Flamingo review: intro
REVIEW: You've got to hand it to Killers frontman Brandon Flowers: He's always done things his own way. Growing up in Las Vegas (the adopted home to both Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley), when his friends were buying records by Tool and Nirvana, he held true to the English bands he loved, groups like New Order, The Smiths, Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode.
Later, as he rose to prominence with The Killers, he boldly proclaimed his lifelong membership in The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints, making him, besides The Osmonds, one of the few Mormon rockers to go public. (Quibble with the definition of The Osmonds as "rockers" all you want - Crazy Horses is heavy to the max.) Beyond that, he's one of a handful of men who has recently sported a moustache unironically and gotten away with it.
Call him a dandy, call him a poser, call him a peacock (he's all of those things and would probably welcome each tag enthusiastically), the fact remains that, with his irresistible mix of dancey synth-pop fused with dashes of heartland rock, he and the rest of The Killers (guitarist Dave Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer and drummer Ronnie Vannucci) have carved out a unique niche in the music world.
Flamingo is Flowers' first solo album, and it's a doozy of a debut. Strangely, it wasn't intended as such: The singer-bassist-keyboardist had been writing material for what he assumed would be a new Killers record when the band suddenly announced they were taking a year-long hiatus. Rather than bask in success in his desert digs, Flowers enlisted producers Stuart Price (who helmed the band's 2008 smash Day & Age), Pearl Jam and Springsteen knob-turner Brendan O'Brien, along with U2 sonic craftsman Daniel Lanois (not to mention guest musicians such as Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis, as well as drummer Vannucci) to create a dizzying collection of musically daring songs that deal directly with - to bum a phrase from Depeche Mode - faith and devotion.
In many ways, this is a record that The Killers simply couldn't have made - it's too personal and confessional, too immediate; and even in its quietest moments, it's an insidiously believable, soul-stirring event that never goes soft.
Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas
Over a plaintive piano, Flowers sings woefully, “Woke up in the rusted frame of a burned-out old DeVille/ legs are shot and they‘re flushed with pain, but you can‘t keep them still.” For those first few seconds, you're sure he's harkening back to the Springsteen-imbued Darkness On The Edge Of Town ruminations that informed much of The Killers' 2006 Sam's Town.
But then a choir cry of “Hoshanna!” (Flowers and producer O'Brien on vocals) rises up - no matter where you turn in Flowers’ vision of this desert paradise, there are angels everywhere - and a rush of power-chord guitar ushers in the chorus: “Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas/ give us your dreamers, your heartaches and your sins/ Las Vegas/ didn’t nobody tell tell you the house will always win?”
Kaleidoscopic keyboards fill the air, along with synth strings and Victor Indrizzo's walloping drums, as Flowers sings about the evils of "cocaine and lady luck” - apparently, the angels have flown away. This is followed by a stinging guitar solo (O'Brien) that yields to a church-like crescendo that will have you thinking you're Nicholas Cage with one last chance at a life. As the flipside to Elvis' Viva Las Vegas, it's potent stuff.
Only The Young
Aural suspense fills the atmosphere as somber keyboards descend from the darkness. Flower’s vocals seem Skyped from another continent: “Nothing is easy/ nothing is sacred/ why?/ where did the bough break?/ it happened before your time.”
Then the dawn breaks, and there’s a gentle gallop of a Ronnie Vannucci's drums. The multi-tracked voice of Flowers in the chorus is like a world music chant: “Only the young can break away, break away/ lost when the wind blows, on your own on your own.”
A perky bridge pops out of nowhere with some sinewy bits of slide guitar courtesy of Stuart Price. It's interesting that Lanois didn’t lay a hand on this cut, for as the song progresses it takes on a gospel quality that would appear to have his fingerprints all over it. Coming from Flowers, an unabashed admirer of U2, this is a number than can transport you from whatever moment your stuck in and can't get out of.
Grand and glorious from the start, this mid-tempo, piano-driven rocker finds Flowers paired with Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, and they make a charming, arresting couple indeed, their “ohhhs” and “ahhs” melting together like chocolate and peanut butter amid a wash of ameliorating Cure-like keyboards.
Spirited as it is musically, the lyrics read like letters never sent, ones locked away in a bureau. Addressing Lewis, his lover in the song, Flowers recites, “You let me into your life unaware/ there was magic and fire in the night/ and back then I was just a little boy/ I made mistakes that caused you so much pain/ all I know is that I’m older now.”
Dueting on the chorus, Flowers and Lewis sing, "And this has been hard enough on you/ I know it's been hard enough on me/ I'm telling myself that I can roll with the changes/ and when the water gets high above your head, darlin' don't you fear/ this has been hard enough on you/ it's been hard enough on me."
It’s sweet but not saccharine, melancholy but not mawkish. Halfway through, drummer Darren Beckett quickens the the pace, and near the end, Daniel Lanois (who shared in the writing but not the production; Stuart Price and Flowers are listed as producers) lays down a brief, poignant guitar line, the kind that leaves you breathless and hoping for more.
Listen: Brandon Flowers - Hard Enough
Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts
Daniel Lanois’ opening guitar arpeggios float by like lily pads on a stream. Within seconds, however, the song gathers steam and a forceful rocker kicks off. Guitars, both acoustic and electric, build as Flowers, mixing lyrical gambling metaphors in a manner that dangerously teeters on parody, works up to a rough and raging chorus:
“When I saw you dancing on the moon now/ I watched him spin you round and round/ why did you roll your dice and show your cards?/ jilted lovers and broken hearts/ you're flying away, while I'm stuck here on the ground.”
After an heavenly middle break which features more of Lanois’ shimmering six-string work, there’s a rush of harshly plucked and heavily distorted guitar chords accented by bold cymbal crashes that bring matters to a decisive conclusion. A song that bears repeated listenings - in a row, in fact.
Playing With Fire
It's 4am and you're at the bar in Vegas. Or maybe you’re at the Elvis wedding chapel. Then you go driving into the cool desert during the last hours of night. From out of nowhere...somewhere...this hymn, sounding like a B-side from Achtung Baby, begins. Guitars and dub sonics (credited to Lanois) glow like headlights. Yep, it's that kind of song.
Amid the muscular percussion of Ronnie Vannucci and Darren Beckett, Flowers, in his most unadorned, unaffected voice sings, “Daddy, I'm not gonna tell you that I'm sorry/ there ain’t nothin you can do to change my mind/ I'm not here to know the things I cannot do/ we've seen the outcome of the Boy's Who Didn't Fly.”
By the chorus, Flowers is pushing his tenor with the lines: "Playing with fire/ you know you're gonna hurt somebody tonight/ and you're out on a wire/ you know we're playing with fire."
The song is a shape-shifter, and by the middle the sound is already approaching the tipping point. Still, we step higher and higher, until a soothing piano bridge eases us back for a few gentle moments. And as the tune rides out, we have more guitars, which chime and sparkle, sizzle, and yes, they rattle and hum, too. Flowers slowly scats each note. Fascinating and bewitching.
Was It Something That I Said?
Wow, here’s something different! A spunky, good-time dose of old-school new wave, sounding like Scandal meets The Cars, that manages to be nostalgic and thoroughly up-to-date.
With a bouncy bass and crackling drums behind him, Flowers, assuming the role of the female in a tale of love gone wrong at - you guessed it, the Elvis wedding chapel - mixes his voices in high and low tenors during the chorus: “Was it something I said I did/ was it something I should’ve kept hid/ if you leave me hanging I don’t know what I’ll do/ it doesn‘t matter who’s wrong or right/ in the clear of the blue moonlight/ you got me on my knees, Valentino this is not like you.”
Things get even peppier and frothier from there, a mix of Farisa keys and chorused-out guitar lines that recall the early days of MTV. Resist at your own peril - you’ll only be proving you’re no fun. No fun at all. Great stuff, this one!
Lighter than air keyboards bounce about the choir of background vocals in what is, ultimately, a Latino-flavored song in which Flowers asks to be cleaned of his sins. What those sins are exactly (remember, this is Vegas), he doesn’t say.
“Please don’t tell me I can’t make it/ it ain’t gonna do me any good/ please don’t offer me your modern methods/ I’m fixing the carpet out of wood,” Flowers sings, accented by the gentle clitter-clack of castanets and infectious “ohh-ohh-ohh” background vocals.
After a hushed middle-eight section, peppered by Bendan O'Brien's jazzy guitar figures, Flowers states, “Tell Him that I made the journey/ tell Him that my heart is true/ I’d like His blessing of forgiveness/ before the angels send it through.”
Synth strings swell, a rush of production overhelms, and the final verse and chorus are positively joyous. This is a quick song - you'll be checking to make sure it's really over - but it's rich and satisfying, and more than the sweet morsel it at first seems.
Ethereal keyboards and electric guitars give way to a haunting three-chord piano progression and a steady drum beat courtesy of Victor Indrizzo, over which we hear Flowers: “There’s a still in the street outside your window/ your keeping secrets on your pillow/ let me inside no cause for alarm/ I promise tonight not to do no harm.”
The musical bed builds, with a choir of Flowers' background vocals buttressing the chorus in which he sings, “We’re caught in the crossfire of heaven and hell/and we’re searching for shelter/ lay your body down/ lay your body down/ lay your body down...”
Amid briskly strummed acoustics in the bridge, Flowers states, "Tell the devil that he can go back from where he came/ his fire he airs all through their beating vein/ and when the hardest part is over we'll be here/ and our dreams will break the boundaries of our fears."
Electric guitar lines flutter like butterflies in the summer air, and then the song comes to a sudden halt, like an interrupted dream.
Listen: Brandon Flowers - Crossfire
On The Floor
Sometimes the penultimate moments in a story are the ones that really matter, as is the case with this glittering gospel masterpiece about sin, degradation and the primal need for moral cleansing, Flowers, backed by the Las Vegas Mass Choir, shines in his most naturalistic state.
With Daniel Lanois' guitars building from nothing, the singer begins, “When the lights go down in the city, getting real low/ settle in my room, I’m noticed/ when the still comes in my window, letting me go/ I feel a calm come over me, on the floor.”
The echoey guitars cluck and chatter as keyboards join in. This is church epic, no doubt, one that Elvis - the unofficial king of Las Vegas who somehow never lost his relationship with God - could have sung to the rafters and beyond.
In fact, imagine The King belting out these words:“Well, I find myself on my knees/ begging please on the floor/ facing the things I’ve done here on the floor/ well, the years have gathered and rung that’s where I’ll be/ and I find myself on my knees…begging please.”
That's not just Vegas. That's Tupelo, Mississippi. That's Memphis. It's everywhere a heart aches and bleeds.
Swallow It is a track that's difficult to get a handle on, particularly as an album closer. Over a brisk 4/4 tempo and an oblique nylon-string guitar figure, Flowers, almost talk-singing, states, "Seek out the light between/ time and confusion glowing up ahead/ instead of slipping through/ you bit off more, much more than you could chew."
Ad he doesn't let up. With Darren Beckett's same steady drumbeat guiding him, he sings in almost a monotone, "You could not swallow it/ no baby you're not ready, slow down/ and take the time to evolve/ you could not swallow It/ no baby you're not ready, slow down."
Flowers blends his voices in the bridge to jarring effect. With a muted rhythm tapping away, he says, "Take your medicine and crawl before you walk/ think it through before you open you open your mouth to talk/ be an advocate of joy/ find your little heart's desire and follow it..."
Electric guitars pan back and and forth before a reprise of the opening nylon-string figure brings the song to a close. Whether or not it's his crowning achievement (Flowers has stated in interviews that Swallow It is his proudest of creations), it's an intriguing finish to an album that has provided us with full-body cries and whispers, screams and quivers of delight.
Liked this: Now check out The Killers' Dave Keuning MusicRadar podcast interview
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