Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Musiqurium: Cool Blue Halo (part one)

I'm very happy to introduce a new Musiquarium by Chris Hornbostel, who has become my favorite music writer. It's all Chris from here on out.

This summer marks the 28th anniversary of the recording of one of the more interesting, great lost live rock and roll records in recent memory. It's an album called Cool Blue Halo, the first solo effort by a guy named Richard Barone.

I don't want to distort or oversell this record for being things that it isn't. Cool Blue Halo isn't one of the most influential records ever. It probably did made some mark on music over the last 20 years, but there have been far more influential pieces of music recorded in the interim. This thing never sold a million copies, nor was it a groundbreaking launching pad for a meteoric career in music. Barone is a well-known New York music figure, but he was probably more famous to the public before Cool Blue Halo than he was after it came out. His solo recording career since can be best described as “sporadic”.

No, Cool Blue Halo (the name comes from a spotlight setting for stage lighting) isn't any of those things. What it is, however, is simply a stunning and beautiful recording. It might be the single greatest 2am-sitting-outside-watching-stars-wheel-across-the-sky album ever recorded, if that's a genre category. It is a delicate, lovely, and fragile snowflake of a record that, given the wrong frame of mind, can sound melodramatic and overcooked. This is not the record to put on to kick off a party, in other words. This is a record for quiet evenings and taking stock, for moments of reminiscence and contemplation. It is an album which, given that context, can feel like being run over by a runaway city bus of emotions.

The other wonderful, odd thing about this album is that it was even recorded by a fellow like Barone at all. Cool Blue Halo is subtle and elegant, a slow-burning charmer that reveals its genius gradually over time. No one will ever accuse Richard Barone's outsized personality of “slow-burning”. He's a gregarious, charismatic lightning bolt of energy, and in interviews exudes a bold self-assuredness that the uncharitable might describe as brash. He started a career in music as a 7-year-old DJ on the air on a station in Florida, and has never left the biz.

Like many music-interested folks, a teenaged Barone watched with great interest as the punk and new wave movement in New York City seemed to take off in the late 1970s. That scene birthed what was then the biggest music act on the planet in Blondie, but groups like The Talking Heads were selling a lot of records as well. In fact, record companies were on the lookout for other groups with a similar feel. Richard Barone was determined to put together just such a band. He moved to New Jersey and recruited some like-minded bandmates, christening their group as The Bongos. Barone served as guitarist, lead vocalist, and wrote or co-wrote most of their songs.

The Bongos combined musical things Barone loved. At their best they had the kind of jittery, caffeinated energy of early Talking Heads, but combined that with their own  innate pop smarts. Which is to say that Richard Barone and his cohorts could write a massive melodic hook. After an excellent, independently released set of singles and album, the group was at the center of a record company bidding war. The band's major-label album came out to a hefty amount of hype but despite a handful of great songs it was both a critical and marketplace flop, and the members of the Bongos began to drift apart shortly thereafter. For some, perhaps the lasting legacy of the end of the Bongos recording career was having the director for the video of their song “Numbers With Wings” be nominated in that category at the first MTV video music awards.

And so it was the winter of 1987, and Richard Barone found himself without a band, a recording contract, and a once-promising career idling in neutral. He wanted to do something to get his name back out there as a performer, and perhaps even record something...but in his situation that was a tough ask. He finally hit on a working solution. He'd put together a band and try to record a live album he'd hawk around to gauge label interest.  All of that was easier said than done. Barone didn't want to just re-form The Bongos for a one-off, and he was picky about sound quality and found that many of the clubs in New York simply weren't a good acoustic match for recording a live record. There was also an issue of material: Barone had a few songs he'd been working on, but not enough for a full album.

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