The Many Masks Of Boris Midney
Reviewed on this page:
Caress - Pinocchio - The Empire Strikes Back - Companion -
Double Discovery - Black Russian
Boris Midney defected from the Soviet Union in 1964 and - after delving into jazz - soon embraced the most decadent expression of Western capitalism: disco. A writer/performer/producer who also photographed his own album covers, Midney was a quintessential behind-the-scenes guy, making up new fake band names for each release, and churning out records during the heady late 70s. He wasn't as popular or prolific as Alec R. Costandinos, but has some of the same virtues: sweeping side-long suites, classical touches, and occasional grandiose concept albums.
Fortunately, Midney is still around to promote his legacy - unlike so many disco mavens - and he's re-released his entire catalog on CD.
Happiness (Russian Jazz Quartet: 1965)
In late 1964, Midney defected - alto sax in hand - with bassist Igor Berukshtis, and they put together this quartet with drummer Grady Tate and pianist Roger Kellaway (best known for co-writing the All In The Family closing theme).
The mood is mild and well behaved ("Journey From Moscow"), like a certain other Jazz Quartet (as if the band name isn't enough of a clue, the concluding number is called "Dedication To MJQ"). More refined still, the new arrivals double on classical instruments (Igor plays cello on several tunes, and on "Remember," Boris whips out a clarinet), and their technique is formidable throughout.
Kellaway ranges nimbly through the various styles ("Secret Love," which spends rather too much time quoting "Dancing Cheek To Cheek").
So the music's rarely rousing, but challenging in its low-key way:
"Composition In The Form Of Blues" is as abstract and icy as the title suggests; "Dedication" states intriguing themes but doesn't develop them. The sedate-yet-unsettling, buttoned-down-yet-off-kilter "Waltz" is probably the best example of the direction the group might have gone if they'd stayed together; this was their only LP. A curious Cold War artifact, but to be honest Midney's later work is a far more interesting engagement between the Iron Curtain and the West.
Come Into My Heart (USA-European Connection: 1978)
Midney's first disco production was for a trio of female singers: Leza Holmes, Renne Johnson and Sharon Williams.
The title track - taking up most of Side One - was a dance hit, and it's one of his catchiest confections, packed with string hooks and bubbly percussion. Midney has plenty of original arranging ideas, but he spreads them thinly, so you're almost forced to focus on the specific detail he's bringing into the foreground. There's also a faint echo of his jazz background in the way each instrument gets its moment to shine, then recedes back into the ensemble; here are also classical touches in the strings ("Love's Coming"), not to mention Romantic piano runs, but lest you forget it's all about the dancefloor, the kick drum never stops no matter what else is going on.
I believe that's Raymond Earl playing bass on "Baby Love/Love's Coming," and Midney plays some sax in addition to his other duties; otherwise, I'm not sure who the players are.
Beautiful Bend (Beautiful Bend: 1978)
Midney's next act, same as the first: The vocalist is supposedly someone names Xo-Xo, but she(?) has no impact on the sound, and the orchestrations are similar ("Boogie Motion") - I don't know who the musicians are apart from Larry Washington on congas.
The luxurious, eleven-minute "Make That Feeling Come Again" is gorgeous, perhaps my favorite single Midney work, and "Ah-Do It" is amusingly single-minded.
But despite all the intriguing flourishes throughout the album, the underlying ideas are often far from first-rate: "That's The Meaning" is a compilation of unsatisfying and over-familiar melodies (including the widely used "Astro Man" bass line).
USA-European Connection 2 (USA-European Connection: 1979)
The sweeping - if saccharine - "There's A Way Into My Heart" is surely the key track here, but the other three cuts make a strong case for Midney's production talents: The arrangements bring out the specific timbral qualities of each instrument, while mix is spare enough to give each voice room to make a distinct impact. Plus, "Do Me Good" is just flat-out fun.
Unfortunately, the singers are mostly left out of the party, given nothing to except for breathy cooing ("Join The Dance"), and the approach is so similar to the surrounding LPs I wouldn't recommend moving this to the top of your shopping list.
Caress (Caress: 1979)
No hits came from this release, but it's a fine opportunity to experience Midney's unique approach. He's never in a hurry to get to the good part, letting the rhythm section pulse for minutes at a time while he builds his moods gradually ("Charmed").
While so much disco applied dense layers of strings to simple melody lines, Midney is more likely to compose lush Romantic themes but then understate them. As a result, he rarely delivers the raw thrills you expect from the genre, but his subtle insistence has its own charms, such as the curiously pensive piano on the opening "Catch The Rhythm." The closing "Love Spell," though, never transcends its simplistic theme.
Midney played all the keyboards and horns, supported by Francisco Centeno on bass, and the Bob DePasquale's String Ensemble: this pattern would hold on future releases. Guest include vocalists Chequita Jackson and Kevin Owens, and guitarist Tom Miller.
Pinocchio (Masquerade: 1979)
Midney's only full-blown concept album tells the story of Pinocchio, rather loosely. (I can't really figure out what happens after Geppetto brings the thing to life.)
He pushes his "get there when we get there" aesthetic to an extreme, with such sparsely arranged intros, outros and midtros that you sometimes wonder whether Midney forgot we were out here ("Land Of Miracles"). Also, as he generally eschews solos, there are long sections with just the lightest wisps of melody ("L.O.V.E."). The biggest problem, though, is that the individual sections just aren't interesting: "Open The Secret Door" has a nice bass line, and there's a memorable vocal refrain in "I'm Attached To You," but that's about it.
Evita (Festival: 1979)
The dreaded Robert Stigwood recruited Midney to pump out disco versions of tunes from the London (soon to be Broadway) musical, including "Don't Cry For Me Argentina." The first flirtation with Meco-style cover albums, and Midney does a credible job, with only a few embarrassing faux-Latinisms ("Buenos Aires").
That said, because of the generally uninteresting source material - there is one original, "Eva's Theme: Lady Woman" - this is perhaps the last Midney record you should pick up, unless you're doing a compare and contrast with Madonna or something.
The Empire Strikes Back (Boris Midney: 1980)
I believe this was the only LP he ever released under his own name. The second and final flirtation with Meco-style cover albums, this time going right for the Star Wars series, Meco's bread and butter.
Denser arrangements with busier guitar ("Yoda's Theme") takes Midney closer to the disco mainstream, but he still puts his own spin on things: he treats the main theme of "The Imperial March" as an afterthought, preferring to embellish and rework the secondary theme of the piece atop an invigorating funky bass line.
Similarly, he shifts the meter of "Star Wars (Main Theme)" so the listener is kept off-balance. So the album doesn't have any of the camp value of "A Fifth Of Beethoven" or "Night On Disco Mountain" but it's quite enjoyable in its own right. Even the love theme "Han Solo And The Princess" is enlivened by a rare piano solo from the leader.
Guitarist Ray Volpe and drummer Johnny Santana join holdovers Centeno and DePasquale.
Companion (Companion: 1981)
Midney stuck to his guns despite the widely reported demise of disco, and came up with a winner. "This Is A Test" is a tasty confection of Chic-style rhythm guitar and bass synth. "Step On Out" and "Living Up To Love" - with an extended trumpet solo - are rapturous, blending his usual understated classicism with mellifluous themes.
The ballad "There's A Way" isn't at the same level, but it does have a sophisticated, shifting arrangement.
Singer Katherine Meyer co-wrote all the songs (I'm guessing she contributed the lyrics).
Double Discovery (Double Discovery: 1982)
"D-D-D-Dance" is d-d-dated early 80s synth-dance, and it's headache-inducing. Fortunately, the other new tracks are in his classic disco mold: "Thanks For Loving Me" and the lovely "Can He Find Another One?" (co-written by Meyer and someone named J. Burgess), present in two mixes. The LP is padded out with the two best tracks from the Companion album: "Step On Out" and "Living Up To Love."
Black Russian (Black Russian: rec. 1983, rel. 1999)
I believe this unfinished concept album about Alexander Pushkin was first released on CD as part of Midney's self-reclamation project. It's not like anything else he's ever released: "Now Is The Time" is a rock song with a guitar line straight from T. Rex's "Bang A Gong (Get It On)." Meanwhile, "Pushkin's Theme" is an amateurish rap with a monotonous bass synth vamp. "Every Kind Of People" is the closest thing to Midney's orchestral disco.
Trancetter (Trancetter: 1999)
Midney broke a silence of almost two decades with this set of electronica. I doubt I'll pull together a full review of this, but I have heard it, and 1) Midney's still employing his disco-era technique of foregrounding one sound at a time in a relatively barren environment; 2) the results are not very enlightening or enjoyable.
Can he find another one?