The New Wave origins that the group Blondie left behind when they pulled themselves up by their guitar straps have disappeared on their fifth album, "AutoAmerican" (Chrysalis Che 1290). The band now seems fed up with rock 'n' roll. Vocalist Debbie Harry (the blondie) and guitarist Chris Stein seem more interested in film: she in starring; he in writing soundtracks. "AutoAmerican" seems a showcase for both those aspirations. Stein's centerpiece is an impenetrable orchestral exercise titled "Europa," opening the album as if it were already a videodisc needing a theme. How serious this distance seems from the band's fluid pop-punk postures over the last three year!
Harry seems intent on proving her versatility by dabbling in reggae, funk, pop, rock and pseudo-Big Band jazz, with side trips to Broadway and a cocktail lounge. The result is more a crisis of identity than a celebration of her limited talents. What made Blondie interesting was Harry's cool and sexless vocals played out against a pulsating best that seesawed between rock and disco. This time around, Harry and company seem bored with both. How else do you explain recording "Follow Me" from "Camelot" so straightforwardly? Or the sugar-coated reggae of "The Tide Is High"? The absurd efford to come across as Kurtis Blow on the rap song "Rapture"? The Streissand imitation on "Faces"? The collective vision that shot up the charts is a total shambles here. Is ths an audition tape for a breakup?
The songs that work on "AutoAmerican" come from keyboard player Jimmy Destri, particularly the overdrive of "Angels on the Balcony" and the agressive "Walk Like Me." Here Blondie is in its depth. The band was never in the artistic vanguard of New York's punk renaissance, merely the most successful (i.e., acceptable) representative of that scene. And much of that success had to do with Blondie's refresing and pulsating visual style. Their previous album was "Eat to the Beat." This time around, Blondie's out to lunch.
One blond who seems to be having much more fun is Rod Stewart, whose Christmas offering is "Foolish Behavior" (Warner Brothers HS3485). Stewart's classic gritty voice seems better suited than ever to the world weary ballads and rockers that fill up his albums. "Foolish Behavior" is really more of the same, with some songs seeming descendants of earlier efforts ("Oh God I Wish I Was Home Tonight" revives the style of Maggie May"). It's on the ballads that Stewart shines, "Somebody Special" in particular, reflecting the same king of domestic and personal confessional heard in John Lennon's last works -- the difference being that Stewart is a sentimentalist who's also looking at love with the bloodshot eyes of an unabashed rocker.
The up-tempo songs are less effective than the ballads. "Better Off Dead" recycles the same tired riffs Stewart has been caught in for five years, while "She Won't Dance With Me" and Passion" spin their wheels without making much progress. The playing, particularly from guitarist Jim Crega, is compelling but not adventurous. In the end, it's the tension and earthiness of Stewart's voice that make or break the songs. On this album, he's exposing more of himself by writing most of the songs. It's a developing skill with which Stewart has become increasingly comfortable.
Sweden's ABBA titles its new album "Super Trouper" (Atlantic SD 16023), but Super Stupor would have been just as correct. Although the band fully understands the basic ingredients of pop success and occasionally cooks up an irrefutable hit, its predictable pop is so formulaic that each album seems utterly disposable, especially when one knows the few highs will reappear on Greatest Hits packages.
ABBA's Europop dance pretentions may work overseas, but there is a coldness of perfection in the work of Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. They may be consummate craftmen, but there is little human feeling in their songs. The title song is Xerox rock, a rehash of a half dozen earlier efforts. The only distinctive song on the Album is "The Winner Takes It All," which may or may not be about the band's personal (and personnel) tribulations; it is a wild blend of Barbara Streisand's "People" and Frank Sinatra's My Way" done as ultrapop. The rest of "Super Trouper" is dismissalbe, particularly the bombast of "Andante, Andante" and the rather blunt "Lay All Your Love on Me." Everything about ABBA is calculated to reach for the megabucks around the world. That's the way of the wallet, but it does very little for either the ears or the mind.