Best song: Pandora's Box
If you've ever wondered what the difference is between a great pop album and a mediocre pop album, just try listening to Exotic Birds and this back-to-back. The band obviously decided it wanted to be at least somewhat commercially viable again, what with art-rock beginning to lose its favor with critics, and consciously took the pop leanings of Exotic and went one step further in that direction on Ninth. The band even went so far as to hire Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (as in, the guys who wrote songs like Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock back in the early 60s) to produce, and the end result is an extremely bland collection of R&B-based pop songs that just happen to be sung by Brooker and have lyrics by Reid.
I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm hardly the kind of person who would say anything like, 'Oh no! They changed their style, and I fear change! Therefore I shun this record! Shun!' But there's a difference between changing from one unique style to another unique style and changing from a unique style into something which any one of a zillion bands could pull off just as well. For the most part, there's no interesting instrumentation, as neither Brooker's pianos nor Grabham's guitar even approach the excitement level of Exotic, and as for the songs themselves ... well, let's just say that it's a Bad Thing if, after listening to an ostensibly pop album four times, I have to wrack my brain like mad to remember how most of the songs go. There are bits and pieces of real potential (parts of Fools Gold, or the unexpected use of a Clavinet on The Unquiet Zone), but for the most part, the songs just are kind of there, not really doing anything exceptional to warrant my attention.
I mean, it should say something that the two best tracks on the whole thing are a Beatles cover and a song that was written before the recording of Whiter Shade. The former (which closes the album) is a decent enough run-through of Eight Days a Week (with some nice passion in Gary's voice), and the latter, Pandora's Box, manages to remind me why I got into the band in the first place. What can I say, it has an interesting, somber keyboard theme, an interesting slowing of tempo at the end of each 'chorus' (if it can really be called that), a couple of moments where the guitars actually get to do something interesting ... yup, if any PH album was going to have a strong outtake at ready to save a weaker album, it was gonna be the début, and it pulls through just fine and dandy here.
Otherwise, though ... ehn. I mean, few of these songs are offensive when they're on (though The Final Thrust sounds a little bit too dippy for my tastes), and most of them have one or two moments that make me go 'hmm, that's neat, I guess,' but overall this album can hardly be held anywhere near the standard of quality the band had established for itself for the last seven-odd years. The end was clearly near for Brooker and Co., and unless you're a diehard for the sound of his voice, don't use a lot of energy looking for this one. If there's a cheap copy sitting in a nearby used bin, though, think about grabbing it for Pandora's Box.