The guitarist aging art-rockers turn to for a sublime and stirring mixture of solid chops and wild-eyed invention, Adrian Belew (born in Kentucky, raised in Ohio) has played a crucial long-term role in the careers of David Bowie and King Crimson, while also making important contributions to Frank Zappa (who gave him his first break), Talking Heads, the Tom Tom Club and others. In between commitments like Bowie’s Sound + Vision tour, Belew has found the time to pursue a pop career of his own. Nearly every LP contains at least one or two songs in which Belew’s Beatlesque songwriting, unpretentious humanism, MIDI-processed guitar adventures and yelping vocals ring the delightful popcraft bell. At times, he seems very much like a latter-day Todd Rundgren with smaller computers.
On his first solo album, Belew echoes famous associates rather than stakes out any turf to call his own. He employs pre-stardom friends from Midwestern bands rather than big names, serving up a varied program of calculated weirdness, straight rock and semi-funk. Mildly charming and rather unfocused, the tenuous unifying thread on Lone Rhino is Belew’s David Byrne-style singing.
On Twang Bar King, Belew shows much more self- assurance in putting over the same ingredients — an assurance that spills over into self-indulgence long before the album is over. But this record does underscore his contributions to King Crimson: the distinctive vocabulary of extra-musical noises, the personality and, especially, the humor, which is in abundant evidence here. When it all works, it works incredibly well.
Before taking a solo hiatus in the Bears, Belew issued a one-man instrumental record, Desire Caught by the Tail. The simply overdubbed guitars and percussion have a casual home-studio air but no discernible direction. Unlike his sometime bandmate’s obsessively controlled Frippertronics, these excursions, while occasionally evocative, hold scant listener appeal.
Seemingly designed to discover how his catalogue of eccentric guitar noises would sound in the context of a traditional pop-rock band — like, say, the Beatles, Hollies, Squeeze or XTC — Belew hooked up with pre-Crimson bar buddies the Raisins to form the Bears. And what a revelation the group’s two wonderful records are! Challenging, muscular, tuneful, idiosyncratic and accessible, The Bears (complete with group cover portrait by inimitable Mad magazine cartoonist Mort Drucker) is a superlative record. Everyone contributes and it all works — songs, playing, vocals and production. The only catch: it’s too pop for weirdo purists, too weird for pop purists. You figure out why it didn’t sell lots of copies.
Rise and Shine is nearly as good. While a bit more adventurous in song structure and playing, it also contains the occasional heavy-handed lyric (especially when bassist Bob Nyswonger writes alone) and one or two fewer memorable songs than The Bears. You’d be foolish to pass up either of these, though — get ’em while you can. As a bonus, the CD adds remixes of two songs (“Man Behind the Curtain” and “Figure It Out”) from The Bears.
Belew returned to the one-man-band approach of Desire Caught by the Tail for his Atlantic albums, making allowances for a few guest performers on each. The main difference between them and his work for Island is that the later material is far more accessible. Mr. Music Head, Belew’s most pop-oriented album to date, shows the Bears’ influence. Written mostly on piano, it’s more song-oriented than his earlier solo records, though it contains adequate signature guitar demonstrations to please the faithful. Still, a pure pop ditty like “Oh Daddy” (with guest vocals by daughter Audie) would have been hard to imagine on any of his prior records.
Belew finished Young Lions just before going out on David Bowie’s globe-trotting Sound + Vision tour, for which he served as guitarist and musical director. Bowie’s presence is strongly felt here, not just because he wrote and sings two songs (including the catchy “Pretty Pink Rose,” also issued on a CD with two non-LP cuts and the previous album’s “Oh Daddy”), but in the album’s generally heavier — but paradoxically more ethereal — tone. If Mr. Music Head was an earthbound journey with a nostalgic edge (typified by “Motor Bungalow” and “1967”), Young Lions constantly looks skyward in the present, whether for salvation on “Looking for a U.F.O.” or at “Men in Helicopters” shooting rhinos from the sky. Only the album’s two covers seem out of touch with Belew’s strong vision here: a reworking of “Heartbeat,” which he originally sang on King Crimson’s Beat, and a faithful-but-faster rendition of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Not Alone Anymore.”
Mixing straightforward songs and sonic explorations, the first three albums are usefully boiled down on the 21-track Desire of the Rhino King.
Inner Revolution shifts into high vintage-pop gear for a full-blown collection of fab inventions that resemble — perhaps a shade too closely — the Beatles, Traveling Wilburys and, most of all, the bridge between those two bands, ELO. A charming and diverse set that makes equally good use of Belew’s dexterous guitar reach, copycat arranging facility and engaging voice, the album is down-to-earth and upbeat (except for the rousingly sung breakup autobiography, “The War in the Gulf Between Us”).
Here refines that approach to subtler, less lapel- tugging effect, cutting the retro bounce for lighter, sonically ambitious designs. “Burned by the Fire We Made” and others are fairly consistent with the previous album, but several tracks are scarcely identifiable as Belew. (Or, to his credit, anyone else.) The lyrics’ new agey philosophizing is a drag, but Belew manages to sing his golly-gee contemplations, quandaries, homilies and realizations without getting too precious or clumsy: the record doesn’t suffer unduly from all the sensitive sharing, and a couple of howling guitar solos (especially in “Never Enough” and “Brave New World”) go a long way to disperse the therapy aroma.