pretty well received by critics so far, and it even hit #4 on the British charts. Harry's voice may have frayed some over the years, but she still has technique and plenty of sassy attitude to compensate. So if you've been a fan over the years, don't give up on them yet. Much like the tireless bee, this wily band of pollinators still have some sting in their stingers.

Rating: 3/5 stars