❉ Top tunes, fabulous riffs and memorable lyrics – this is their poppiest and most accessible album yet.
‘Welcome, Stranger!’ is a concentrated, cohesive statement of intent that could prove to be the Blue Aeroplanes’ breakthrough album – at long last! At 41 minutes and ten songs, it’s short, sharp and in-your-face, all killer and no filler.
Who are the Blue Aeroplanes? Only the best band to come out of Bristol. You thought that was Massive Attack? Think again, or rather, don’t, because it’s apples and oranges. Massive Attack are (broadly) dance and the Aeroplanes are (broadly) rock. They’re both the best band to come out of Bristol. Massive may be more famous and have had the bigger hits, but the Aeroplanes are more prolific, with thirteen albums compared to Massive’s five. (There is overlap between the bands – Massive Attack’s 1998 album ‘Mezzanine’ features the distinctive sound of former Aeroplanes guitarist Angelo Bruschini.) The Blue Aeroplanes have also been around far longer than Massive Attack. They began life in 1978 as the Art Objects, releasing one brilliant album ‘Bagpipe Music’ (an Aeroplanes album in all but name), before becoming the Blue Aeroplanes in 1981.
Since then, the Aeroplanes have released aerodromes full of music, played numerous gigs and festivals, supported R.E.M. on tour, gone through 40-odd band members, and almost hit the big time with the albums ‘Swagger’ (1990) and ‘Beatsongs’ (1991). Their music, a thrilling fusion of rock, folk, and indie, defies categorisation (didn’t stop me trying though). Their mainstay, Gerard Langley, looks like a cross between Eric Morecambe and Tom Baker in Ray-Ban shades, a beat poet dressed in black with a delivery style somewhere between Bob Dylan (in his prime) and Robyn Hitchcock. They have a dancer, Wojtek, whose incredible, balletic, ecstatic contortions make Bez out of the Happy Mondays look like a statue. Their closest analogue is The Fall; both bands have been around a long time, and both bands have had many members over the years. Yet, both bands’ current line-ups have been stable for a while (the current Fall line up has been around for ten years, the current Planes crew for coming up to five years). Musically, the Aeroplanes are more mainstream than The Fall, but whilst some of their songs, such as World View Blue from ‘Swagger’ or Angelwords from ‘Beatsongs’, sound a bit like Dire Straits (Gerard even has a husky Mark Knopfler thing going on in the latter track), others, such as Police: 38 Divinity and Cat-Scan Hist’ry or Weird Heart are, well, weird, and could almost be mistaken for Fall songs. Their more recent material, however, leans more towards the mainstream.
And so it is with their new album, ‘Welcome, Stranger!’
It was born out of sessions where Gerard Langley, guitarists Bec Jevons and Mike Youe bashed out and refined songs, with Gerard mining five years’ worth of lyrics (their last album, ‘Anti-Gravity’, came out in 2011). The eventual tunes were then recorded at Vale, a studio renowned for its classic, vintage equipment, to what Gerard calls “major label standard, only quicker”. The resulting album is a turbo-charged Aeroplane ride that is easily their poppiest and most accessible album yet.
The whole album is brilliantly produced, with a depth and clarity which brings out the best in the songs.
It opens with Looking For X’s On A Map, one of their heaviest songs. Sabbath-like riffs in the verses vie with a propulsive chorus. Live, it is deafeningly overpowering. On record, it is no less thrilling, brought to life by fantastic production – the whole album is brilliantly produced, with a depth and clarity which brings out the best in the songs (something that can’t be said for Swagger, arguably the Planes best album, which is smothered and stifled by Gil Norton’s indifferent production). Lyrically, Gerard lets us know that despite the band’s longevity, they are right on the ball – “I tap directions on the app.” A rocking opener and a fine start to the album.
Second track Sweet Like Chocolate is a surprising cover version of a 1999 No. 1 single by garage band Shanks and Bigfoot. It’s no straight copy, though; the Planes have made it their own by turning the distinctive synth riff into stop-start guitar power chords, adding extra lyrics, and an archetypal Aeroplanes riff which snakes around a sweet tune that includes a dulcimer (I think) during the bridge. The result is complete and utter joy, a hit of sunshine straight into your heart. It’s a sweet love song, or as close to a love song as this band ever gets, recalling Sugared Almond from ‘Rough Music’ (and not just because of the confectionery-related title). What’s really noticeable is how energised the band sound, how focused, how interesting the instrumentation is, how great the production – it really is a treat for the years.
Retro Moon follows, with more of those beautiful, beguiling guitars and Gerard on fine form: ‘I sometimes walk down there-and-back-again lane / Not very far obviously, ‘cos there’s nothing there.’ A funky bassline underpins a spiky, catchy tune with 60s-style psychedelic undercurrents, soaring backing vocals and a wandering keyboard line. To the lugholes of this old fan it could hail from any Aeroplanes album from as far back as ‘Tolerance’ (1985) and is the most traditional Planes song on the album.
Over a low-key opening of muted drums and yet more lovely guitars, Gerard deadpans, “Seagulls – we eat their fish, so why shouldn’t they eat our chips?” Fair point.
Next up is the single, Dead Tree! Dead Tree! Holy wow. This is utterly, utterly beautiful, brilliant, funny and up there with the very best of the Aeroplanes. A riotous, hilarious collision of music and imagery, here the band truly takes flight. Over a riff which recalls The Beatles’ Here Comes The Sun (that ’60s influence again) Gerald intones, “In Victoria Park there’s a dead tree / [backing vocals: dead tree dead tree! ]” Victoria Park is just down the road from my house in Totterdown, and I can attest that yes, in Victoria Park, there is indeed a dead tree. The song shifts between sections propelled along by riffs and frills and thrills and mentions of Peter Cook’s Devil in ‘Bedazzled’. Chris Sharp’s nimble bass-playing deserves a mention here – it really helps the song barrel along. The fast pace and catchy riffs make this a very summery song, in fact, the whole album is very up and sunny and will brighten these dull winter months.
Things slow down a little for Walking Under Ladders For A Living. Over a low-key opening of muted drums and yet more lovely guitars, Gerard deadpans, “Seagulls – we eat their fish, so why shouldn’t they eat our chips?” Fair point. The song then explodes into life before settling down into a loud/quiet song structure laced with webs of scintillating guitar. If I sound like a pretentious music journalist, I don’t care, because how else to describe music this beautiful, this uplifting?
Side Two (showing my age; I always divide CDs, or downloads or whatever, into two halves) begins with yet another belter, Elvis Festival. Pounding drums introduce a massive riff which is almost Fall-like in its repetition (it recalls their 2005 single Pacifying Joint) over which Gerard recites an affectionate lyrics about Elvis impersonators: “You sing – badly! But no-one cares! You are Elvis! They accept you – gladly!” and “His wife sewed on the sequins but he made the cape himself.” Great fun!
Nothing Will Ever Happen In The Future is a slow-burner, this album’s What It Is or Sixth Continent. Built around a see-sawing bass, it features a cameo from original Aeroplane guitarist Nick Jacobs in the middle. It’s a swirling, intricate piece, surging and flowing, twined together by guitars like ivy winding its way around a crumbling cathedral whilst violins keen like circling ravens. It’s the album’s calm centrepiece.
The Blue Aeroplanes have always found space for vocalists other than Gerard, and previous albums have featured songs by the likes of Rodney Allen and Gerard Starkie. This time it’s the turn of Bec Jevons, who has her own band iDestroy, and her song Skin is a brisk and sparkling indie rocker that to these ears recalls the Pretenders, especially as Bec’s voice reminds me of that of Chrissie Hynde.
Here Is The Heart Of All Wild Things ushers in the calm before the storm. A poignant guitar line over skittering drums starts things off, before a massive great riff comes crashing in. Things alternate between the two parts of the song, anchored by Gerard’s lyrics and soulful backing vocals, until the whole thing comes to a slamming crescendo. The song has a dark and somewhat menacing atmosphere that provides a counterpoint to the rest of the album.
Things come to a head in the final track, Poetland. Previous Aeroplanes albums have ended on epic, sprawling soundscapes such as Cat Scan Hist’ry (‘Swagger’), Sixth Continent (‘Beatsongs’), Fragile (‘Life Model’), Secret Destination (‘Rough Music’) and most recently Cancer Song (‘Anti-Gravity’).
‘Welcome, Stranger!’, however, bows out in a different way, in a manner true the ethos of the album. Epic not in length or scope, but intensity, Poetland brings it all together in a frenetic whirlwind of music and words that fair takes the breath away. The coruscating Aeroplanes guitars are joined by swirling keyboards to great effect. The band and Gerard both sound angry and on fire.
Lyrically it’s very dense and I’ve yet to unpack all of Gerard’s words, but there are many gems here: “Frank Sinatra, he was not a punk as such, but there’s not much difference to some audiences.” “Poetland – it’s like Poundland, only weirder.” The song ends on a wonderfully funky workout. “Fly down the waterway, sail down the road, drive the endless skies to Poetland”, exhorts Gerard as ironically angelic backing vocals join in, and the whole things ends on a clanging chord and that’s it.
Overall, ‘Welcome, Stranger!’ is a concentrated, cohesive statement of intent that could prove to be the Blue Aeroplanes’ breakthrough album – at long last! It’s enough of a piece with their canon to satisfy old fans like me, and is poppy enough to attract the new audience they richly deserve. At 41 minutes and ten songs, it’s short, sharp and in-your-face, all killer and no filler. What it lacks in light and shade, it more than makes up for in sheer drive and power. This is the band’s most commercial album since the glory days of ‘Swagger’ and ‘Beatsongs’, and, whilst some of the hardcore fan-base might bemoan the lack of outright weirdness, there’s no denying that ‘Welcome, Stranger’! is a powerful pop-rock album crammed with top tunes, fabulous riffs and memorable lyrics. It’s fun. It’s fab. It deserves to find a wider audience. Welcome indeed – for if you are a stranger to the world of the Blue Aeroplanes, this is a great place get on board.
❉ The Blue Aeroplanes new album, ‘Welcome, Stranger!’ is due for official release on Friday 6th January and is available to download here via Pledgemusic
❉ Check out our interview with Gerard Langley: http://wearecult.rocks/interview-the-blue-aeroplanes-gerard-langley