Live by Request (Sanctuary)
by Michael McCarthy
Blondie‘s reunion seemed inevitable by the late ’90s with so many contemporary artists singing their praise. You couldn’t open a magazine without Shirley Manson prattling on and on with adoration about Deborah Harry and Blondie’s influence on Garbage. Couldn’t turn on VH-1 without catching someone crediting Blondie’s classic “Rapture” for giving birth to rap music. If they’d ever been dismissed as that pop group with the doped-up, doll-looking singer, it was hard to remember. Their own publicist couldn’t’ve hailed them as influential more than the music industry already was.
Then came the reunion album, 1999’s No Exit. Like most, I had high hopes for it. And I was disappointed. “Maria” was a catchy enough single, but apart from “Nothing Is Real But the Girl,” the album was forgettable. They were trying too damn hard. Sure, they’d been successfully eclectic in the past, but going that route with No Exit left many listeners feeling like the album lacked an entrance.
Hopes weren’t so high for the follow up, 2003’s The Curse Of. That’s unfortunate, because it was quite possibly their best album to date. Yes, EVER! Even more eclectic than No Exit, yet this time, the individual songs were so well-crafted and irresistible, it worked. From the spoken word of “Shakedown” to the dance beats of “Good Boys” to the jazz meanderings of “Desire Brings Me Back,” there wasn’t a bad song in the bunch. It killed me to see that one come and go with so little fanfare, at least Stateside, so I was hopeful that many songs from The Curse Of would surface on this new live disc. Unfortunately, as the title says, it’s “live by request.” And you know the masses, nostalgia-filled as they are, they always request the classics. Still, one wonders what their songs of yesterday will sound like coming from the Blondie of today. To that end, it’s an interesting listen.
Forgive me for saying this, but Deborah Harry used to sound a bit aloof or dumbfounded, like she didn’t quite know what she was singing about on songs like the stalker-ish “One Way or Another” or “Accidents Never Happen.” However, she seems to be singing them with a dangerous maturity these days. It sounds like she’s singing them with a menacing wink in her eye, just daring you to question her intelligence so she can cut your fucking heart out. Her bandmates aren’t slacking or otherwise ambivalent either. If the craftsmanship that went into their earlier works isn’t obvious when you hear “Hanging on the Telephone” or “Rapture” on the radio, it sure is in this live context. Stripped of its dance beats, “Good Boys,” the one inclusion from The Curse Of, sounds like Harry fronting Garbage with its intricate beat and short but infectious riffs.
There are a couple of low points, though. Harry sounds too sophisticated for the rap part of “Rapture,” making it sound completely ridiculous (maybe that one requires Demerol to get it just right?). It also sounds like they’re just going through the motions on “Tide Is High.” But these are otherwise impassioned performances worthy of your collection.