Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Behind The Mask Is Another Fleetwood Mac Album That Rings As Average.

The Good: Decent vocals, Interesting instrumentals
The Bad: Few distinctive songs, Somewhat short.
The Basics: Fun and listenable, but still not Fleetwood Mac's best album, Behind The Mask is a very narrow "recommend," just because when it does take chances, it seems to succeed.

As September races toward its close, I find my stack of Fleetwood Mac albums diminishing and I consider that September was a much better month for me - musically - than August. Fleetwood Mac, honestly, was less of a risk than Ani DiFranco as far as devoting a month to them, as I had a couple of Fleetwood Mac albums and I have some songs by them I absolutely love; I had never heard anything by Ani DiFranco before I did my immersion in her works. So, as I have studied Fleetwood Mac for this month, I have managed to get a much more round view of the band and an appreciation for its history and the various combinations of its members. After I reviewed Tango In The Night, I was surprised to learn that the album was the last one by the Fleetwood Mac that is the most currently recognizable line-up of the band; Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and John and Christine McVie.

So, picking up Behind The Mask, the surprise for me was not that the recognizable band was no longer there, but rather who was gone and who had replaced them. This incarnation of Fleetwood Mac is down Buckingham (who still pops up for guitars on the title track) and he is replaced here by two new guitarist/vocalists: Billy Burnette and Rick Vito. The result is an album that sounds good, but is still not one of Fleetwood Mac's best. Behind The Mask does not have strong single and the album is good when it is not simply mediocre. The songs range from the traditional pop-rock, which is often boring in this context, to the straight-out weird (like "In The Back Of My Mind").

With thirteen tracks, occupying over fifty minutes, Behind The Mask is an album that has Fleetwood Mac exerting less creative control than most of their works since the late '60's, early 1970's. Only seven of the songs are written purely by members of the band, with the other six being co-written with others not from Fleetwood Mac. To the band's credit, Vito and Burnette are given the chance to write on the album and, in fact, the country/bluegrass twang of "When The Sun Goes Down" was written just by the new pair. The band is credited as a co-producer on the album, so there seems to be more than just the band's members creating on this album.

Still, some of the strength of Fleetwood Mac has to be from the fact that the sextet (in this case) is powerfully musical and they jam together using their own talents. So, for example, Stevie Nicks appears solely to provide vocals on the album. Vito, Burnette, and Christine McVie also sing and their voices are powerful on their own and in harmony. As well, the band plays their own instruments and all but Nicks play at least one.

Considering that this incarnation of Fleetwood Mac has two guitarists and a bass, one might think that Behind The Mask (the album) would be a guitar-driven one. Rather interestingly, songs like the single "Behind The Mask" illustrate well how Fleetwood Mac retains a more keyboard-driven sound. "Stand On The Rock" has a very classic rock and roll sound with Mick Fleetwood's drumming dominating the song. In fact, on that song, listeners are reminded of just how funky bass and percussion tracks - at least at the hands of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood - can be. This is ironic because Vito wrote the song and yet it remains strong for the band's founders.

Generally, Behind The Mask is more purely a rock and roll album and perhaps the jettison of Buckingham made that possible. Gone are the pop sensibilities and the band returns with a stronger sense of united sound, held together with a core guitar, bass, and drums combination. Christine McVie's keyboards are still present in many songs, but there are very few where her keyboards are not in competition with the core sound. Still, keyboards do drive songs like "Hard Feelings," at least until the bridges where the guitars rock over the keyboards.

The album is a pretty solid mix of the men's voices with Nicks and Christine McVie largely being used for vocal accents. Indeed, Nicks only shines on "The Second Time." She presents her song "Freedom," but it does not showcase the depth or force of her vocal ability the way the final track on the album does. Instead, Behind The Mask is an oddly masculine album in the area of vocals. Burnette and Vito have lower voices than Buckingham, so their vocals are clearly masculine and their harmonies, like on "Hard Feelings" sound more like the anthemic rock of groups like Journey than traditional Fleetwood Mac. The album also has fewer presentations by any one vocalist, with the bulk of the songs having extensive harmonizing between multiple singers.

Behind The Mask seems largely to be a socially conscious album, with songs about the nature of the place of people within the world. The songs generally have a bigger sensibility to them than traditional, easy love songs. So, even the songs that are about love tend to be more social commentary. Indeed, love is more of an afterthought when the band sings "Oh there’s no warning / That takes you to the promised land / Hearts made of crystal / Crumble like castles of sand / Echoes of emotion / And the visions of a fool / Echoes of forbidden ground / And it’s too good to be true, too good to be true / Love love love / Love is dangerous" ("Love Is Dangerous"). Far more often, the album is preoccupied with questions of how people relate.

Perhaps the most obvious example of songs where people relate to the world is the anthem "Freedom." Stevie Nicks and Mike Campbell mix the personal with the political with lines like "Freedom, well it’s a thing that is fleeting / Freedom is standing next to you / My intentions were clear / I was with him / Everyone knew / Poor little fool / Beautiful as you are / With that high spirit / Morning star of evil hit me / Cut me like a knife / Cool and collected / She became that with time / Totally rejected" ("Freedom"). While such sensibilities are not alien to Fleetwood Mac at all, "Freedom" remains one of the more potent examples of the blending of a personal metaphor to make a societal commentary.

This is not to say that the album is devoid of deeply personal songs. "The Second Time" is a pretty traditional ballad calling out a former lover or friend with reminiscences. "Hard Feelings" is a repetitive little number that actually explores the nature of wounds and the effect they continue to have on people. But the album opens with the more impressively direct inspirational song "Skies The Limit." As simple as the song might be, it is rare that a musical group tries to evoke a positive response from the listeners by calling them out as Fleetwood Mac does when they sing "Sooner or later / I'll keep the promise / I made you / Sooner or later / It will be greater/ Than we ever knew / The sky is the limit now" ("Skies The Limit").

But even the thematic elements that are unique or underrepresented in music still challenge the listener to not be unimpressed with the results. Behind The Mask is unremarkable and it is only through a cointoss that I ultimately recommended it. It is a good rock album for those who have heard a lot of everything else and want something new. Behind The Mask manages to promote the idea that it has something to say, but largely it has been done before, just not by Fleetwood Mac.

The best track is "The Second Time," the low point is "In The Back Of My Mind."

For other Fleetwood Mac albums, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Mr. Wonderful
Kiln House
Future Games
Bare Trees
Tango In The Night
The Dance
The Very Best Of Fleetwood Mac


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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