Old heroes, new albums. Not, as we know from long and bitter experience, necessarily a good idea.
But, from the moment “Stay Human” opens Curved Air’s first new album since... hmm, we’ll get to that later... and Sonja Kristina uncages what remains one of the most instinctively distinctive, and inspiringly beautiful vocals in rock, old heroes, new albums, and exceptions that prove the rule.
A quick catch up for those who missed it. Genius in their first incarnation (the first three albums), less so once they’d spun round the block a few times, Curved Air broke up, reformed, broke up, released a live album, disappeared, and all before the mid-1970s. There was a one-off live reunion in 1990, which became (as these things do) a live album a decade later, and a more serious regrouping in 2008 which began with four original members, inched down to three and now stands at two, Kristina and drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa, plus guitarist Kirby Gregory from the 70s band’s fourth album. The first of the ones that weren’t very good.
So in some ways, a lot of ways, it’s unfair to actually think of this as a Curved Air reunion. It’s two former members with a clutch of new songs, and a nibble at a triptych of old ones too - but they are new songs, unlike the Reborn set back in 2008, which flipped the scenario with just two new songs, and a clutch of rerecorded oldies.
The remakes first. “Puppets,” somber and questioning, wearier than the version that appeared on Second Album; “Situations” spreading out from a template lid down on Air Conditioning; and “Young Mother,” from Second Album again, which is one of those Curved Air classics that could probably be buried in the garden for a hundred years, fed to skunks and then rerecorded by America’s Got Talent aspirants, and it would still come out sounding like the first day you fell in love with it.
See, Curved Air were never a band you just passively listened to, then went ”yeah, they’re okay.” Across those first three albums - well, it’s pointless to actually list the songs, because everyone has their own first choices. But there’s probably a dozen tracks across those three that give you goosepimples even after all these years, and within those dozen, a dozen moments where Kristina’s voice hits a note, or a key that is like every great emotion you’ve ever experienced, all balled up into one single sound. “Where’s your smile today.....”?
So, what are North Star’s madly magical moments? “Colder Than A Rose In Snow” - another oldie (it first appeared on Kristina’s self-titled 1980 solo album) is revisited in hauntingly torchy vein, and resonates accordingly.
“Images and Signs” brags a symphonic interplay that both recaptures the moods for which we loved the first band, and pushes this line-up into such vibrant new territory that it actually feels unfair to even think about comparisons with the past.
“Interplay” playing on sober piano and twisted fiddle, chases old ghosts a little harder - “Melinda More or Less” comes to mind around the vocal melody, and Kristina’s voice takes on that same warm assurance as well. And then a guitar solo slashes out of nowhere round the midrift, oozing classic rock nous and proggy punch-a-go-go, and you actually find yourself glaring at the CD player, demanding to know where the rest of it’s gone, when it turns out to be the end of the song. Yeah, that good.
The instrumental “Spider” skitters on freakish rhythms that maybe smell just a little of jazz rock; but the whispery trickery of “Magnetism” chases those clouds away with a broadness and panache that may or may not have been conceived as North Star’s epic, but which have that effect regardless.
Three covers cover bases that you may or may not want to revisit. All concerned do a fine job performing and, indeed, rearranging, Snow Patrol, the Beatles and the Police, but with the exception of that great version of “Baby Please Don’t Go” that snuck out as a single back in 1976, Curved Air have never been a band you look towards for covers. “Old Town News” and “Chasing Cars,” though, keep the oxygen pumping through the second half of the album, and second thoughts reflecting on their take on “Spirits in the Material World” do insist that if any Police song has to be heard, Curved Air have made this one their own.
So that’s it. Curved Air’s first all new album since all of us were an awful lot younger, and their first all new great one for a few years longer than that. It’s forty-two years since Phantasmagoria, and who can say whether, somewhere at the back of their minds, that was the album which Kristina and Pilkington-Miksa were intending to finally follow-up here.
Whether it was or it wasn’t... they’ve done it. So, welcome back. It’s been way too long....