CD Review: Bryan Ferry’s Avonmore

Last Monday, former Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry released his 15th studio album, Avonmore. The album was produced by longtime Roxy Music/Ferry associate, Rhett Davies, but he also got some help from a long list of talented musicians, most notably Nile Rodgers of Chic (and everything lately) and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Nile Rodgers makes his influence known not only by his signature funky, choppy guitar sound that is featured in most of the songs, but an overall sleek tone to the songs and the production. The title track has a driving disco backbeat with impressive bass fills sprinkled throughout that can only be Flea. But occasionally the lushness goes a little too far. “A Special Kind of Guy,” for example, takes the smoothness to a sickly sweet parody level, complete with some tepid wah-wah guitar in the background.

Perhaps the overproduction is due to an overblown cast of characters; on “Loop De Li” alone there appears Nile Rodgers, Johnny Marr, well-known blues guitarist Neil Hubbard, Sex Pistols axeman Steve Jones, session guitarist David Williams, and jazz legend Marcus Miller on bass, and that’s not even everybody playing a guitar. Ferry’s status as a UK national treasure is definitely secure, but it seems like he may be a little too focused on partying with rockstars.

One of the elements (other than the top-tier musicians) that made Roxy Music so special in the ’70s was Ferry’s somehow-masculine cooing vocal technique. It’s undeniable that age isn’t the best thing for your vocals; unless you’re some kind of immortal weirdo like James Taylor, you probably won’t be hitting the high notes you did in your 20s when you’re 69 (Ferry’s age). But in some ways, like in the case of Johnny Cash at the end of his life, the discernable age in a singer’s voice actually works to enhance what made it so special decades ago.

He uses his signature vocal vibrato effectively in the title track and “Driving me Wild,” but it’s never more prevalent than it is on the song “Soldier of Fortune,” the strongest original on the album. Ferry’s personal life seems to come through on the album, especially in this track. Earlier this year, Ferry was divorced by his 30-year-old wife of about two and a half years (“I’m a soldier of fortune, ambassador of pain / I had the world on a string and I threw it all away”). Ferry, with his English mansion, hasn’t exactly seen the dark underbelly of life, but his weathered voice gives the song an undeniable gravity.

Ferry’s never been afraid of cover songs, and Avonmore closes with a pair of the most eclectic and best covers of his career. The first is “Send in the Clowns” by Stephen Sondheim, originally part of the musical A Little Night Music. It’s been covered many times, but most of the covers are simple, with just a piano and some strings. Ferry’s version puts in all the theatrics of Broadway, and the song builds to a soaring chorus.

The second cover is Robert Palmer’s, “Johnny & Mary.” The modest 1980 single was itself a departure from the hard-driving, commercial MTV singles for which Palmer is best known; it’s a thoughtful, synthy new wave tune that sounds more like Devo or Echo and the Bunnymen. Ferry’s version, the highlight of the album, takes the punchy original and slows it down to a dark, ethereal pulse. The song is about a couple trying to break down the barriers between them to communicate, and Ferry’s fragile voice signifies that he knows about it all too well.

Although the album has some pretty strong originals, the covers are absolute gems. Perhaps Ferry, in his later years, has found a new talent in interpreting other people’s songs. Avonmore proves that even though it’s been over 40 years since Roxy Music’s first album, no one’s been able to replicate that voice.

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