Monday, November 16, 2009

Turn Of The Cards


How to describe the sound of Renaissance lead vocalist Annie Haslam’s voice? Hmmm, let’s see…remember that girl in the high school glee club who sang all the solos (not to mention leading the church choir on Sundays)? Perfectly hitting those high notes dead-nuts on, while mere mortals struggled, voices cracking in agony? You know, the girl who got straight A’s in every class. The one who always reminded the teacher to give the quiz that the teacher forgot about. Basically, you loved to hear her sing, but sometimes you just wanted to strangle the goodie-two-shoes (figuratively, of course). Now, take that crystal-clear, triple-octave voice, add a band with classical overtones (including classically trained pianist and band bedrock John Tout), what the hell, throw in a 30-piece orchestra or two. And there you have it: Renaissance. Launching this highbrow vibe with their third album, Turn of the Cards, Renaissance created what would be their musical MO – wrapping songs around long, orchestra-adorned arrangements that not only mirrored multi-movement classical pieces, but actually borrowed melody lines from a couple. While bands like Led Zeppelin paid homage to their blues hero Willie Dixon, Renaissance sounded like they’d been hanging out with Claude Debussy. However, with a player like John Tout in the band, we’re talking indisputable artistic legitimacy. This guy wasn’t just aping a classical player, he was the real deal. From the first notes of opening track “Running Hard,” Tout pounds the Steinway ivories like a mad maestro. No organs or synthesizers here. No electric guitars, either – that would be wrong for this tiny little orchestra. Tout is supported by bass guitar, acoustic guitar and drums. And of course, there’s Annie. Her crystalline voice shimmers throughout, performing tasteful vocal aeronautics that would make today’s overwrought “divas” cringe with shame and embarrassment. Epics like the opening track and the band’s signature piece, “Mother Russia,” swell and surge like good little classical pieces should, all the while showcasing that angel-on-high voice of Annie’s. No surprise that several years later, Renaissance played Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic. Believe it or not, bands performing with orchestras were quite the rage back then – moving millions of albums, selling out prestigious concert halls. A time when golden-haired, flowing-gowned damsels warbled with heavenly voices, soaring over rolling piano arpeggios and melodic classical phrases. Was it rock n' roll? Not quite. A golden era? Perhaps…but without a doubt a true Renaissance period. (Ed. note: Review dedicated to Wayne!)

Essential Tracks: “Running Hard” “Things I Don’t Understand” “So Cold Is Being” “Mother Russia”

1 comment:

  1. Turn of the Cards is certainly an amazing work, and you are right about Haslam and Tout being amazing in their musical skill. However, there are not as many epic solos as people would associate with the genre, and the instruments interplay well.

    What I find noteworthy about Turn of the Cards and its predecessor Ashes Are Burning is how, apart from the fourth track, the two albums parallel each other in structure. Ashes I have read as a concept album about the life and death of planet Earth, but the amazing thing about Turn of the Cards is how on the original vinyl it divides perfectly into:

    1) the upbeat, even romantic opening trio (the "light side)" where Thatcher seeks to understand nature's mysteries

    2) the three protest songs on the second ("dark") side, with one song about the Vietnam War in exceptionally poetic prose ("Black Flame"), one song about an ecological holocaust with Tout playing organ ("Cold Is Being"), and one based on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich ("Mother Russia").

    What really will surprise younger people like myself is how much from has been copied from Turn of the Cards by such artists as Dead Can Dance, Tori Amos and the "Lilith Fair" crowd (check out "I Think of You", which is the most sensual love song outside of Primordial Lovers, if you want evidence).

    All in all, Turn of the Cards really in an uncool masterpiece if even there was one. See my original review here.