Saturday, May 16, 2020

THE VAPORS/Together review!


Thirty nine years is a long time between albums. A really long time, actually. A lot has happened in those 39 years. The world that we lived in way back in 1981 is a ghost of its former self. Some things are better, some things worse. There have been generations born and generations that faded into dust. The sense of optimism that the youth of ’81 once clutched tightly to their chests has all but deserted them. The shadows of fear now loom large on our horizon. But all is not lost. Look there… in the distance… there is a ray of light and a beacon of hope. Yes, after 39 long years, The Vapors are bringing us TOGETHER!

OK, so that first paragraph may have been a bit melodramatic, but it isn’t entirely untrue. The Vapors DO have a new album, and it arrives smack dab in the middle of a dark and tumultuous time in our history. And when times are bad, we search for the good in this world. We desperately need something good to lift our hearts, to raise our spirits, and to get our hearts beating in time again. So, does The Vapors’ TOGETHER fit the bill? Well…. read on!

Best known for their worldwide hit, “Turning Japanese”, The Vapors kicked open the door with all guns blazing. Their frenetic, youthful energy and Pure Pop melodies ensured that their debut album, NEW CLEAR DAYS (1980), would be remembered as a New Wave, Mod, or Power Pop (take your pick) classic.  Singer/songwriter David Fenton wrote so many great hooks, he could fill every nook and cranny of the album with them. “News At Ten”, “Somehow”, “Spring Collection”, etc. Every song a classic. And every B-side a gem. Steve Smith’s basslines cut through your heart and rattled your brains. Ed Bazalgette’s guitar lines were waiting around every corner, ready to strike when you least expected. Howard Smith pounded the skins and kept the tempos so swift and powerful that it was surprising that the rest of the band were able to keep up. The album was filled to the brim with ‘shoulda been hits’ but the album is best known for one really big one: “Turning Japanese”. Not bad, but they deserved more. More acclaim. More hits.

In 1981, the band returned with their sophomore full-length MAGNETS, a semi-concept album that was a completely different – but equally engaging – experience. David Tickle, fresh off of producing two Split Enz albums in a row, replaced the debut album’s producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven. Sonically, MAGNETS was a dark and dense album.  Everything that you loved about the first album was present and accounted for apart from the ‘in your face’ production. Instead, MAGNETS offered more layers, more atmosphere, and more emotion. If NEW CLEAR DAYS was the sound of youth, then MAGNETS found the band leaping over puberty and landing straight into adulthood. More politically minded than their debut, the album was filled to the brim with a cast of shady characters that seemingly haunted Fenton’s dreams. “Spiders”, “Jimmie Jones”, “Daylight Titans”, “Civic Hall”, and “Silver Machines” were some of the album’s many highlights. Smith and Bazalgette even co-wrote the fantastic “Isolated Case”, the only non-Fenton penned track in the Vapors catalog up to this point. The only thing missing was what the radio programmers wanted most: a carbon copy of “Turning Japanese”. Fenton and Co. were smart enough to avoid rewriting their hit. However, the album didn’t sell as well as the debut and suddenly, the label lost interest. The band then split up.

After years of speculation, hopes, and rumors, three of the four members – Fenton, Smith, and Bazalgette – returned as The Vapors with new drummer Michael Bowes (Howard Smith opted out although he remains friends with the band). It was a dream come true for many fans who were convinced, after years of false rumors, that a Vapors reunion would never happen. The band spent the next few years playing gigs in the UK, finally making a few treks – one short and one long – over to the U.S. for live shows. In the meantime, Bazalgette couldn’t commit to The Vapors full-time because of his day job as a successful director in the UK. Instead of searching high and low for a fill-in guitarist, the band turned to David’s son Dan Fenton to step into Ed’s shoes when he couldn’t commit to certain live gigs. Although Bazalgette remains a member of The Vapors, his live appearances with the band have dwindled as his directing career keeps him extremely busy. In the meantime, the band began to feel more comfortable on stage, filled with renewed energy and a connection with their audience that they never had before. And then they started sneaking new songs into the set…

Now, almost exactly 40 years after the release of their debut album – and 39 years after MAGNETS was released – The Vapors have returned with TOGETHER. Produced by the legendary Steve Levine (Culture Club, Kyle Vincent, The Creatures, China Crisis, Westworld, Jimmy The Hoover, America, Space), The Vapors’ long-awaited third album is a triumph on many levels. The album manages to bring The Vapors’ signature sound straight into 2020 without dragging nostalgia along with it. This is The Vapors as they are today, same as they ever were but also different. The youthful energy has been replaced by quiet confidence. More importantly, they don’t recycle old ideas – the entire album sounds and feels fresh and exciting. The songs are just as hook-filled as the first two albums. In fact, on first listen, most everything on TOGETHER can easily be labeled an ‘instant classic’. “Crazy”, the first single, is a prime example of The Vapors in 2020 – energetic, melodic, full of life. Even when the band takes minor musical detours – the gorgeous guitar jangle of “Sundown River”, the hazy Pop of “Girl From The Factory”, the chunky playful Rock stomp of “King L” – they are inspiring. And of course, you get plenty of glorious guitar Pop like “Those Tears”, “I Don’t Remember”, “Real Time”, “In Babylon”, and the title track. When the band stretches out and adds a dramatic flair to the recordings – “Nuclear Nights” and “Letter To Hiro” (NOT “Letter From Hiro” from their debut album) – they reveal that they are moving forward without abandoning their past. Producer Levine mixes the energy of the debut with the more sophisticated sound of MAGNETS, creating a new and improved Vapors sound without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Fenton’s vocals are more direct and warm, making him sound more human, more relatable, and more connected than ever before. The punky edge is gone – they ARE 40 years older than the young cats that made that first album – but the album is filled with a new kind of energy. The grand vocal harmonies on the album are a bold and welcome addition to the sound of TOGETHER. It is a truly special album.

With the full team – big Fenton, Smith, Bazalgette, Bowes, and little Fenton - on board for this release, TOGETHER, is the album that we all wanted from The Vapors… and it is the album that we all need in these troubled times. Sometimes, dreams really do come true. Let this album remind you that there is still hope in the world. It is time to get TOGETHER.  

Be well,
Stephen Schnee


Scott Milner said...

You perfectly nailed what this album is! I’ve listened to this album over 20 times in the past two days and can positively state, that it’s a masterpiece! It’s as good or better than the first two albums, (which I still own)! Hopefully, a new generation of listeners will find The Vapors new tracks a joy to listen to! As for me, I’m deliriously happy to go and listen again!

Gregory M said...

So, there's this dream where The Bongos, X, The Brains, The Gas, and The Vapors reform after lo these decades and rescue us from feckless politics, pandemics and Cardi B. With grand "Adventureland" and turning "Together," and with the boys from across the Hudson still around and looming, will this reverie be fully revealed?