In rock 'n' roll, style is essential. But when the slickness of the package outstrips the intensity of emotion within, the result is boredom and decadence. So it is with Blondie's latest album, "The Hunter," (Chrysalis CHR 1384) a misconceived, laconic performance that concentrates on pose at the expense of power.
"Hunter" revolves on a half-baked concept of adventurousness in art, science and romance that fails to reflect in either the music or lyrics. The musicians juxtapose primitive screams and pseudo-African percussion sounds against lines about interstellar drag races and romantic ennui, but there's no enthusiasm to make the contrasts come alive.
A sense of adventure, in fact, is precisely what's missing. "Island of Lost Souls," an ersatz calypso, finds singer Debbie Harry extolling the healing qualities of escapism. For the ultimate in sensory thrills, there's "Dragonfly," the aforementioned galactic grand prix; unfortunately, whatever pace and intensity might have been intended are defeated by a lengthy, boring prologue setting forth the rules and technological requirements for the participants.
Of course, as made-for-video-cassette music, "Dragonfly" may have better success. Its packaging is much more visual than musical, as are several other tracks on the album. But whether this record is just an extension of Harry's quest for ubiquitousness, her lifeless posturing reveals more than ever her lack of range, both lyrically and vocally.
On "English Boys," Harry simulates a Melanie-like, '60s-sweet falsetto to make a tired stab at "peace and love." Not only is her voice not up to the task, but the gist of the lyrics is weak: "In 1969/I had a lousy time." By the time the album winds down to the soul standard, "The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game," even the extra chord change or two doesn't relieve the tedium of Harry's arrogant boredom with her craft.
As lead singer for the Motels, on the other hand, Martha Davis is anything but unenthusiastic. On "All Four One," (Capitol ST-12177) she intersperses cutting, angry recriminations with self-mocking humor, mysterious romantic involvements with painful self-revelation--and everywhere, her strong rock vocals are equal to her compositions.
Davis is best when she throws a little wryness into the works. "We smile without any style/We kiss altogether wrong," she laments on "Only the Lonely" (not the Roy Orbison classic). "Tragic Surf" finds guitarist Tim McGovern and bassist Michael Goodroe putting a sly "Wipeout" spin on a tale about a doomed surfer, told in the "Last Date" mold. And "Art Fails" is a tough treatise on the dangers of self-indulgence.
The cut that best points up Davis' versatility is "Change My Mind," a smoky blues number worthy of Tom Waites at his best. Here, Davis teases, taunts and otherwise tantalizes her lover, threading fickleness throughout a tapestry of romantic promise. To its credit, the band neither overplays nor tries to fill in the gaps and pauses, letting the song drift on keyboards and Davis' clean interpretations.
Although Davis' lyrics are superior to Harry's throughout "All Four One," one of the strongest cuts on the album is a cover of Goffin's and King's "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)." This is entirely due to Davis' skillful interpretation, whose utter lack of irony and artifice pound home the reality that sexism is not relegated to one gender or generation. "If he didn't care for me that way/I could have never made him mad," sings Davis in a pain-drenched verse. It's the kind of intensity that allows substance to transcend style. The Motels will perform at the Wax Museum on June 28.