Doll by Doll

Gypsy Blood

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The promise evidenced by Doll by Doll's Remember -- released earlier in 1979 -- is fully realized in Gypsy Blood. Fronted by vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist Jackie Leven, with new bassist Tony Waite (also the album's producer), Gypsy Blood is a big-sounding record; some of its tracks were deeply influenced by the production styles of both Phil Spector and Jack Nitszche. Musically, the soundboard is the same: big drums (David McIntosh) and guitars (Leven and Jo Shaw) up front with Leven's astonishing wide-ranging voice soaring over the entire proceedings. The songs, however, are shorter, and full of theatrical dynamics and near pathological passion. "Teenage Lightning" kicks off with the sound of snares and muddy tom-toms followed by silvery guitars riffs. Leven and Shaw sing in tandem with a purely harmonized classic '60s pop intro on the verses, when Leven explodes in the last couple of lines to push the entire band into some orgiastic pool of rock bliss (think Love crossed with Scott Walker) christened with a choir of female backing vocalists. The themes are pure rock romance: speed, cars, girls, attitude, and danger infect the track. The title cut follows; it's pure old-school (à la Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, and doo wop) rock & roll introduced by a jazzy Fender Rhodes line that could have been played by Georgie Fame at Ronnie Scott's. The "oooos" that commence barely prepare the listener for Leven's raw angry confessionalism: "I'll tell you this John boy, I'm not so green/I was married before I was 16 and/Rings on the finger of speed/I feel out of reach." The bridge is full of Rumi-esque poetry (or perhaps it's by Hâfez ranting about God and love) with crashing prog guitars knotting up the middle.

The track flows out into quiet briefly before you can catch your breath, only to be followed by one of the greatest rock ballads ever written, "Stripshow." With its surrealistic imagery of desolation and loneliness contrasted with the desire for new love asserting itself in the waste of midnight isolation, romance and the need for contact slide into the heart and take possession, as the song's protagonist sings to an absent yet achingly desired beloved. Layered fingerpicked electric and acoustic guitars carry the verse with power chords screaming in the bridge, as Leven's falsetto and baritone underscore his lines with authority (think Tim Buckley and Walker in the same throat), promise, and desperate hope: "When the stripshow was over/And the management had turned out the lights/Silent people had walked back into the night/I thought of you/Still living alone/I know they say that love is blind/But if your heart was touching mine/I'll give you something that you can't ignore/I'll give you something you've been searching for...." Sad men in leather, steel combs, switchblades, and the poetry of tragic French poet and madman Antonin Artaud weave themselves into faux doo wop as a love song asserts itself equally in "The Human Face." Leven brings in a gospel chorus to further confound the melody while extending it into sweet yet wailing instrumentation and choral voices on the line "And I know why Jesus wept" -- and the entire tune cracks open as a post-pop anthem. Celtic folk asserts itself gently (there is a sweetly singing fiddle in the background) with squalling open guitar chords and a drum thud, as the individual calls out from the field of self-destruction to be redeemed by love and love only. The side is carried out by the subtly haunting and gorgeous roots pop lullaby "Hey Sweetheart."

Lest you think you're in for sweetly crooned love songs alternated by the crunch of post-punk rhythmic and six-string excess throughout, side two screams out of the gate with the cracked guitar funk of "Binary Fiction" (written by Shaw). It's like a different band except for Leven's wildly vacillating vocals. "Hell Games" moves back only slightly to the rootsy glam punk and doo wop lyrics of side one. Its lyrics are pure busted-up fragmentation and dissolution. The melodic simplicity of "Forbidden Worlds" (a new kind of Scottish doo wop melding with '70s pop) quickly gives way to a riotous, raucous sonic whirlwind where drums vie with distorted guitars for dominance. But in Leven's voice, love is at the center of all chaos. "Highland Rain"'s traditional folk melody winds its way into a collapsing rockist sensibility. It's as if punk never happened, but rage has been given a different musical name. The apparent sweetness of the melody belies the orgy of violence at the center of the tune's lyric; restraint goes out the window and is given weight via Shaw's guitar solo and the ensuing dramatic twin-guitar rant all the way to the winds of hell. The beauty never disappears entirely, and Leven brings it back to the surface of the Earth with a weary return to the melody, scarred, bloodied, near death but somehow still standing to testify. This would be enough for most bands, but for Doll by Doll, there is yet another dimension: Shaw's "Endgame" is a brief acoustic ballad about insanity, unhealthy romantic obsession, and the death of feeling that foreshadows "When a Man Dies," a musical setting to the Anna Akhmatova poem. It whispers Gypsy Blood into a haunted, death-obsessed, and fractured silence, leaving the listener astonished, confounded, and completely hooked. Gypsy Blood was the great unsung classic of 1979 and is timeless in its tarnished yet insistent beauty and imagination.

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