Blue Ribbon: Another Time
Blue Bell

In a November '04 profile that appeared in the Toronto weekly eye, Jason Amm (aka Solvent) decried the press's lazy habit of stigmatizing his music. “I'd really like to shake that whole ‘retro ‘80s' tag,” he said. “That's getting really old, and it should be obvious to anyone who is really listening that my music owes just as much to Aphex Twin and Autechre.” While certainly no one's going to mistake Apples & Synthesizers for Draft 7.30 anytime soon, Amm's comment does raise an interesting point: Why do we so readily ghettoize synth-based music when it dares bare its Human League roots? More specifically, why levy such dismissive criticism against analog electronic music when bands like The Strokes or The Hives are exempt from like criticism, even though their sound similarly rises out of decades-old traditions? One answer might be that, just as there's an undeniable fervour for the latest electronic technologies, so too is there the concomitant prejudice against anything other than 'this year's sequencer.' In short, associating a particular sound so determinedly with one era ultimately proves prejudicial and needlessly delimiting.

While Amm has subtly updated his Solvent style to make it sound fresh and current, Blue Ribbon's Another Time is something else altogether, an unabashed resurrection of the ‘80s' sounds of Gary Numan, The Human League, even A Flock of Seagulls. Elements of Goth and New Wave commingle throughout, with tracks evoking Bauhaus, Modern English, Soft Cell, and The Cure along the way. Initiated in 1997 under the name How to Draw Robotech and changed to Blue Ribbon in 2002, the Providence, RI-based group (Steve, Jon, Bryan, and Jesse—first names only, please—on vocals, bass, drums, and analog synth gear) contributed to three compilations during 2003, with “Eagles Fly” on Blue Bell's Hear You Soon Vol. 1 prompting a full-length label encore.

A discernible formula comes into focus as the album unfurls across its twelve songs: loud, often symphonic banks of buzzing synths, primitive drum machine beats, and robotic baritone vocals, often oozing a resigned, doom-laden feel. The tinny production sound sometimes makes the singing sound like it's emerging from some distant, distorting tunnel (e.g., “My Face,” “Feel the Weight”); consequently, one must strain to decipher lyrics, though they're largely serviceable, the music's success or failure hardly dependent on lyrical sophistication (e.g., “Do you think she's gonna go out with me? / Do you think she's gonna go home with me?”).

The opener “Icicle” hews to the aforementioned template—blazing synth layers coupled with basic snare-bass drum clatter and multi-layered monotone vocals—though the title song deviates ever so slightly with ominous synth arpeggios, a subtle dash of Robert Smith in its more angst-laden moments, and two welcome bass and drum breaks. Though not terribly distinguished in itself, an instrumental, “2012205,” is welcome for deviating from the style established by the first four songs. Other highlights include the anthemic feel, buzzing bass synths, and hint of techno amidst the New Wave of “Miami ” and the Suction-like flavour of “Your Izod.” Dreamier pop moments in “Lyra” (“Let's go to Lyra / I want to see your blonde hair on the glacial plane”) also add some effective contrast near album's end. On the down side, “My Face,” with its surging synths and jubilant chorus, seems somewhat of an “Eagles Fly” rewrite, and the standard-issue Blue Ribbon “Radar” closes the album on a credible though hardly peak note.

Despite its similarities to Modern English's “I Melt With You” (1982), the album's best song remains “Eagles Fly” which surges from hushed verses to euphoric choruses. The piece impressed on the Blue Bell comp, not only for being great but for the contrast it offered when heard in the comp context. When the song re-appears in an entire Blue Ribbon album (and one that at 56 minutes is arguably too long for a style already rather circumscribed by nature), it begins to sound less special when joined by similar-sounding pieces that don't stray terribly far from it. Perhaps it's not so much that Blue Ribbon needs to update its sound as more boldly broaden its stylistic scope.

February 2005