Album review: MICHAEL DES BARRES – The Key to the Universe





FOD [Release date 05.04.15]

Michael Des Barres is a descendant of a 13th century French knight and the son of the 25th Marquis Des Barres, who blew his fortune on opium and ended up behind bars.

‘The Key to the Universe’ is a flashback to the intensity of his early career. It’s a rock & roll album that celebrates the moment and has enough swagger to suggests he’s still got the fire and the attitude to rock out, but without the aid of rock and roll excess.

There’s the same pedal to the floor rocking of Silverhead, but without the glam trappings. There’s also occasional familiar flashes of the sleazy phrasing with which he once sought to emulate Robert Plant in the late 70’s band Detective.

Together with former Silverhead and Blondie bassist Nigel Harrison, guitarist Dani Robinson, Robert Plant and Radiohead drummer Clive Deamer and Bob Rose’s enveloping production, this album is an unlikely return to form for one of rock & roll’s true survivors.

Recorded in Rome, ‘The Key to the Universe’ rocks hard and finds the former Power Station front man focussed as an interpretative singer and lyricist. The ten song album is framed by Bob Rose’s powerful production that underscores the regenerative power of love with the intensity of rock and roll

Apparently Des Barres, approached the session with a few ideas, plenty of lyrics and three covers.  The album is notable for its ‘can do’ optimism, as record boss/producer Rose glues together an edgy, power chord-heavy album, that supports Michael’s lived in vocal style.

His emotive wail transforms some workaday hard rocking material into an album that deserves repeated plays as it searches for emotional depth

Michael sets a high standard with Linda Perry’s hard rocking opener ‘Can’t Get You Off My Mind’, with lyrics well suited to his early career persona: ‘And The view behind the mirror is cracked and I’m falling apart babe,  well I’m feeling like a junky that’s jonesin’ for a broken heart’

He attacks the song with the kind of wild abandon that perfectly mirrors a tale of obsessive love and tops it with a booming hook that reveals itself over a wall of sound.

Peter Wolf’s soulful ‘Roomful of Angels’ comes from a late 90’s release ‘Fools Parade’ and finds Michael further baring his soul on some wiry vocals shot through with the kind of emotional charge that the lyrics demand.

‘I Want Love To Punch Me In The Face’ nails his attitude perfectly on a bone crunching rocker and an abrasive love song with lyrics that fall back on a Nils Lofgren style boxing metaphor to make its point.

‘Maybe Means Nothing’ is a balls out rocker with dirgy drone guitars, and ‘Burning in Water, Drowning in Flames’, finds him phrasing over a whammy bar inflected guitar line with big descending chords and layered organ. The song perfectly cushions his angst ridden vocal as guitarist Dani Robinson delivers the perfect resolution.

Bob Rose’s big production provides the album with its energetic drive, leaving Michael to successfully drag the listener into confessional songs.

Just past the half way point comes the album highlight on the riff driven ‘It’s Just a Dream’, which snaps into a tic-roc rhythm and asks a lot of Michael’s phrasing.  Happily he successfully completes the task with a world weary vocal on a song that impressively builds its momentum on the back of the emotive hook.

And if ‘It’s Just a Dream’ gives the album a real lift,  ‘Yesterday’s Casanova’ adds lyrical vulnerability and musical light and shade, with a dramatic opening – full of John Lydon style vocal bluster – and a sudden drop-down to deliver poignant reflective lyrics that ache with honesty.

‘Black Sheep Are Beautiful’ has a gnawing distorted guitar line and a wailing vocal but doesn’t quite emotionally engage us as it should. But he finishes on a high with ‘Liberty Train’, a straight to the vein rocker, and the deep groove of ‘Supernatural Lovers’ – all pumping bass, funky rhythm guitar, rapped out vocals and a nuanced solo – on the perfect closing track to an unreconstructed rock album. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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