Critical Distance: Reevaluating Roxy Music’s ‘Siren’ In 2017

07.06.17 2 weeks ago 4 Comments

Virgin Records Ltd.

It is easy, on the right wrong day, to think the gig economy will undo music criticism. Find a few blog posts studded with typos and misidentified photos and you might logically guess that unpaid interns, or bots, are now in charge of what you read. With this in mind, it was reassuring to go into a rabbit hole and find that the criticism around Roxy Music’s Siren is weirdly uneven, especially reviews published around the release of the album in 1975. Zoom in on the album’s Wikipedia page — the way an overworked journalist or college student might — and the problems don’t turn out to be the fault of bad scans or broken links, or bots.

When I found Siren, as a teen, it was just an overstuffed single: “Love Is The Drug” plus some other stuff. The tumble of falling in love with music meant that fourteen other sounds fell on top of whatever Roxy Music was and it wasn’t until adulthood that I had any reason to sort out what was going on with Siren. In 2012, Roxy Music’s catalog was remastered and issued in a single lump. Even the audiophile crabcakes on the Steve Hoffman music forums gave the box set high marks. In mildly technical terms, the recordings sound “flat,” not juiced and primped and blown out for the sake of volume. This time around, the dodges and feints that produce natural qualities in an inherently unnatural medium worked. The albums went into my phone and stayed there. Siren revealed itself both as a clutch of strong songs and a remarkable example of what a rhythm section can do. If you reduced the album to John Gustafson’s bass playing, Paul Thompson’s drumming, and Bryan Ferry’s voice, you’d have most of the information that makes the album mean anything at all.

So let’s go to one of the lead reviews of the moment, Simon Frith’s Rolling Stone piece on Siren, printed on New Year’s Day 1976. Frith is as good as they get, especially with British art rock and any other variant that has notions to wander into the fancy seats. Here? Not sure what happened. First up are the factual snags. Frith writes that “With the single exchange of Eddie Jobson for Eno (on synthesizer, keyboards, strings) the band has been together for five albums and numerous tours…” Jobson did take over for Eno, but by Siren, the band had gone through four different bass players. This is of especial note on Siren, as bassist John Gustafson is essential.