Following the breakup of Hoboken’s Bongos in 1986, singer/songwriter Richard Barone moved across the river to New York and set about retooling his trademark amalgam of British Invasion, glam and American jangle-pop into more mature, less frenetic music. Recorded live at New York’s Bottom Line in 1987, Cool Blue Halo finds Barone fronting an acoustic/electric “chamber-rock” quartet of two guitars, cello and percussion. A hushed combination of Bongos favorites, a few new songs and nods to his influences (in the form of Marc Bolan’s “The Visit,” the Beatles’ “Cry Baby Cry” and David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” in a treatment similar to the one Nirvana would give the song six years later on MTV Unplugged in New York), the results are intimate but confused. Cellist Jane Scarpantoni and percussionist Valerie Naranjo (who would go on to work with David Byrne) provide restrained backing, but Barone’s sometimes coy vocals can break the mood.
Primal Dream, his first studio album, sounds like a step backwards. Produced by Barone, Don Dixon and Richard Gottehrer, the forced tempos, chattering keyboards and big, treated drums give the busy album a retro new wave feel, overwhelming a fine set of yearning love songs and (on the CD) a sensitive cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” Just how badly the songs were served can be heard on the German-only Primal Cuts. Along with two mixes of the album’s “Mr. Used-to-Be,” the EP includes live acoustic versions of Primal Dream‘s two best songs, “Where the Truth Lies” and “River to River.”
Moved by the death of a friend, author Nicholas Schaffner, Barone came up with Clouds Over Eden, the great album fans always imagined him making. While the components of his work remain the same, they take on a darker edge in the gloomy “Within These Walls,” the eerie rush of keyboards on “Forbidden,” the loneliness of “Nobody Knows Me” and the “Eleanor Rigby”-ish arrangement of the title track. It’s not a completely somber affair. “Waiting for the Train,” a duet with Jill Sobule, provides a welcome respite. The production, by Hugh Jones, is a fuller, more muscular take on the rock with strings sound of Cool Blue Halo. Barone’s singing is also improved, losing the precious self-consciousness that mars previous outings. A wrenching and thoroughly worthwhile album.
Rather than follow Clouds with another studio album, Barone recorded the live Between Heaven and Cello, a return to the familiar guitar/strings setting. While the record doesn’t break any new ground for Barone, two cellists (Scarpantoni and Lisa Haney) make it a diverting listen.