In the New-Wave era, Debbie harry was so much the celebrity focal point of Blondie’s charge up the pop charts that the group’s record label took pains to point out, “Blondie are a band.” Harry deserved her props — she was a bleached-blond bombshell with a drop-dead attitude and a deadpan delivery who put a whole new spin on femme-fatale-fronted rock & roll. But in her shadow, guitarist Chris Stein and keyboardist Jimmy Destri dished up great melodies, and drummer Clem Burke made them explode.
Now, sixteen years after breaking up, the core foursome is back with a seventh studio album, and No Exit confirms that Burke has been Blondie’s secret weapon all along. When the drummer is doing the locomotion, the glory years roar back into focus. There’s no resisting the walloping ska groove of “Screaming Skin,” for example, or the bell-ringing grandeur of “Maria,” in which Burke sounds like he’s laying bricks for Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.
Otherwise, No Exit‘s sanitized mix puts too much emphasis on Harry’s thin voice and not enough on Burke and the boys. Blow-dried ballads such as “Forgive and Forget,” “Night Wind Sent” and “Double Take” could have been lifted off a Top Gun-era movie soundtrack, with their schmaltzy keyboards and dire lyrics (“In the silence of your steps/I can see into the depths”). And instead of teeth-rattling power pop in the tradition of “Hanging on the Telephone” or “Dreaming,” Blondie indulge in the kind of dilettantish genre dabbling that preceded their 1982 demise: lounge swing (“Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room”), defanged blues (“Happy Dog [For Caggy]”), languid reggae (“Divine”) and a can of country corn (“The Dream’s Lost on Me”).
Even more gimmicky is the title song, a slice of gothic hip-hop bombast with contributions from Coolio, and “Dig Up the Conjo,” a big-beat goof that at least evinces some of Blondie’s smartass personality. Only a spectral remake of the Shangri-Las’ “Out in the Streets” — a trippy girl-group homage that Madonna might covet — shows any imagination from a production standpoint. It’s the kind of seductive pop moment that used to be routine, back in the days when Blondie sounded like a band.