The Blue Aeroplanes are so arty that their lineup includes a full-time dancer, but this ever-mutating Bristol combo has the talent and vision to justify its pretensions. Leader (and sole original member) Gerard Langley’s lyrics, unlike those of most literate rock writers, are genuinely absorbing and poetic, while his band — which has maintained a consistently sterling standard of musicianship through numerous personnel shakeups — spins intricate yet accessible folk-rock epics that range from mildly gorgeous to full-on breathtaking.
From the hard funk of “Pinkies Hit the Union” to the sonic landscape of “Owls,” Bop Art has something for everyone. Along with a barrage of guitars, bass and percussion, the instrumentation includes saxes, bagpipes and several 16th-century guitar ancestors. The band is such an effective ensemble that, even with all the masterful variety, the LP manages a logical progression.
The Action Painting EP builds some nice Velvets-cum-early Cabaret Voltaire drones; Lover and Confidante, another four cuts, is a trailer for Tolerance. Not quite as kaleidoscopic as Bop Art, Tolerance trades much of the oddness and idiosyncrasy of previous work for some psychedelic touches, adding just enough characteristic embellishment to prevent deep identification with the paisley bandwagon.
By the time of their first American release, Spitting Out Miracles, the Blue Aeroplanes were up to an eight-piece (if you count the dancer and the guy who contributes tapes and records), with an equal number of guests (including Michelle Shocked on mandolin). Amazingly, with all those ingredients, it often manages to sound like a singer/songwriter album; the musicianship is so controlled and artistic that the focus stays on Langley’s beat-influenced wordplay and Dylanesque delivery. On “Bury Your Love Like Treasure,” the artistes rock out fine and everybody gets home happy. All of the aforementioned records are highly recommended.
Friendloverplane is a compilation of non-LP tracks, half of them previously unreleased. As is typical of such efforts, it’s a hit or miss assemblage, with song and sound quality varying quite a bit. (Ironically, most of the better-produced numbers are inferior songs, such as “Etiquette!” and the single “Veils of Colour.”) While the first side is mostly slower quasi-blues, Side Two opens up more. Highlights are “Tolerance” and “Old Men Sleeping on the Bowery,” but neither ranks among the band’s best. For devotees only.
The band really came into its own on the Gil Norton- produced Swagger, wherein Langley’s ambitious verbiage and sly sung/spoken vocals meet their match in a strong and sensitive band lineup featuring guitarists Angelo Bruschini, Alex Lee and Rodney Allen, whose inventive textures shine on “Jacket Hangs,” “…And Stones” and “What It Is” (which features a discreet guest appearance by Michael Stipe). Elsewhere, Langley mines a Sylvia Plath poem for the lyrics of “The Applicant,” and Allen steps up to the mic to sing his own fresh-faced pop tune, “Careful Boy.” The eight-track World View Blue is a footnote to Swagger‘s US release, with the non- album single “You (Are Loved),” the hard-edged “Razor Walk,” another catchy Allen tune, covers of Lou Reed (“Sweet Jane”), Bob Dylan (“I Wanna Be Your Lover”) and Richard Thompson, live tracks and an acoustic rendition of the title number, the original version of which appeared on Swagger.
Beatsongs is even more impressive than Swagger, mixing jangly pop (“Yr Own World,” “Fun”), folky introspection (“Cardboard Box,” “Colour Me”) and majestic art-rock extravaganzas (“Sixth Continent,” “My Hurricane”). The excess of talent contained in the Aeroplanes’ Swagger/Beatsongs configuration is demonstrated handily on Friendloverplane 2, a generous assortment of B-sides and outtakes (including a brilliant cover of the Kinks’ “Big Sky”) compiled into an album as cohesive as its two immediate predecessors.
After an extended layoff brought on by record company politics, Langley and company came back with Life Model, a transitional effort recorded with a couple of different lineups. Though it has its moments (“Broken & Mended” and “Ghost-Nets” among them), it largely misses the multi-leveled magnificence of the band’s best work. Altogether more impressive is Rough Music, for which Langley augments the latest Aeroplanes lineup with return appearances by various alumni. The sprawling cast — featuring no fewer than 20 instrumentalists, including the Jazz Butcher, who co-wrote the haunting “Whatever Happened to Our Golden Birds?” — is well-suited to the task, as evidenced by the rockers (“Detective Song,” “Contact High!”) given tense, full-bodied treatments as well as subtler numbers (“A Map Below,” “James”). The four-song pre-LP EP of Detective Song contains, quizzically enough, a cover of the Smithereens’ “Top of the Pops.”
Langley and in-again-out-again Aeroplanes guitarist Ian Kearey (erstwhile Oyster Band member) recorded the six-song Siamese Boyfriends in 1986. Kearey is quite the multi-instrumentalist here, finding a part for everything from toy pianos and melodica to bowed psaltery and banjimer (!). “Joe Taylor’s/La Morisque” is a nicely played but not very interesting instrumental; “Dear, Though the Night Is Gone” is a W.H. Auden poem mumbled almost inaudibly over Kearey’s accompaniment. Siamese Boyfriends wasn’t so much produced as just recorded; that results in the participants jockeying for position and stepping on each other’s contributions. Not a major work.