Baby Bird-Ugly Beautiful

June 26, 2008

Baby Bird

UglY Beautiful(Atlantic Records 1997)

There’s a chill in the 1970 Maysles Brothers movie Gimme Shelter, documenting the previous year’s Altamont Speedway Concert with the Rolling Stones, felt long before Hells Angels bludgeoned a black concert-goer to death. It’s not one moment so much as it is a groan stretched across the day, watching the eyes glaze and drift like soap bubbles, and the Aquarian values of fraternity and easy feelin’ dissolve, without warning, into confusion, sickness and desperation. Looking back the resulting tragedy seems an almost mild outcome compared to the generational nosedive this movie portends—and captures.

But that’s the truth. It’s all over before you know it.

Like so many soapy-eyed hippies, Baby Bird represented the complicated, at times resistant, demise of a musical moment. Like Altamont, the band’s career-defining Ugly Beautiful carried a strange intensity fraught with idea confusion, thick genius-fatigue, and naked emotional channeling. The cynical “45 & Fat”, found head/primary Birdman, Stephen Jones, vowing to sing about love til long after the buzz has faded and his looks were gone. But in the chorus he showed the promise broken before the song left his pen, sweetly singing his own would-be Coca Cola jingle. Perhaps Jones was thumbing his nose at an air-headed Oasis, who had turned an already famous Coke jingle into the hit “Shakermaker”. But the result just came off sounding jaded–for relative newcomer Jones and the state of Brit-pop on the whole.

Ugly Beautiful had its warm spots, though. As if ensured by law the John Squire guitar jangle abounded, but in opener, “Goodnight”, Baby Bird seemed more infatuated with The Smiths, The The, or even James—British pop the lot of them, but not exactly, you know, Brit Pop. While England reveled in a great revival of 60’s rave-up r&b with Shoalsy/Stonesy faves by Primal Scream and The Verve, here was a band who was rediscovering the late new wave Warne Livesey sound not a half-decade in the slide.

The grinding non-sequitur, “Jesus is my Girlfriend”, flirted with the Italo side of The Fall, but lacked the characteristic Mark E. Smith acid; it was either not erotic enough to be good dance music, or not witty enough to satirize it. Still, it’s enduringly fun to nod to such a baffling premise.

“You’re Gorgeous”, a small hit, could’ve been a post-Kick INXS ballad, and might just as easily have put food on the table for Mundy or Robbie Williams; or today, a second coat of wax on James Blunt’s second BMW. In short it was foolish, clichéd, hopeful, and possibly perfect. “Me and You”, a quixotic electro-pop hymn marked by that Real World label deep-beat pop warmth, in which invariably macaws could be heard, represented the Ugly Beautiful album melting down in the final turn. Jones could find few words not in the title, without growing exasperated, switching languages, or going plain simple, as if turning the palette over on the canvas when the muse left his side.

Brit Pop really only lasted two years. The Blur vs Oasis class warfare mounted in 1995, and by 1997 Baby Bird was sorting through the remains, making an occasionally thrilling art rock spectacle of a declining zeitgeist. Lots of folks would have you believe the real Altamont moment came with Gay Dad’s Leisure Noise two years later. I’d buy that–though it too had its moments. But by the time Baby Bird peaked you could see the glazed-over looks, and sense the rumble of a mass freakout coming on. It was time to fold up the tent and remember where you ‘d parked the van.