Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Thing or Two About Cool

Originally published in the New York Press on June 21, 2006

Carl Mello is something of a dandy. As senior buyer for Boston's legendary Newbury Comics, Mello's career depends on his ability to track trends in music and style. And while Mello's personal taste might not be reflected by popular culture, it's clear he feels music and style go hand in gloriously gloved hand. For Carl Mello, it's important for the music to look as good as it sounds: from The Temptations to Duran Duran, Roxy Music to Sparks. For him, the shiny jewel in the shinier crown is Martin Fry and ABC. 
“Any group that isn't afraid to be Sinatra one minute and Hanna-Barbera the next can teach all of us a thing or two about cool,” said Mello, no doubt mulling over just which ascot he plans on sporting to ABC's show at the Canal Room this week. 

Mello is by no means alone. Though they haven't troubled the U.S. charts since “When Smokey Sings” hit No. 5 in 1987, fans like Mello have recently packed houses for singer Martin Fry's reconstituted ABC, touring America for the second time in less than a year. 

“I love them, really,” says Fry of the keepers of the fancy faith. “After 20 years, fans give you the reason to do it. It's a great privilege to get on stage and sing 'Be Near Me,' or 'When Smokey Sings' or 'All of My Heart,' and I never want to disappoint anyone.”

The three tunes Fry references are only part of the story. ABC had five Top 40 hits in the United States in the '80s, along with a cache of other fantastic songs that, thanks largely to Fry's caramel croon, are a timeless hybrid of Roxy Music and classic soul. If the notion that ABC is an '80s band doesn't exactly rankle, it's clear the lanky louche isn't thrilled to be lumped in with the synth-and-skinny-ties set. 

“There's a lot of artists out there from that age, and it kind of makes me shudder,” said Fry. “There's definitely '80s cliches, but I don't feel like Kenny Loggins doing 'Footloose' or anything like that...But that's a great song!”

Though ABC had a brief flirtation with portraying themselves as cartoons (way before Gorillaz, incidentally), they're mostly remembered as the garish sophisticates on the cover of Lexicon of Love, their 1982 debut. To this day, Fry continues to look like the lost link between Motown and Saville Row, every bit as sophisticated as the soulful tunes he sings. “I've actually got a mate now that works off Saville Row, so he kind of sets me up with some suits every now and again,” said Fry. “I guess I've always had a very cosmopolitan look.”

Fry, along with original drummer David Palmer, has put together a band that remains faithful to the original tunes, while giving new songs from ABC's forthcoming album—their first in nearly a decade—enough punch to keep the Canal Room crowd's juices flowing. “We've been playing three tracks off it in the live set, and that's been going down a storm,” said Fry. 

This is music to Mello's ears.