This is a band that always understood the importance of a strong first line. Take 1990’s Jacket Hangs for example. And this album is no different, proceedings getting underway with a drum pattern suggesting The Wedding Present’s Greenland that leads us into something of a digitised 21st-century take on a winning format. “I tapped directions on app, I was Looking for X’s on a Map,” imparts chief lyricist Gerard Langley over a guitar-heavy introductory riff. The scene is set, the band swiftly heading up through the gears from there, a mighty 10-song opus purposefully unfolding.
You can always expect the unexpected with the ‘Planes, and next is a version-excursion of turn-of-the-century Shanks & Bigfoot dance hit Sweet, Like Chocolate. It’s hardly recognisable at first, nagging away in your head until you realise just where we are, the original vibe reinterpreted and re-energised. By the time the chocks are away we’ve moved on from AC/DC to The Pixies playing Club Classics.
Getting back to opening lines that grab the attention, I’m particularly fond of Retro Moon. “I sometimes walk down There and Back Again Lane. Not very far, obviously, because there’s nothing there”. Apparently there is one in the band’s home city of Bristol, so – to confound celbrated BA fan Michael Stipe – perhaps you really can get there from here. Either way, the underlying riff is pure ‘Planes, despite the fact that only Gerard, his brother John Langley, and dance-master Wojtek (yep, I reckon you really can hear him dancing on this album, not least this track) survive from the band’s ’80s and ’90s incarnations. Once again, I’ll quote the poet, who paints a picture with, “Ah yeah, here it comes … thunderbolt – thrown down from the heavens by a deity with a sense of humour and an eye for a situation”. Glorious. I’d suggest we introduce a performance poet laureate role in his honour, but the music industry would only abuse it and hand the role to less deserving types. Hell, there’s even a bit of swirling keyboard in there. What’s not to love?
Even when they’re supposedly being more straightforward, this band inspire closer inspection, as is the case on Dead Tree! Dead Tree! Another story song, equally evocative and clear proof of Gerard’s continued worth in the sphere of the thinking man and woman’s alternative pop. Need him to explain more? How about, “Something that is beautiful but doomed to disappear must be appreciated while it is there to forestall the sense of loss”. Is that clearer now? Thought so. The kind of philosophy that resonates with me, Chris Sharp’s underlying bass-line transporting us towards a gripping finale.
By comparison, the title of Walking Under Ladders for a Living seems to have jumped ship straight from the back cover of a Half Man Half Biscuit album. Think Stevie Wonder on the Wirral, the writing on the wall. There’s a gear change here, as if we’re swapping sides for a fresh perspective, the backing vocals proving the perfect foil to our revered front-man’s spoken imagery (because ‘all the best words are never enough’).
Meanwhile, on side two, Elvis Festival is a joy, a further touch of BA genius, with glam elements courtesy of Bec Jevons’ guitar riff, and guaranteed to bring a smile to the face. The concept may seem fairly sad, but this is heartfelt and a celebration of The Wonder of You the underdog, and your 15 minutes of fame. “His wife sewed on the sequins, but he made the cape himself. He’s been saving his money all year for the Elvis Festival”. As Gerard puts it, “It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part”. Besides, who doesn’t love cowbells?
Talking of celebrations, why put off today what you might not be able to manage tomorrow? And Nothing Will Ever Happen Here in the Future takes us down that path, offering a welcome change of pace, the orchestral backing track increasingly stirring – with surging strings attached – as Gerard implores, cajoles and caresses with his repeat lines, “Want to be wanted, we need to be needed, we love to be loved”.
On Skin, we switch tack again, Ms Jevons up front this time, the IDestroy chanteuse stepping up to the mark for something of a fresh approach. “This is my skin, and I welcome you in,” comes the beguiling catch-line. Over to Mr G. Langley, who adds, “Identity is increasingly important in an age where many of your friends will be pixels”. True enough.
Here is the Heart of All Wild Things was the first track I heard from this album, and it still hits the spot. Again, the poetic imagery grabs you. “She was not afraid, she clung to the horse’s back, she left for parts unknown. She was not afraid.” Circular, gentle guitar licks help the song slowly build towards a tumultuous Crazy Horse climax. And the lyrical content, Gerard? “Just because something is difficult or unknown doesn’t mean you can’t try”. I heartily agree.
And then we’re away with Poetland, and it’s a land of contrasts apparently. Gerard takes us to a whole new setting, one clearly not so easy to define yet full of imagery. “Poetland – it’s like Poundland … only weirder”. Off to the edge we head on a sweeping tide, accompanied by sweet ’60s surf rock’n’roll harmonies, battling to catch our breath after so many great lines across these 10 tracks – lyrically, visually and sonically. Yep, Welcome, Stranger! is a mighty addition to a wondrous catalogue of colourful aeronautic delights.
Five previous essential long-playing highlights from The Blue Aeroplanes:
It took a while for me to lay hands on my first slice of BA vinyl, but this – their second platter – provided proof that the band could be just as manically inspired on record as on stage. If ever an LP painted a picture, this be she. Its many highlights include the wondrous single, Lover and Confidante, the W.H Auden-infused zeitgeist of Journal of an Airman, and swirling glimpses of what was to follow in the beguiling Warhol’s Fifteen.
While for me the band found their wings when they launched into Arriving four years earlier on Tolerance, their true arrival on the wider indie scene came four years later, the ‘Planes by now with Ensign. From the moment that guitar riff breaks out and Gerard asks us to pick a card (any card), we’re hooked. Rodney Allen was also on board, and all was well in my world. I’ll go for the more obvious highlights like Jacket Hangs, And Stones, and the epic What It Is, but there’s not a duff track.
The band had entered their Chrysalis stage, continuing on a creative high, the story on-going with this US-recorded winner. The songwriting’s supreme, not least Yr Own World, that juxtaposition of Gerard’s spoken lead, those sweet backing vocals and searing guitars proving somewhat sublime. Well, everybody’s happy sometimes. A filmic Angel Words and Rod’s Fun keep us on that higher … erm ‘Plane, while Colour Me is six minutes of aural beauty.
While never really sold on the delayed Life Model (save for Broken and Mended) I didn’t have long to wait for the next high, the second Beggars Banquet album out the following year – one of the last vinyl LPs I bought. It was a return to form from openers Detective Song and Sugared Almond onwards, with Rod’s Worry Beads possibly my favourite BA moment. Oh, those guitars. A more cinematic side resurfaces on the reflective James and Secret Destination, with seldom a weak moment throughout.
I took my eye off the ball beyond Rough Music. Blame it on parenthood if you will. But there was proof that the BAs were back (they never really left) and large as life by the time of this Harvest debut, taking us towards 2011’s Anti-Gravity and today’s return of a perennially-welcome stranger. Up In A Down World carried on where we left off, while Beautiful Is (As Beautiful Does) – with Dawn Larder’s co-vocals and Calvin Talbot’s George Harrison-like guitar – could brighten the darkest of days. Sublime.
For this site’s interview with Gerard Langley of The Blue Aeroplanes, from January 5th, 2017, follow this link.
The Blue Aeroplanes are on tour to promote the new album from this week. For ticket details and to learn how to get hold of Welcome, Stranger! contact the band website or check out their Facebook and Twitter pages.