The blandness that is presently afflicting rock music is due, in part, to a lack of character and characters. Lofty pretensions, flashy costumes, laser displays and carefully orchestrated stage shows often have become commercial packages served up to satiated rock masses.
Somewhere along the line, someone forgot the power of the individual.
Not so much with Rod Stewart. His new record, "Blondes Have More Fun" (Warner BSK 3261), is outwardly a slight musical effort. No classical string assembles. No jazz-rock "fusions." No electronic razzle-dazzle. Musically and lyrically, the record is simple and direct, yet it is imbued with the character and vocal style that are Stewart's alone.
Since his early days with the Jeff Back Group in the late '60s, Stewart has had the image of a dandified, raucous roustabout, always dressed in a state of elegant disarray, whose on-and off-stage antics were mirrored in his music. While Beck blazed away with his revolutionary guitar work, Stewart would sneak behind an amplifier for a swig of champagne. His concerts with the Small Faces were more like intimate gatherings (of several thousand friends) in which Stewart was the madcap host.
And then there was the voice -- smooth like worn sandpaper and rough like cut velvet. He could spit out his emotionally pointed lyrics about women and love and then laugh with a husky hoarseness at the folly of it all. He didn't sing the words so much as play with them, coaxing from them meanings and feelings that they would never have on paper. If his personality was his bark, then his singing was his bite, clearly showing that behind the image there was also substance.
The cover of "Blondes" is at first disturbing -- it has a sleek, commercial look that resembles many of the disco monstrosities -- with Stewart clutching a writhing, leopard-leotarded woman. But look again. There he is, caught in mid-wink, as if saying, "Don't worry. I haven't changed."
The record bristles with a roughedged excitement and energy that are the equals of his earlier work. Whether prancing away on the disco-like "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy," boogeying on "Blondes Have More Fun" or playing the part of the ragtag crooner of "The Best Days of My Life," Stewart retains his personality while dabbling in various musical styles. On "Dirty Weekend," he's the freewheeling, two-fisted lover while on "Last Summer," he coolly muses that "Love has always let me down." On "Is That the Thanks I Get," he rants about lovers who kiss and then tell it to the court.
His finely crafted compositions have the same sense of sloppy sophistication that characterized the Faces at their finest. Melodies, rhythms and harmonies, all seem rough around the edges, yet they sound fresh and avoid the studio sameness of many "session" recordings. Carmine Appice (of Vanilla Fudge fame) has discarded the gaudiness of his previous work, and his drumming on "Blondes" has a drive that is most effective in its simplicity. That old standby, Nicky Hopkins, provides a rousing piano that is the perfect complement to Stewart's harshly whispered vocals on the classic "Standin' in the Shadows of Love."
Stewart has an empathy with his musicians that is lacking with many solo artists and their backup groups. He plays hide and seek with the instruments, throwing in a phrase around a guitar line and chopping the words to match the stuttering beats. He laughs along with a solo and then jumps in with the group for a rollicking chorus Because of this, the songs saunter along with a spontaneity that gives the record an uncontrollably festive modd.
Above all, there is Stewart, the character and vocal stylist. He sweeps across the record, drawing the listener into the spirit of enjoyment that he, obviously, brings to and takes from his music. At a time when many rock musicians and their record companies are attempting to force-feed the public with their images and products, Stewart lets his music and his personality speak for themselves.