Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Musiquarium: Cool Blue Halo (part two)

Part two from Chris Hornbostel.

The eventual setting for the recording itself helped to determine the makeup of Richard Barone's backing band and song selection for Cool Blue Halo. Barone's name still had some juice in the New York music scene and finally the legendary music club The Bottom Line (folks from Dylan to Lou Reed were Bottom Line vets) was secured for the venue. He felt he could get a great recorded sound in that intimate club setting...but not if he played with the same volume and bounce as he had with The Bongos.

To that end, Barone put together a radically (for that time) different combo with some musicians and friends from around the local scene. He enlisted Jane Scarpantoni, a cellist who was at the beginning of what would be a prolific career as a session player (if you heard cello on a rock record in the last 30 years, there's a decent chance it's her playing). Deciding that using a traditional drummer might overwhelm the sound, he instead turned to percussionist Valerie Naranjo, who did New Age music. As if that wasn't the most unlikely choice for the band he could make, Barone decided to bring along his buddy Nick Celeste as a second guitarist and vocalist. Celeste's day job was writing ad copy for the New York Times. (As the recording reveals, this was an inspired choice; Celeste's backing vocals are like Cool Blue Halo's secret weapon.)

It turns out, Barone couldn't have done a better job of picking a band and matching it to a space than he did here. The recording that resulted in the Cool Blue Halo album is pristine and clear, giving the illusion of a studio recording while still maintaining the urgency of live performance. And, as if to stick the landing, he also nailed it on song selection. The set list that night consisted of a few old Bongos songs, some new material, and then some well-chosen covers.

For instance, Cool Blue Halo opens with a Bongos song, a weird little track called Bullrushes that was one of the band's first singles. Here the song is slowed a bit, and the brilliance of the way Barone put this band together comes to the fore. With he and Celeste harmonizing like Lennon and McCartney, Scarpantoni's cello flows like the Nile while Naranjo's busy percussion fills are interesting without intruding on the song.

I think I'm personally most taken by the original songs on the record, though. None of these live versions were ever recorded in studio, so the live performance here has become the definitive version of these tracks. That's fine though. A song like I Belong To Me is so breathtakingly good, and the arrangement and playing here so perfect, that it's impossible to imagine it in any other way.

As great as that song is, and it is spectacular, Barone actually tops it further on. After a weirdly wonderful  T-Rex cover “The Visit”, things turn to a three-fer of original songs.

These three songs are the heart and soul of the album, and they're presented one after another in as if Barone is deliberately trying to make each song outdo the previous. The first is the gloriously seductive Tangled In Your Web which shows off not just a great song, but an utterly stunning arrangement, right down to the yearning call and response vocal between him and Celeste as the song closes.

From there, Silent Symphony follows. There are a lot of beautiful rock and pop songs in history, but I'm not sure any are more gorgeous than this. From the evocative lyrics (“When the moon is rising high, angels shrug their shoulders”) to Naranjo's goose-bump inducing vibe bridge, it's the kind of song that transports a listener into a completely different time and place. If a Winsor McKay cartoon could be a 2 minute pop song, it would be “Silent Symphony”.

Then, without a break for even applause, the band swings into the dramatic and theatrical “Flew A Falcon”, with it's sighing cello and booming, dramatic kettle drums that wend around each other through a bridge that blows up in a final verse that allows Barone to show off his vocal range and dramatic singing flair.

While those three songs are the tentpost for Cool Blue Halo, Barone is hardly done with his listeners. A cover of The Beatles Cry Baby Cry is as obvious as it is brilliantly executed. His version of The Bongos' semi-hit Love Is A Wind That Screams is both tense and languid thanks to allowing Scarpantoni's cello to carry the melody away. It reveals layers to the song that weren't apparent on the original.

There's also arguably the most influential track on the record, a cover of David Bowie's The Man Who Sold The World. Barone's arrangement of the song for this scaled-down acoustic setting was heard by his friend and Bowie producer Tony Visconti. A few years later when Nirvana wanted to cover it for their Unplugged album, Visconti suggested they mirror the arrangement on Cool Blue Halo. If you're only familiar with the Nirvana version, it's almost shocking to hear how closely it hews to this one.

Cool Blue Halo came out the same year it was recorded on Line Records, a German midline indie. It got limited distribution. Despite this, the record garnered almost universal praise in the music press, and to this day holds a reputation as a “rock critic's record”, as if winning over the jaded jerks like me who write about music was somehow pejorative.

Through the 1990s, Barone's music career centered more around theater, stage, and eventually even turned to classroom instruction (he teaches a class at NYU's Tisch School For the Arts). Although his recorded output has been sparse, he has some notably wonderful music to his name (particularly Clouds Over Eden, a rumination on life and death recorded in the wake of his friend, music writer Nicholas Schaffner's, death).

When the chamber pop revival in indie pop came to the fore at the end of the 1990s and early Aughts and made cellos in rock more commonplace, it wasn't unusual to hear Cool Blue Halo name-checked as a reference.

Perhaps, though the best measure of the record's staying power is that while it was originally released on a small, now-defunct German label, it has remained in print most of the time on some label or other since that time. As a testament to what is simply a wonderful recording, in 2012 to mark the 25th anniversary of its recording Barone re-assembled the original combo for a concert and DVD release that also included special guests like The Band's Garth Hudson and the aforementioned Tony Visconti guesting at various times. (Those performances are the ones linked throughout this article, in fact.)

Cool Blue Halo endures with a timeless sound. It is a triumph of small group arrangement, a set of songs that in the right setting work a kind of beautiful, delicate magic.

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