December 3, 2015 The Blow Monkeys – If Not Now, When? (Album Review)
The Blow Monkeys was formed in 1981 in London, England by Dr. Robert (Bruce Robert Howard- vocal, guitar, piano) with Mick Anker (bass), Neville Henry (saxophone), and Tony Kiley (drums). The band got to ride the high tide of New Wave back in the mid-’80s with the strength of singles such as “He’s Shedding Skin,” “Wildflower,” “Digging Your Scene,” “Animal Magic,” “It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way,” and “(Celebrate) The Day after You.” In its on-and-off activity, punctuated by Dr. Robert’s solo and collaborative projects, The Blow Monkeys has released nine studio albums, from 1984’s Limping for a Generation to the recently unleashed If Not Now, When? Its overall musical style, especially in the early albums—like 1986’s Animal Magic and 1987’s She Was Only a Grocer’s Daughter—may be placed in the same class as the Sophisti-Pop/Dance works of fellow batchmates like Spandau Ballet (“With Pride”), Level 42 (“Something about You”), ABC (“Poison Arrow”), Simply Red (“Something Got Me Started”), Curiosity Killed the Cat (“Down to Earth”), and Johnny Hates Jazz (“Let Me Change Your Mind Tonight”); best characterized by a pastry of funky and jazzy guitar rhythms, rolling basslines, either slow or dancey beats, saxophone-led horn section, subtle synthesizer-generated string patches, and Blue-eyed Soul vocal styling glazed with a Pop-oriented New Wave icing.
In later releases, such as 2008’s Devil’s Tavern (“Travelin’ Soul”) and 2011’s Staring at the Sea (“Steppin’ Down”), the band did not really veer away from its trademark sound; the already existing elements of Blues/Folk/Country Rock were simply bolstered up, still fitting in the whole spectrum of the New Wave/Pop Rock genre. After all, this change of course is not uncommon; a few other bands belonging to the same base genre as The Blow Monkeys have also pursued similar stylistic expansion, such as Lloyd Cole & the Commotions (“Perfect Blue”), 10,000 Maniacs (“Trouble Me”), Edie Brickell & New Bohemians (“Circle”), Cutting Crew (“Biggest Mistake of My Life”), and The Waterboys (“Still a Freak”). Lyrically, The Blow Monkeys’ themes may seem light and typically romance-oriented from the outset; but upon further inspection, one will realize that lyricist and bandleader Dr. Robert has also so much to say about social and political issues, particularly the British politics during Margaret Thatcher’s era.
Compared with its predecessor (2013’s Feels like a New Morning) and the band’s hit singles, If Not Now, When?, the latest, ninth album of The Blow Monkeys, might sound edgier and too brash. However, if the listener will consider the entire discography of the band, especially the sonic characteristics of each individual song, then one should be able to acknowledge that the tracks in this latest offering are not far-fetched after all; nothing really over the top, nor too heavy or metallic. The band’s predilection for Pop’s melodiousness is still at the fore. The only notable difference is the use of the horn section in a different way—whereas in the previous albums the horns were used in a Jazz manner, this time they are in the context of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Other than that, If Not Now, When? still carries The Blow Monkeys badge, albeit in a rawer and more laidback manner. Perhaps every artist feels the need to engage in something new and different from what has become ordinary to keep him constantly inspired and invigorated. This may be the reason Dr. Robert with his associate sonic medics decided to forgo the band’s sophisticated sound and polished gloss. Maybe they just wanted to enjoy something basic, less structured, more carefree, and that has more room for spontaneity and improvisation without the need to follow a long-used formula.
Released on April 14, 2015, If Not Now, When? presents Dr. Robert and the rest of The Blow Monkeys in their most easygoing and happy-go-lucky disposition. It begins with the catchy saxophone-flavored basic Rock stomper “OK! Have It Your Way.” Following next in similar vein is “The Sound of Your Laughter,” which may remind a New Wave aficionado of Flesh for Lulu’s “Sooner or Later.” The mood turns sentimental and bluesy with the piano-led and organ-soaked Gospel-glazed ballad “All that Glitters,” which has a distant echo of The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and a melodic vibe of Robbie Williams’s “Better Man.”
“Think Again” is driven by a buildup of steady drumbeat, complementary bassline, angular rhythm guitar, relaxed vocals, and subtle synthesizer lines. A similar steadiness and simplicity is employed in “The Guessing Game,” which features an ear-catching Rockabilly-inspired guitar adlib. Old fans of The Blow Monkeys will definitely fall in love with the straightforward and sugary New Wave infectiousness of “Sun Is in the Sky.” The gear shifts to Country Rock as “Stay Now” plays on. Then there is “Shadow Boxing,” which is particularly interesting for its springy bass–razor guitar unison dashed with metronomic cowbell hits, invoking the carrier melody of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” The title track starts to wrap up the album by returning the listener to the basic Rock-n-Roll sound adopted for the opener. Finally, If Not Now, When? soothingly closes with the midtempo balladry of “Lions of Charing Cross.”
Fans of the early works of The Blow Monkeys, especially those accustomed with only the band’s radio hits, might be in for an unpleasant surprise. However, to those who are artistically open-minded and sonically adventurous to try and savor something new, who are familiar about the concept of reinvention, or, most importantly, who have listened to the entire discography of The Blow Monkeys, digging the loose Pop Rock style that the band has adopted for its latest release should not be difficult nor surprising. After all, if this is what their beloved iconic doctor is prescribing for the meantime, then fans should happily ingest The Blow Monkeys’ current aural pill for all its worth. CrypticRock gives If Not Now, When? 4 out of 5 stars.