English rock has always had room for crooners. From Cliff Richard and Johnny Kidd to Boy George and Paul Young, England has produced a steady stream of rock stars who prefer the soft sell over mere melodic assault, singers who tend to savor each note's resonance, rolling it around in their mouths as they might a fine wine. It's not exactly a bel canto approach, but the intent is much the same: to heighten the beauty of a voice raised in song.
Curiously enough, though, this fondness for well-formed notes extends well beyond the confines of mainstream pop; indeed, there's a well-defined tradition of crooning among British avant-rockers. A lot of that owes to the enduring stature and popularity of David Bowie, whose mellifluous tenor was as widely imitated in the early days as his outlandish dress, but in many ways, the spiritual father of the art rock croon is Bryan Ferry.
At first, Ferry was little more than a stylish amateur. His earliest recordings, both on his own and with Roxy Music, the trend-setting art rock band he founded in 1970, were appealingly inept, as Ferry's sense of style and fondness for mannerism largely overcame his lack of technique and vocal expertise. These days, of course, Ferry is far more in command of his voice, and is considerably more capable in his delivery. But his taste remains much the same, so that where once he seemed a connoisseur of camp, now he comes across as an avatar of art-rock stylishness.
Unfortunately, his weakness for form in place of content continues unabated, and that leaves his latest album, "Boys and Girls" (Warner Brothers 25082-1), foundering despite its high level of technical expertise.
Sure, Ferry sings well on the album; in a way, he's never sounded better. His tremulous vibrato, so full of pathos and vulnerability, has never sounded so achingly rich, while the nasal falsetto he occasionally uses to finish a phrase is as smooth and sheer as silk. The dark undertones to his voice are carefully muted yet clearly there, clouding his sound just enough to make the upper reaches of his voice shine through in Apollonian splendor. As recorded by coproducer Rhett Davies, Ferry is tremendously evocative, and as he croons this epigram or that, it's hard not to be overcome by the heavy-scented romance of it all.
Too bad that carefully crafted ambiance is all that "Boys and Girls" has to offer. It isn't that the album fails to establish the proper context for Ferry; it fails because that's all it does. So much is devoted to establishing the proper mood -- keeping the rhythm section insistent but understated, giving the backing vocals just the right amount of gauze-wrapped translucence -- that it's almost as if Davies and Ferry simply forgot to make sure they included a few songs on the album.
As a result, it's maddeningly difficult to grab a hold of anything on this album as it wafts by. Bits of "Windswept," "Sensation" and the title song manage to stick, but not enough to leave you with anything to sing in the shower the next day. Instead, what you remember are textures -- David Sanborn's gritty alto saxophone ripping through the haze of "Windswept," Mark Knopfler's guitar biting against the stylized reggae beat of "Valentine," and, naturally, Ferry's voice humming and purring throughout. All of which makes "Boys and Girls" terribly romantic in its way, but hardly satisfying on the whole.
Robyn Hitchcock, by contrast, has a voice that verges on the hopelessly awkward. His grasp of pitch is often frighteningly tentative, while his habit of jumping between registers in midphrase frequently finds him waddling off notes instead of hitting them squarely. For all that, though, Hitchcock still tends to caress each note, a practice that lends a certain resilience to his melodies and ultimately makes "Fegmania" (Slash 25316-1), his solo debut, an utterly winning effort.
As leader of the Soft Boys, a band which also produced Kimberly Rew of Katrina and the Waves, Hitchcock was alternately arch and accommodating. But on his own, his quirks have become not only more entrenched but paradoxically less intrusive. His pronouncedly lower class accent seems just the right touch to the low budget sci-fi vision of "The Man With the Light Bulb Head," while his inability to negotiate all the intervals of "Egyptian Cream" actually adds to the performance, leavening as it does the lyrics' psychedelic sentiment with a certain down-to-earth incompetence.
Where Hitchcock shines brightest, though, is in his ability to turn his essentially quirky vision into a workable pop approach. With "My Wife and My Dead Wife," for instance, he takes the notion of being haunted by a departed love and pushes it to its illogical extremes, somehow turning it into a triumph of warped romanticism, while "Strawberry Mind" manages to tie neopsychedelic imagery and a quasi-Cajun rhythm bed together in a perfectly convincing pop package. Robyn Hitchcock may not have the most polished voice around, but he more than makes up for it with his writing ability, and that seems likely to make "fegmaniacs" of us all.