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Old 08-23-2011, 10:31 AM   #169 (permalink)
Trollheart
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Christopher Cross --- Christopher Cross --- 1979 (Warner)


Famous for songs like “Arthur's theme (the best that you can do)” and “Ride like the wind”, Christopher Cross's voice is unmistakable, his particular brand of soft rock unpalatable to many, but essential to others. This is his debut album, and whatever else you say about it, it's quite a feat to have your first album yield three hits singles, one of which went to number one, one to number two, and those two are well-established standards now. The cover of the album is extremely distinctive, with the stylised figure of the flamingo, which became inextricably linked with the artist.

For an album that birthed such classics, it starts off a little weakly, with the rather bland “Say you'll be mine”, which really fails to stamp its identity on the album at all. Things improve a little for “I really don't know anymore”, with backing vocals from the great Michael McDonald and great guitar from Cross, and its slightly Steely Dan sound. “Spinning”, with its jazzy guitar and sax, and digital piano conjures up the sound of the seventies in a hundred soundalike songs, with backing vocals from Valerie Carter, but it's still fairly low-key and more than a little pedestrian, and listening to this album for the first time you could have been forgiven for throwing in the towel at this point.

That would be a mistake though, as history has shown, seeing as the next track up is one of Cross's big hit singles, the upbeat “Never be the same”, with its breezy keyboards, chug-along drums and infectious melody. Quite how different this is to the tracks that precede it is amazing: it's almost like Cross finally hit on the magic formula, and indeed his career would never be the same after this hit the charts, kickstarting a musical journey that would see him earn Grammys, Golden Globes and even an Oscar for “Arthur's theme”. There's something about this song that just, well, clicks, and you can almost hear the SNAP! As everything falls into place. From stuttering start to confident realisation that this is it, this is his “Eureka!” moment.

“Poor Shirley” has more than an element of “Breakfast in America”-era Supertramp, but it's not really in the same league as “Never be the same”, allowing the quality to dip again momentarily before we're hit with the supreme broadside of “Ride like the wind” and “Sailing”. With backing vocals again from Michael McDonald, you surely know “Ride like the wind”, the fast, staccato beat and the urgent vocal, not to mention the “Da-da-da-da-dada DA-DA-DA-DA!” hook that was pouring out of every radio in America and Europe from 1979 onwards, and which is still played today, sounding as fresh now as it did then. Cross's vocal is tight, desperate, the synthesised wind behind him that opens the song before urgent keyboards lead the track along its path with an insistent beat that just can't be ignored.

Hitting number two when released as a single, it's easy to see why. This shows what Cross was capable of, how good he could be, and what a great ear for a snappy tune he had. A great guitar solo and powerful backing vocals help craft this song into a true, timeless classic. “The light is on” revisits “Never be the same” and also faintly presages later hit “All right”, and in so doing manages to maintain the quality of the tracks in the way the first three did not. It's evident Cross was still learning here, honing his talent, and inevitably there would be one or two songs which failed to impress, but the good here certainly outweighs the bad.

Save the best for last? Almost. Again, I'm sure we all know the classic ballad “Sailing”, with its lazy guitar and meandering keyboards, its lyrics conjuring up images of relaxing summer days spent travelling down some quiet river or across some lake, the sun beating down. The opening strings introduce the song on a gentle, almost caressing piano line, Cross's vocals luxuriant and laid-back, inviting you to close your eyes and slip away with him into his world of peace and serenity, where all cares disappear as the wind fills the sails, and the land recedes.

The closer is the longest track on the album, at six minutes, and “Minstrel Gigolo” is a nice mid-paced half-ballad, with the stop/start staccato beat that characterises “Ride like the wind”. I personally don't think that style suits this song, which needs to be more gentle: it keeps punching when it should be tipping perhaps. Nice guitar solo, proving Cross is no stranger to the fretboard, but I find the song itself a little overlong: it feels stretched, with the same basic idea running through the melody to the end with little variation. I think four minutes, four and a half at most, would have done this song, and as a result it sounds laboured. The guitar is nice though.

There can be no doubting the worth of this album --- it did after all win a Grammy for Album of the Year --- but I feel that it stands upon the merits of the three singles, and one or two other tracks. Were it not for the popularity and class of such songs as “Ride like the wind” and “Never be the same”, this album may have just gone down as another failed debut. I don't think it has enough, beyond the singles, to justify it as a great album in its own right.

However, whatever I think, this was the one that launched Christopher Cross on his way to stardom, and I'm sure he's not complaining about how it worked out for him!

TRACKLISTING

1. Say you'll be mine
2. I really don't know anymore
3. Spinning
4. Never be the same
5. Poor Shirley
6. Ride like the wind
7. The light is on
8. Sailing
9. Minstrel Gigolo
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