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Island (1996)

by Jenine Abarbanel

Buy Hello Vertigo

If you like this sort of thing, this is exactly the kind of thing you'll like.

Let's start by saying that I like this sort of thing. A lot. That's why I bought the album. Intense male vocal harmonies and heavy-handed guitars are my kind of thing. I haven't enjoyed an album this much since Dada released Puzzle in 92. Superficially, the two albums and bands are very similar. But after listening to Hello Vertigo a couple dozen times, the differences become more apparent than the similarities.

Frontman Joel Ferguson (who wrote almost all of the tracks on Hello Vertigo, sings lead, and plays lead guitar) does not display the technical guitar virtuosity of Dada's Michael Gurley. Also, since one person has done most of the song-writing for Hello Vertigo, the tracks tend to all be "much of a muchness." You aren't likely to have a favorite song on this album because they're all pretty much the same, from the hard-hitting guitar grinders to the almost-ballads. There is very little to discriminate one song from the next. The upside to this is that there aren't any weak tracks on this album, you'll like them all. The downside is, well, obvious. It helps to think of each track as a movement in a sort of symphony, each one is slightly different, but with an overriding musical theme tying them all together as a whole.

Joel Ferguson's voice is delicious and commanding, and the backup vocals he receives from the rest of the band are fantastic. His songwriting strays from "easy" harmonies and chord progressions, leaving the safety of endless Cs, Gs, and Ds in favor of minor chords that never quite resolve and occasional dissonance. They're meat for the listener's ear, giving you something to really sink your teeth into, instead of just allowing you to be lulled into major-chord power-pop happy land.

That being said, it is unfortunate that the lyrics don't do the same thing. A band like this could have a field day with off-center, creative lyrical subjects. Instead, as far as I can tell, they don't mean anything at all. It's as if they were written by non-English-speaking Japanese pop singers. The words rhyme and they sound good together, and some lines make a sort of sense on their own, but put them together and you get nothing. Each song is semantically void. There is no narrative, no over-lying meaning to them. I'm not asking for Deep Meaningful lyrics here, I don't expect or even want every album I buy to be about saving the rainforest or runaway pregnant teenage drug addicts, but if you're going to sing with the intensity and emotion displayed on this album, don't you want to be singing /about/ something?

Instead, the vacuous lyrics leave me feeling vaguely dirty and manipulated. Is Hello Vertigo a put-on? Did Joel Ferguson study the KLF's "The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way" very carefully and put out an album guaranteed to appeal to those of us who like this sort of thing? Is Papa Vegas the Aha of the 90's? Somewhere there's a producer rubbing his hands gleefully, counting the money as it rolls in. He's pointing and laughing at all us suckers like Nelson from The Simpsons: "Ha HA!"

Yeah, well, call me a sucker. I still can't get enough of this album and I'll listen to it over and over again until my head explodes from the sheer number of contradictions it contains. It's still the kind of thing I like.

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