Sunday, July 5, 2015

That Which Endures: The Sign By Ace Of Base Holds Up Remarkably Well!

The Good: Catchy tunes, Some good messages/rhymes, Good balance of programming and vocals
The Bad: Short, Moments of repetition that are troublesome
The Basics: The Sign is a rightful bestselling album, as it has a great sound and surprisingly enduring lyrical statements!

There are surprisingly few albums from my young adulthood that I look back up and add to my permanent library. Recently, my wife picked me up - at my request - The Sign by Ace Of Base. It was an album I had back when I had audio cassettes and it was released at a time in my life when the single "The Sign" spoke very strongly to me (and I was actually ahead of the American curve on it, as I was listening to the songs when "All That She Wants" was topping the U.K. charts and it was jumping the pond only on obscure, alternative, radio programs. In finally adding (or re-adding) The Sign to my permanent musical library, I consciously acknowledged that the album was pretty much the soundtrack of my adolescent independence.

In relistening to The Sign as an adult, I was wary of hearing the album only with a sense of nostalgia. After several spinnings of the c.d., I feel I've come to a pretty objective review of the album. In my musical library, there is exceptionally little in the way of dance music. In fact, outside The Bee-Gee's Their Greatest Hits: The Record (reviewed here!), I don't think I own any albums that would be considered dance albums. Given how the lyrics of The Bee-Gee's remain potent and popular even now, it is hard - despite their massive success with Saturday Night Fever to simply consider them a "dance group." Ace Of Base, with its pounding bass, synth-driven numbers and repetition that occasionally makes the album feel as sweaty as a dance hall, is very much a dance album.

With a dozen tracks (one of which is a remix of "All That She Wants") clocking out at 42:44, The Sign is plagued mostly by being short. The album is very much the work of the band Ace Of Base, as all but one track is written by the bandmembers Joker and Buddha ("Don't Turn Around" was co-written - both music and lyrics - by Diane Warren and Albert Hammond). The quartet that was Ace Of Base performs all their own vocals and members of the group were involved in the production of all but two of the album's songs. Given how cohesive The Sign is as an album, that is not entirely surprising.

On The Sign, the music of Ace Of Base is entirely produced and engineered. In fact, in the liner notes for the album, there are no credits for any form of instrumentation, programming or engineering, just production. The result is a synth-driven album made up almost exclusively of pop-dance tracks ("Wheel Of Fortune" might be the closest to a pop ballad the band comes on their debut album). The songs are different-enough that, despite all being programmed with the intent to get listeners to dance, each one sounds different and has its own recognizable melody and tune (save "My Mind"). When I was younger, I don't think it ever would have occurred to me that there would be dance music produced where a musak version could be released and the song would be utterly unidentifiable, but that is music today!

Vocally, The Sign remains memorable for the decent blend of female and male vocals from the members of Ace Of Base. Linn and Jenny Berggren harmonize perfectly to present articulate and sometimes haunting vocals. The group's ability to harmonize to make a single monotone sound for "Happy Nation" makes that track's message of blind conformity all the more real and horrifying. Like the instrumentation, the vocals are frequently subject to production elements, like reverb, that make the album anything but a work portraying the natural, human, voices of the band members.

That said, the album has remarkably clear lyrics for much of the album's runtime. Ace Of Base may be producing a dance-pop album, but the group still has something to say. The title track of the album is an atypical empowerment song. While "The Sign" is ostensibly about getting the strength to move on after a bad relationship, its message is far more universal. The simple declaration of "I saw the sign / No one's gonna drag you up / To get you into the light where you belong" ("The Sign") is an epiphany unfortunately few people actually achieve!

The Sign also weirdly blends tones of caution into their lyrics. "All That She Wants" can easily be seen as a warning between bro's - don't get mire in that chicksand! Similarly, with lines like "I see lies / In the eyes of the stranger" ("Living In Danger") repeated over and over again, it is hard for listeners now not to assume that the early 90s were a time of great violence and suspicion between people!

There are mindless dance tracks in the form of songs like "My Mind" and "Dancer In A Daydream," but most of the songs have something to day. From the disco adaptation of Snow White on "Waiting For Magic" to the youth anthem "Young And Proud," most of the songs on The Sign have at least one memorable line to them!

Ultimately, Ace Of Base's The Sign holds up surprisingly well after all this time and is a worthwhile addition to anyone's "essential '90's" music library!

The best track is "The Sign," the low point is "My Mind."

For other works by artists who appeared in the 90s, please check out my reviews of:
The Way It Feels - Heather Nova
The Crossing - Sophie B. Hawkins
Extraordinary Machine - Fiona Apple


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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