Bryan Ferry returns to the role of world-weary romantic on Mamouna, but he’s picked up some new tricks along the way, made plain in the opening moments of “Don’t Want To Know.” The electronic effects announce the singer’s intent to infuse his muse with the mix-heavy melange of ambient/techno, underscored by the participation of Brian Eno. And the Roxy reunion doesn’t end there: Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay return on a few tracks as well. Bryan has never really shaken the ghost of Avalon, choosing instead to bring the original vision into sharper focus over the years. It’s the attention to sonic detail on Mamouna that stands out in my mind; the melodies are otherwise transparent, the vocals lovely but reduced to melancholy mumbling in spots. The guitar parts read like one of Eno’s ambient endeavors: mood guitar, atmosphere guitar, drift guitar, scratch guitar. These drift in and out of music, as do the sultry backing vocalists, found voices, and Bryan’s own keyboards. (Unlike Bête Noire, Ferry writes all the material and plays much of it himself.) It’s a remarkable world, one that wraps around you like a thick mist and offers tantalizing shapes in the shadows. And then there’s the inseparable beat, the unseen heart in this amorphous entity. At first, Mamouna is captivating, “Don’t Want To Know” and “Your Painted Smile” in particular. But, as often happens with Bryan Ferry, style and substance seem inextricable; “Mamouna” slips past like a cool breeze, “The 39 Steps” dissipates into the darkness much as Avalon’s “The Space Between.” The closing tracks shake the dust from Morpheus’ cloak to deliver scintillating sounds: the warmly rendered “Which Way To Turn,” the invigorating “Wildcat Days,” the surprising “Gemini Moon.” As the mist clears in the waning moments of “Chain Reaction,” we’re treated to a glimpse of what surely must be Roxy’s old ghost, reminded again that the two spirits dwell in the same house. For some reason, I approach these albums braced for disappointment and walk away resolute in my respect for Ferry’s artistry. If I place this behind Bête Noire, it’s by a nose at best. The two are both solid works, and I had initially expected to endorse Mamouna (downbeat mood and all), until I reflected that the disc could have been even better. It’s to Bryan Ferry’s credit that I can hold him to such high standards after all this time, but the fact remains that half of Mamouna is merely good. The other half is well worth the trip for any would-be Orpheus, a ferry ride across dark waters to where lost loves loom like shadows.
Welcome to Avalounge (population: you). So what are you still doing here after all these years? Surely you’ve gleaned all you can from the bard’s bitter musings, so why the desire to stay in these desolate lowlands? Because some folks get stirred up by this stuff, got stirred by Roxy really, and the rest of their life is spent looking for just another high. Taxi is a cover album (the closing “Because You’re Mine” is an original), and so critics dredge up all their past prejudices when describing this album. Frankly, I’ve never seen a critic bother to differentiate between the cover albums, and Taxi is in fact a Ferry of a very different sort. Beginning with Bête Noire, a Bryan Ferry disc took pains to set the tone in the opening moments. It’s shallow into “I Put A Spell On You” that you sense what’s up his sleeve: an album of covers played from his present ‘90s perspective. Honestly, if half of these tracks weren’t already familiar, you’d just assume this was the new disc from Bryan. The trouble I had with some of his solo work was a sense that musical development went on hiatus when the covers came out, but not so here. To my eyes, I see a logical bridge between Bête Noire and Mamouna. It’s a little more playful than those efforts, including funky treatments of “Amazing Grace” (it’s better than you think) and “Answer Me.” The choices are unusual this time, from the old Velvet’s track “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (now Bryan and Nico would have been a duet for the ages) to the title track (an R&B hit for J. Blackfoot in the early ‘80s). Perhaps that diminishes the nostalgia quotient, which is fine with me. I don’t look to someone as subversive as Ferry to protect the past, and I don’t think the old heroes need a new coat of paint. Honestly, the new material haunts the same familiar places anyway, so what’s the difference if Ferry pilfers from Elvis’s songbook or from Elvis by way of Roxy? I like the original material a little better (more surprises, more freedom), so follow Mamouna and Bête Noire first, but catch up with Taxi eventually.