Richard Barone – Cool Blue Halo (Richard Barone Music / Digsin) review
A hauntingly beautiful album that spawned a new kind of music turns 25
In 1987, at the height of big hair, big drums, and well, big everything, a rather unassuming album – Cool Blue Halo, was issued by ex-Bongos frontman Richard Barone. It’s guitar, cello and light percussion lineup was a marked departure from the jangly, guitar-driven pop which his previous band had perfected. Upon first listen, this new direction was so sparse, it sounded like it was missing something – completely out of step with the times.
After all, R.E.M. were finally hitting pay dirt, placing the loud rocker “The One I Love” in the Top Ten that same year, proving that alternative music could be mainstream. Further complicating matters, Barone’s record label, Passport, was in serious trouble and would soon collapse, not healthy enough to give this album proper promotion.
And yet, as the years have gone by, Cool Blue Halo has only grown in stature. Famously, one Rolling Stone writer dubbed Barone’s new direction “chamber pop,” essentially ushering in a new style of music, which numerous bands have attempted. And, while just about everything else from 1987 (including R.E.M.) sounds dated, Cool Blue Halo is timeless. It’s just received the remaster treatment, complete with bonus tracks.
A great deal of emphasis with the album centers around Barone’s decision to include a cello, played by Jan Scarpantoni, in his band – a very non-rock instrument. This addition adds so much depth to the songs – giving them a longing quality that guitar, bass & drums would not be able to accomplish. And, the combination of cello with his electric guitar makes for an interesting dynamic. Another key aspect is the absence of driving drums – which allows these songs to float, rather than be tied down. In its absence, Valerie Naranjo’s inventive percussion further gives these songs personality, sometimes merely hinting at the beat. Add to it Barone’s clear vocals, eerily intertwining with Nick Celeste, who also provides acoustic guitar, and you’ve got an extremely interesting band.
But, make no mistake, Cool Blue Halo isn’t just about the bold choice of musical accompaniment. This is also some of the finest material Barone ever assembled, kicking off with a blast from the past – “The Bullrushes” originally came from the Bongos’ debut Drums Along the Hudson. But, the arrangement here becomes something more, allowing the song to wash over you, instead of follow a pre-determined path. The mix of cello and crying harmonies makes “I Belong to Me” one of the album’s best tracks. “Tangled in Your Web” sounds like something the Bongos would’ve tackled – but in this stripped performance, the emphasis falls back on the vocals and clever percussion.
Barone wears his influences on his sleeve, and that’s what makes his music so interesting. There’s certainly a Beatle-esque quality to much of the singing on the album, yet the minor chords and cello evoke a sadness, which is at odds with the soaring, tight harmonies. In a sense, it is both positive and negative, happy and sad, all at once. The odd percussion gives things a tribal quality – as if this were some sacred music for aliens who worshipped at the altar of Marc Bolan.
Barone chooses to cover three of his biggest influences for the record, and they all fit perfectly with his originals. – T.Rex’s “The Visit” improves on the original by adding an other-worldly quality, while “Cry Baby Cry” is about as obscure a Beatles song as you’ll ever find. Then there’s David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” which Nirvana also chose to cover on their MTV Unplugged album – using a very similar arrangement to the one done here.
There are a few slight nuances that give you clues into the intent of this record. For one, Barone keeps his talking to a minimum – he wants the songs to tell the stories. And, he’s chosen to fade each song out, instead of having them segue from one to the next. This is a subtle difference – but it’s worth noting. This is not meant to simply be taken as “concert.” By fading out each song – they all stand on their own as individual parts of a cohesive album.
The original eleven song record is augmented by nine bonus tracks. The demos show these songs in a different light – dominated by keyboards, they don’t emit the same haunting quality they would later have with the released versions. But, these aren’t throwaways either. The demo of “I Belong to Me” features some fiery fretwork, while the early “Love is a Wind that Screams” features an interesting backward guitar throughout. There’s also a demo for “To the Pure…” which ended up on Barone’s next album, Primal Dream. There are a few live tracks from Germany, showing Barone taking his unique ideas on the road.
Very few albums can truly be labeled unique. After all, ideas have been shared again and again, throughout time. Yet Cool Blue Halo not only blazed a trail, it still sounds as fresh today as it did over two decades ago. –Tony Peters