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Pitchforkmedia.com - 1st August 2008
Parallel Lines: Deluxe Edition
"Blondie is a band," read the group's initial press releases. The intent of this tagline was clear, as was the need for it: "This is an accomplished bunch of musicians, a tight, compact group versed in everything from surf to punk to girl group music to erstwhile new wave," it seemed to say, "but, oh-- I'm sure you couldn't help but focus on blonde frontwoman Debbie Harry." In America, however, people didn't notice the group quite so quickly. Their first two records-- a switchblade of a self-titled debut and its relatively weak follow-up Plastic Letters-- birthed a pair of top 10 hits in the UK but had been, at best, minor successes in the U.S.; the debut didn't chart, while Plastic scraped the top 75. Despite savvy marketing-- the group filmed videos for each of its singles, that now-iconic duochromatic cover photo-- the group's third and easily best album, Parallel Lines, didn't take off until they group released "Heart of Glass", a single that abandoned their CBGB roots for a turn in the Studio 54 spotlight. Though its subtle charms included a bubbling rhythm, lush motorik synths, and Harry's remarkably controlled and assured vocal, "Heart of Glass" started as a goof, a take-off on the upscale nightlife favored outside of Blondie's LES home turf.
The swift move from the fringes to the top of the charts tagged Blondie as a singles group-- no shame, and they did have one of the best runs of singles in pop history-- but it's helped Parallel Lines weirdly qualify as an undiscovered gem, a sparkling record half-full of recognized classics that, nevertheless, is hiding in plain sight. Landing a few years before MTV and the second British Invasion codified and popularized the look and sound of 1980s new wave, Parallel Lines' ringing guitar pop has entered our collective consciousness through compilations (built around "Heart" plus later #1s "Call Me", "Rapture", and "The Tide Is High"), ads, film trailers, and TV shows rather than the album's ubiquity. Time has been kind, however, to the record's top tier-- along with "Heart of Glass", Parallel boasts "Sunday Girl" and the incredible opening four-track run of "Picture This", "Hanging on the Telephone", "One Way or Another", and "Fade Away and Radiate". The songs that fill out the record ("11:59", "Will Anything Happen?", "I'm Gonna Love You Too", "Just Go Away", "Pretty Baby") are weak only by comparison, and could have been singles for many of Blondie's contemporaries, making this one of the most accomplished pop albums of its time.
In a sense, that time has long passed: Blondie-- like contemporaries such as the Cars and the UK's earliest New Pop artists-- specialized in whipsmart chart music created by and for adults, a trick that has all but vanished from the pop landscape. Parallel Lines, however, is practically a blueprint for the stuff: "Picture This" and "One Way or Another" are exuberant new wave, far looser than the stiff, herky-jerky tracks that would go on to characterize that sound in the 80s; "Will Anything Happen?" and the band's cover of the Nerves' "Hanging on the Telephone" are headstrong rock; "11:59" does run-for-the-horizon drama, while "Sunday Girl" conveys a sense of elegance. The record's closest thing to a ballad, the noirish "Fade Away and Radiate", owes a heavy debt to the art-pop of Roxy Music.
Harry herself was a mannered and complex frontwoman, possessed of a range of vocal tricks and affectations. She was as at home roaming around in the open spaces of "Radiate" or "Heart of Glass" as she was pouting and winking through "Picture This" and "Sunday Girl" or working out front of the group's more hard-charging tracks. That versatility and charm extended to her sexuality as well-- she had the sort of gamine, sophisticated look of a French new wave actress but always seemed supremely grounded and approachable, almost tomboyish. (That approachability was wisely played up in the band's choice of key covers throughout its career-- "Hanging on the Telephone", "Denis", and "The Tide Is High" each position Harry as a romantic pursuer with a depth and range of emotions rather than simply as an unattainable fantasy.)
Already into her thirties-- ancient by pop music standards-- when Blondie released its debut album, Harry (and many of her bandmates) had years of industry experience and music fandom; at the turn of the next decade, they would combine pop and art impulses like few bands before or since. The lush, shiny sound of Blondie still greatly informs European pop-- which pulls less from hip-hop and R&B than its American counterpart-- as evidenced by the Continent's best recent pop architects and artists (producers Richard X and Xenomania, plus Robyn, Girls Aloud, and Annie); in America, however, the group is oddly seems tied to the past, a product of its era. Even the release of this record is built on the tentative need to celebrate its 30th anniversary. (An opportunity not fully explored: This latest reissue of the record includes a new album cover, as well as a DVD with four videos of television performances and a quartet of mostly unneeded extras-- the 7" edit of "Heart of Glass", a French version of "Sunday Girl", and a pair of remixes.) In that sense, this isn't a record that needs to be re-purchased-- if you own it already, skip this. Sadly, I get the feeling not many people under a certain age do own the record, however, which justifies the reason for trying to re-introduce it to a new audience-- it's still as sparkling and three-dimensional as ever.
- Scott Plagenhoef, August 1, 2008
Pitchforkmedia.com - 1st August 2008