Monday, May 30, 2011

Spirit - The Family That Plays Together

The Family That Plays Together (1968) ****

A major improvement over the debut, which is why I only rated it half a star higher :>}  It's two steps forward at the expense of one step back:  the songs are more tightly composed and the band finally envelopes itself comfortably into its own sound (that primordial quasi-mystical soup).  There's a lot less jazzy jamming (not that there still ain't plenty) and more directioned pop-rock tunage.  The lone step back is that, comfortable in their signature sound, there's little of the wild variety of styles found on the debut.  This album is all of a piece, so if you're expecting a break from the cohesive monotony, you'll be sorely disappointed.  The album consists almost solely of dreamy mid-tempo, moody balladic pieces heavy on misty atmospherics, but with an assured grip on melodics, harmonies, and stately pop hooks.  OK, so the opener and (Spirit's only) hit single, "I Got a Line on You," breaks the formula and stands out as the most exciting track.  It's not the most obvious or conventional of pop hooks, but as soon as the drums/piano intro comes pounding in and California's guitar begins wailing, and then the surging plead of the vocals waft in, you're hooked all the way to the "let me let me love you all year long" crescendo.  It's a heckuva a single, and reviewing the rest of the album, now it's easy to see why Spirit weren't bigger than they deserved to be:  there's virtually nothing else on the album that could remotely qualify as a single followup.  The rest are all album tracks, not singles material, and if upon the first or three listens they allow flow together interchangeably as one long extended track, it's one heckuva mood piece.  The tunes are brassier, leaning more heavily on the jazzy side of the band than the folk side they displayed on the acoustic hippie pop that took up most of the debut.  That's a more or less unqualified good thing, since a little jazzy swing I much prefers to hippy strumming.  I would try to do a track by track review but even I'm pressed to identify clear highlights and lowlights, as the sound and song quality are so uniform.  "Jewish," stands out uglily as a spoken word goof (in Hebrew, gettit?) but that's the only real gaffe.  The gambler's tale, "Silky Sam," interludes not with another guitar/drum/piano solo but with the sounds of a card game.  Modern day kids may be baffled by this track, but aged as I am I may be the last pre-video game generation to remember the days when people played cards together as social entertainment.  "Drunkard," and "Dream Within a Dream," are lovely melodic creations, the former telling the sad familiar tale of a hobo tramp and his travails, and the latter reminding me of the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi and his dream of the butterfly (am I a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?).  Probably not, but I fancy Spirit's Eastern-influenced mysticism leans more toward the Chinese harmonic logical balance of elements than the Indian guru-ism most of the other Summer of the Maharishi bands were into.  As for the bonus tracks, there are some nice instrumentals, and some pop songs that show undeveloped promise - it's easy to see why those weren't included on the album, but are adequately pleasant additions.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sparks - Kimono My House

Kimono My House (1974) ****1/2

The Sparks are such an easy band to hate.  The annoying high-pitched falsetto vocals, the fey aren't-we-clever smarminess, the dinkily aggressive high-NRG fluffy-bounciness, and did I mention that their mock-operatic style is responsible for Queen?  The Sparks are, in a strictly objective sense, one of the most annoying bands ever.  There's that adjective:  annoying.  As my first experience with Sparks, I hated the band on first listen.  Now, obviously given the high rating you see above, I've changed my mind.  The tunes are too ridiculously catchy and melodically brilliant and cleverly constructed (they cram operatic dynamics into bite-sized three minute pop songs, see) to ignore, and eventually after many listens Russell Mael's girly-man croon becomes understandable enough that I can appreciate the self-consciously clever (oh, how self-consciously offbeat) lyrics (and oh, how clever!).  The Sparks, you see, practically invented New Wave in 1971 with their debut album, with their herky-jerky jittery bubblegum beat and neurotic-nerdy affectations, but finding no audience for a concept so ahead of its time in grass-totin', bell-bottom blues hippie southern Cali, fled to England where they found a much more appreciative audience (and hits!).  This album fits in well with the glam rock era (look at the cover) and fans of Bolan and Ziggy Bowie, feel free to up the rating a notch to perfection.  On this, their third LP, the tracks all fall into more or less the same style, which can be described as glammy '70s non-disco dance-pop that's confectionary cotton-candy sweet bubblegummy power-pop but way too quirky and offbeat to go down so easily as straight pop.

Stylistically, the album varies little, but melodically each track differs, which are almost Beatle-worthy in their own feather-weight way.  Quality-wise there are ups and downs as well, which along with the lack of variety is the main reason I can't rank this as an essential classic (even if it is essential and it is a classic).  There's a slight amount of filler, cropping up mostly towards the tail end (lordy, what a mindlessly repetitive non-tune "Equator," is).  The opener and single, "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us," is clearly the most immediately striking tune, and ranks right up there with "Virginia Plain," as glam rock's most definingly daffy rococo meisterstrokes:  where am I to begin to describe this Frankenstein amalgam of mock-opera, glam thud, spaghetti-western, bubblegum that zippies along like Wile E. Coyote?  "Hasta Manana Monsieur," flows on some of the wittiest lyrics (look at that title again) in a hysterical comedy of errors in which courtship is thwarted by foreign language.  "Here in Heaven," is sung bitterly from the POV of a young man whose girlfriend chickened out on their suicide pact, and "Thank God It's Not Christmas," from the POV of a bitter old man who hates the holidays because he's forced to spend time with his boring family.  I could continue to go on track by track about the lyrical subject matter, but I'll conclude by noting that the two bonus tracks, concurrent singles, "Barbecutie," (there go those arch lads again) and "Lost and Found," are well-nigh essential, easily as strong as the best album tracks.

P.S. I have no idea what 'well-nigh' means.  I mean, I have a vague idea, but not enough to know how to properly use that phrase in a sentence.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Spirit - s/t

Spirit (1968) ***1/2

Spirit were a phenomenally talented band that inexplicably got passed during the '60s, the one decade in rock history in which commercial and artistic success more often than not happened to coincide.  Perhaps it's not surprising; aside from the Brit-boppy, "Uncle Jack," nothing here screams hit material - clearly a 'thinking man's' album band they were, as their compositions rather complexly combine elements of jazz, folk, pop, hard rock, and psychedelia into one soupy, quasi-mystical brew.  The jazz element arrives courtesy of Ed Cassidy, who born in 1923 was a long-experienced bop-era drummer and his inventive professionalism shows:  he's one of the very best rock drummers ever, and last I checked the gentleman was still kicking it live, well into his 80s!  Most of the songs are penned by singer Jay Ferguson, who proves a highly talented songwriter whose compositions, at this point, generally show more spirit and promise than actual fruition.  Oh, it's not as if the songs aren't mildly hooky in their own way, it just takes some time for the hooks to sink in; the band would improve on this oversight on later albums.  Here is the Spirit in embryo.  The star of the show, however, is teenage guitarist (and stepson of Cassidy) Randy California, he who legendarily learned his chops from Jimi himself (Hendrix that is, not Page - but we'll get on to Zep's plagiarism in just a bit).  His rich, tasteful buzz of a guitar tone is a wonder of nature, and his fluid yet thick bends and curves instantly vault him into the category of guitarists that I find most pleasurable to listen to.  That's a relief, as the band have a penchant for launcing into jazzy instrumental breaks unexpectedly in the middle of their hippie pop songs - not jams, the solos are far too structured for that.  This works well on the doomily aggressive rock opener, "Fresh Garbage," and the far doomier and less aggressive, "Mechanical World," (according to the liner notes, inspired by bassist Mark Andes morbidly obsessed with death while confined to bed with the flu!) - the easy manner in which the band effortlessly switches styles and tempos mid-song puts them miles ahead in terms of professionalism than your average West Coast psychedelic band of the period.  No way were Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead, or the Doors half as technically accomplished - this almost feels like proto-prog rock at points.  I should mention at this point the album's most famous (infamous?) track:  a brief instrumental entitled "Taurus," that upon first hearing you'll slowly begin to recognize as....yep, the acoustic intro to "Stairway to Heaven," which Jimmy Page ungenerously lifted lock, stock, and smoking jacket from California without any credit to Randy.  Alas, after the terrific first four tracks, the material grows pleasant but thin - it's nice mellow hippie-pop for the most part, with little jazzy interludes to keep the momentum from growing too mellow and banal.  Still, a very fine album that showcases a great band flashing their chops greatly, even if the songwriting is a tad bit weak.  It's not as if the likes of "Gramaphone Man" or "Straight Arrow," are unlikable, it's just that I find little to say about them; they're pleasant little hippie tunes on the folk-poppy side, nothing more or less.  And fitting with the times, the band has to end the album with a ten-minute instrumental, "Elijah"; as a jam band, Spirit were better at this thing than most (just compare the travesties the likes of Love were filling up entire sides with for comparison), but it's still a ten-minute, self-indulgent, meandering instrumental jam.  The bonus tracks are more of the same - a couple of throwaway instrumentals, another ten-minute alternate run through "Elijah," and "If I Had a Woman," which sounds like an instrumental they hastily threw some words on top at the last minute (the lyrics are pretty dumb, repetitive, and lacking a clear vocal melody).

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Badfinger - Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here (1974) ***1/2

A few years back a poster on a music board I frequented raved about how, "In some ways, Badfinger were better than the Beatles," and someone else quipped back, "In some ways, Neil Simon was better than Shakespeare," and thus sums up these Welsh power-popsters' entire career.  There's virtually no reason to poke into the band's catalogue at all unless you've worn yourself sick relistening to the entire Lennon/McCartney songbook for the 654th time, but seeing as overabusing the Fabs' music is an affliction that affects most pop music lovers at one time or the other, then Badfinger offer a pleasant second-hand simalcrum once you've tapped out your veins mainlining the original junk.  You see, I haven't listened to all the way through any of my Beatles albums since I don't remember, so the other night I tried listening to Revolver and Past Masters for old times' sake.  I couldn't make it past three or five songs, it started to grow physically sickening.  I fear that I may never enjoy the Beatles ever again.  That's the problem when people start making Desert Island disc lists:  your top ten albums are albums that you've memorized every note of through overplay.  Do you really want to spend your time trapped on a desert island listening to music you've already heard 500 times before?, Badfinger.  I reviewed most of their albums on my old website and feel no great need to revisit or revise those old reviews; they're not the sort of band that opinions drastically change about, not even after a decade.  Occasionally Badfinger captured, bottled, and released some of that same sparkling magic that the Beatles consistently peddled ("No Matter What," "Day After Day") but truth be told, 90% of their songs were unexceptionally ordinary.  I'm reviewing this LP because I never got around to reviewing it on the old Creative Noise.  It's tied with Straight Up as their best album, and it's certainly their most consistent: the band have got their act together, with each of the four members chipping in strong material that displays their talents at their best.  It flows together better than any other Badfinger album, feeling like a cohesive album as opposed to a grab-bag of high and low points that afflicted nearly every other Badfinger album.  The sound is more polished and modern, as well; Badfinger boldly step into the '70s, as the opening cut (and shouldabeen single) "Just a Chance," rocks power-poppingly.  "Dennis," is another highlight, a stirring ode to Pete Ham's son, and if the rest of the tunes hover in the B- to B+ range, with no real A-level knockouts, that's still not a bad level to consistently maintain throughout one forty minute album.  A couple of tracks are medley-stitches of two separate songs, and both "In the Meantime/Some Other Time," (Mike Gibbins + Joey Molland) and "Meanwhile Back at the Ranch/Should I Smoke," (Ham + Molland) are effectively rousing.  Of course this ain't Abbey Road.  But it's in the same spitting league as Imagine or Band on the Run.   

No Youtube this time, as a brief search unveils practically nothing.  37 years later, Badfinger's most consistently good album is still ignored.  Could've been a hit but the record company screwed'em over by pulling this off the shelves with no promotion.  The story of many an underrated popster's life, it seems.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Thee Headcoats - Elementary Headcoats: The Singles 1990-1999

Elementary Headcoats:  The Singles 1990-1999 (2000) ****

Talk about a singularity of vision.  Billy Childish has ploughed the same narrow strips of furrows in the field of garage rock for over thirty years, beginning with the Pop Rivets in 1979.  And should I mention prolific?  According to legend, Thee Headcoats (only one of Childish's several band projects) released seven albums in 1984, four on the same day(!!!!!?????).  Thus, diving into the man's catalogue is beyond problematic, and I doubt that it would be physically possible for anyone but Billy himself to listen to all of his work, and only a certifiable madman would make the attempt.  This compilation, however, is an ideal introduction, as well as a reasonable ending point for those of us in full possession of our senses and wallets:  with fifty tracks spread out over two discs, I can comfortably state that I've heard nearly all the Billy Childish I need in one lifetime.  The basic template is the early Kinks:  gruffly pounding riffs and power chords set to thought-provoking lyrics and serviceable melodies designed for maximum sing-along-ability.  The style is vintage, but the sound is not:  Childish grew up during the punk era (awesome cover of the Lurker's "Shadow," that blows away the original; not so awesome cover of ATV's titular, "Action Time Vision," that does not), and so the amps are cranked up several levels beyond 1965 era Kinks.  The band relentlessly pursues the same style throughout, though there are enough diversions from formula to keep this collection from becoming too monotonous:  a bit of chugging rockabilly and greaseball surf, as well as some softened-down novelty tunes in which the rock takes a backseat to Childish's shaggy-dog lyrics ("My Dear Watson," a cover of the Downliner Sect's "Be a Sect Maniac"). 

Given the overload of material and the band's shambolic garage-trio approach, the results are often hit and miss, but did you expect any less from a fifty-track collection?  It's all too overwhelming to take in at once due to the sheer bulk, but that's only because of the size:  Childish's basic hard rock goes down fairly easy, and in the Nuggets tradition many of the individual songs are instantly memorable.  As jillions of scrappily boring-exciting hard rock garage bands have proved over the decades, being loud and raucous don't mean jack if you ain't got the tunes, and Childish proves himself a talented songwriter, capable of penning memorable choruses as if an afterthought and intriguing verses when he's engaged.  How can you not love a guy who can come up with a tune entitled, "I've Been Fucking Your Daughters and Pissing On Your Lawn," which lives up to said title?  Obviously a song by song review is out of the question, so I'll just name drop a few favorites - "Girl From '62," "Now Your Hunger's Gonna Be A-Coming," the not one but three (!) run-throughs of "Louie, Louie," that might be my favorites of the one zillion versions blasted out since Richard Berry and John Belushi.  The highlight, however, is the three-song saga that serves as the centerpiece of disc two:  the anguished and angry triptych of "No One"/"The Gun in My Father's Hand"/"The Day I Beat My Father Up," that recounts the (obviously, assumedly) autobiographical tale of Billy's troubled childhood struggle with his womanizing, wife-beating, alcoholic father.  Anyway, for kids who don't get the Kinks comparison:  it sounds like the White Stripes, except better, and Billy Childish was doing the same thing twenty years before Jack and his zaftig ex-girlfriend.  And he's still at it - the man makes Robert Pollard look like Peter Gabriel in terms of productivity.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fischer-Z - Word Salad

Word Salad (1979) **1/2

Fischer-Z were an intelligent and creative band with a paucity of truly memorable material for their debut.  It's the type of album that's enjoyable enough when it's on, but after the record leaves the groove (or tape unwinds its last spool, or laser leaves the aluminum, or Windows closes the Media Player), there's precious little that leaves a strong impression.  Only the ghostly pseudo-reggae slice-of-Ray-Davies-cum-Kraftwerk, "The Worker," stands out as cut-out-for-compilation track.  The rest of the tunes are mostly pleasantly upbeat, neurotically-tinged New Wave, full of clever lyrics, quirky arrangements, and chipper little melodics.  The four-piece band sound like a traditional rock power trio with a keyboardist layed out on top for that New Wave touch:  in other words, basically like a U.K. version of the Cars.  Except that Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr were far, far more pleasant singers:  frontman John Watts comes across as a castrated Pete Townshend.  It's understandable how his mousey tenor would turn many a listener off, but get past that and you get - what, exactly?  A few clever Elvis Costello puns like, "The French Let Her," (french letter being British slang for condom, you see)?  Some charging demi-punk ravers like, "Lies," and "Spiders," alongside pretty little New Wave pop tunes such as "Pretty Paracetemol," and "Billy and the Motorway Police"?  It would be a mistake to classify this as generic New Wave, as the music is as far from generic as it gets this side of XTC, and with a frontman like Watts, you can't say the band definitely doesn't have a good dose of unique personality.  It is, however, one of those albums that is dated and does not transcend its genre and era.

P.S. Why does this Englishman pronounce aluminum the American (i.e., the correct - we invented the process of making it, we get to bloody well say how it's spelled and pronounced) instead of the British way?

The Fall - Bend Sinister

Bend Sinister (1986) ****

This is sometimes referred to as the Fall's "goth" album and "not very good," both of which make one wonder if detractors actually listened to the album at all.  Admittedly, the opener "R.O.D.," kicks proceedings off with a minor-key, slow-rumbling dirge, but beyond that track there's little that one could call gothic at all - oh, hints of darkness in certain tracks here and there, but come on:  garage-punk Joy Division this ain't, not by a long stretch.  It's simply another excellent and varied collection of Falltunes, some poppy ("Shoulder Pads," is their brightest and most upbeat toe-tapper yet!), some experimental (could do without "Auto-Tech Pilot," but at least they have the good discernment of their own material to save the worst for last), no longer '70s Britpunk but still clearly '60s Nuggets garage punk (neat cover of "Mr. Pharmacist," and oh, that cheeseful of Farfisa that is "Bournemouth Runner").  It's almost as all over the map stylistically as the preceding album, only a tad more cohesive (undoubtedly due to the fact that non-album bonus tracks aren't mucking up the flow).  And how can any album be called gothic when it contains two bouncy-surfy Brix duets, "Dktr. Faustus," and "Terry Waite Sez," that sound like bastard stepchildren of the B-52s?  Oh, sure, "Gross Chapel-British Grenadiers," melodramatically rumbles on darkly for 7:20, but it's more micro-rock-opera than JD-gothic; I can see why some might consider it overblown, but I don't mind the track (neither do I love it).  The two standout tracks are located smack in the middle for a one-two punch. "Living Too Late," grooves melodically alongside a measured bassline that carries that same groove and melody, while Mark talk-sings about growing older with crows' feet on his face; the somewhat forced breakdown bridge that interrupts the song several times I could live without, but it's an ace tune nonetheless.  "U.S. 80's-'90s," finds the band moving into a more electronic industrial direction, and Mark's vaguely social-protesty admonishing alongside the thumping grind of a groove once again make for a killer track.  There's a rather pointless reprise of "Shoulder Pads," but I suppose that the band, once again recognizing their own strongest and weakest material, decided to recycle the album's catchiest tune once again because - why not?  Darn it, now I've got that whistling melody stuck in my head all day again!  I haven't mentioned "Riddler," yet, a funny little but ace number that alternates between gothy verses and a cracklingly upbeat surf-garage twangy chorus - there, now I've reviewed every single track.  The music has grown more varied and accessible, making this one of the easiest and smoothest entry points for the Fall.  In other words, heartily recommended and screw all the naysayers, any idiot who claims that this a "downbeat, gothic" album clearly hasn't listened to a note of it beyond the first track.  Or simply glanced at the cover and wrote their review without bending their ears to the notes inside.

P.S.  The title derives from a Vladimir Nabokov novel.  Every reviewer has to mention that, it's in the contract.

P.P.S. If you want a dark, gothy Fall album, they real one to get was released in 1979 and was entitled Dragnet.

Monday, May 16, 2011

XTC - Mummer

Mummer (1983) **1/2

Around this point in XTC's history, Andy Partridge suffered a nervous breakdown onstage and the band gave up touring entirely.  I suspect the retreat into the insular studio is to blame for this cluttered mess of an album, and clutter is the precise word:  the songs - I don't know even where to begin describing half of these tunes, they are so intricate and stuffed full of interesting ideas that in general go nowhere.  Overcleverness had threatened to topple over the band's innate tunefulness on previous encounters, and here XTC's eccentricities completely overtake them:  the songs do not behave as proper pop songs, but announce themselves as meticulously constructed lego-block sculptures that scream, "Look at how much time, effort, and thought we put into building these Towers of Babylon!"  And as such, it's bloody difficult to find the melodic core of most of these tunes, getting so lost in the distractions of the rococo shuffle.  And unlike English Settlement, which likewise proved initially difficult to absorb, repeated listens don't uncover that many frosty nougats hidden within.  It doesn't help that the mood intended is pastoral, which translates as mellow and energy-drained; only the hectoring closer, "Funk Pop a Roll," which feels totally out of place, displays any rock'n'roll, and it's the worst track on the platter.  Sure, there are a handful of decent songs, but only the sprightly acoustic-based jig, "Love on a Farmboy's Wages," and the big-beat cello-pop "Great Fire," are up to XTC's usual standards.  Two more songs are decently passable:  the shufflingly loungey "Ladybird," is a pleasant trifle, and the WWI eulogy, "In Loving Memory of a Name," barrelhouses rollickingly enough to provide a sliver of amusement.  And that's pretty much all that's salvageable:  tracks like "Human Alchemy," and "Deliver Us From the Elements," seem fussily overcomplicated in their arrangements as if to overcompensate for their complete lack of melodic hooks, and are as aren't-we-clever-lads headache inducing as anything in the XTC catalogue.  And for a band whose entire career has been marred by ain't-we-clever smarminess, that's saying a mouthful.  Lower in my estimation is actually one of the rare simple tunes, Moulding's "Wonderland," that is so cheesily '80s produced that it sounds like the bleeding Style Council.  Fans and critics agree that this is one of the band's lowpoints, and who am I to disagree?  Back when I was fifteen, I took a chance on the band and plunked down two dollars for a cassette copy as my intro to XTC.  It burned me on the band badly and took me years to recover.

Oh yes, there are six bonus tracks, none of which are essential, and in fact, only two of which are really worth your time.  "Frost Circus," lives up to the title, Christmas-y carnival instrumental froth.  "Jump," isn't nearly as winsome as Van Halen's but it's another sprightly little acoustic pop number that warms the cockles.  "Toys," is of a piece with the album proper, far too clever for its own fussily overrangement archness.  "Gold," is brassily annoying, and "Procession Towards Learning Land," wasn't memorable enough for me to remember it, and "Desert Island," is actually sort of OK, more pleasant acoustic pop.  OK, that's three bonus tracks worth the time of hearing, but none amount to much more than that.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Sound - From the Lion's Mouth

From the Lion's Mouth (1981) ****

Much smoother and more polished than the band-produced debut (which is not a good thing, IMAO), again this goes down so easily that upon initial listen it's a sure-fire 5 star classic; but as more often that not with music that is immediately likeable, it grows slightly thinner with each subsequent listen.  The opening track, "Winning," signifies the distance from the debut:  the synths are considerably more prominent, as its creamy goosequill melody slowly builds atmospherically - as with most of the tracks, the Sound take their stately, measured time to get to the point (i.e., chorus hook), with Adrian Borland's vocals only entering after a minute's time.  The band are considerably more concerned with building atmosphere on this track and every other track on the album than they were on Jeopardy's tunes; subsequently, as a more cohesive mood piece in terms of vision and sound, there's a big dropoff in terms of variety.  Not that the songs aren't still self-consciously hooky and decidedly in the pop/rock tradition; if anything, their second album is more melodic than the first, but definitely less energetic - the loudest and most agressive track, "The Fire," is also the weakest, with its overblown flailings almost makes it a (gasp!) bad track.  Oh, but it's not, you see; the bassline that drives "The Fire," easily redeems the song; it just leaps out as out of character from the rest of the album and the weaker for it.

But back to the opening track, "Winning."  It's the most commercial track, if not quite the strongest, and it seems inexplicable why it wasn't a massive hit:  the lyrics may seem a little cheesy as Borland encourages self-reliance in the face of overwhelming odds, but hey, put this in context.  The Sound were surrounded by a sea of mopey goths like the Bauhaus and the Cure wallowing in self-pity; in that context, a lyrically upbeat track like "Winning," is nothing less than a bracing splash of cold water in the face.  The instant stunner, "Contact the Fact," pulls a similarly effective trick by contrasting a broodingly driving verse with a strikingly poppy, anthemic chorus; if you want this album encapsulated in one sweet track, this one's it.  The meanderingly measured "Sense of Purpose," the drivingly pop-punky "Skeletons," and the quasi-religious musings of "Judgement," are as well stand-out tracks, but it's at the very end that the album once again scales the heights of "Winning," and "Contact the Fact."  "Silent Air," follows in style and mood as a sort of sequel to the debut's "Unwritten Law,"; the closest the Sound have come to a conventional ballad, and it's pure lovely in its sturdy but haunted way.  "New Dark Age," by far the closest the Sound have come so far to conventional goth, sounds like the type of thing that XTC were aiming for (and fell flat on their faces at) in "Travels in Nihilon,":  with its kettle drums booming and Borland declaiming vaguely apocalyptic lyrics, it ends the album on a broodingly intense high note.  Or does it?  For after a brief interval, hidden within "New Dark Age," is the concurrent single, "Hot House," a lightweight New Wave pop tune that's totally out of character with the rest of the LP, and actually shouldn't be here at all - Borland expressly wished that "Hot House," not be added as a bonus track, so tucking it away hidden at the end of "New Dark Age," was a bizarrely sneaky move on the record company's part.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Sound - Jeopardy

Jeopardy (1980) ****1/2

Quite nearly a five-star LP, and upon initial listen there are no qualms about it, but after a while I get the sense that something vital is missing.  It's not so much that the Sound aren't breaking any new ground, coming a mite bit too late to seminate as pioneers of angsty post-punk - it really seems churlish to fault a band that if they'd released their debut a mere year earlier would be on the cutting edge; they have their own distinct personality and identity, and that's what matters, not inventing new spokes on the wheel.  Heavily influenced by Joy Division and Magazine, the Sound actually come closest in spirit and vision to another post-punky band that released their debut that year:  this comes across at points like an early, English U2 with keyboards.  In terms of musical complexity, lyrics, taste, and overall sound they beat those Dubliners on all counts, but I'd still rank Boy higher as Bono and cohorts seemed to have a soaringly driving sonic passion that thrust early U2 songs into rapturously intense overdrive.  Not that the Sound do not possess in spades all of the above ingredients - passion, drive, intensity - just not in such concentrated dose; perhaps that's the difference between Irish flamboyance and tasteful English reticence.  No, when you get down to it, the subtle flaw is that like their forebears the Jam the Sound have mild problem with the memorable hook:  these songs sound like small songs written large, rather simple melodic and structural compositions puffed into grandiosity.  Not that that's a bad thing.  Like all four of the bands I've mentioned as influences so far in this review (and I'll quit the namedropping now), the Sound also seem to entirely lack a sense of humor.  Not a fatal lack, of course; and besides, who cares?  Humor is ridiculously overrated in music, and not just that most musicians aren't funny - when's the last time you listened to a novelty record more than twice?

But they do have a near-perfect sound (hard to avoid unintentional puns with a name like the Sound, so I won't even try).  As the frontman, Adrian Borland's vocals mark themselves as the strongest presence, with his brooding baritone yelp situating the precise mid-point between Bono's tenor and Ian Curtis' low register.  The other musicians don't so much stand out as aquit themselves well; they play to serve the songs, not flash around, which isn't to say there aren't plenty of delectable moments of rock musicianship on display, such as the squalling clipped guitar and thudding drum/bass clipped stop-start rhythm on the opener, "I Can't Escape Myself."  The ingenious stuttering hook isn't immediately apparent, as the atmospherics overshadow, but after a few listens it sinks in as the stuttering and pent-up explosions make the song one big hook.  The Sound weren't above frontloading their album with their strongest material, and "Heartland," with its soaring keyboard drive, is the most immediately grabbing track, if ultimately more insubstantial than "I Can't Escape Myself."  From there on we encounter an extremely consistent dose of eleven tracks, all of which have something to recommend them; even the weaker cuts ("Words Fail Me," "Night Versus Day,") are strong - not a bum track in the bunch.  Their turn of the '80s sound, which effortlessly combines rock dynamics with forward-looking techno sheen, goes down easy; this must have been what the future of rock sounded like to most people back in the New Wave day.  I can't really imagine many people not enjoying this kind of music, unless you have an allergic reaction to the intense Ingmar Bergman-esque melodrama of young adulthood.  With one exception (the crackling Midnight Oil style poli-sci rocker, "Missiles," which burns with the patented build-slowly-and-explode tension beloved by melodramatics), the lyrics are Joy Division lite:  Borland (who eventually took his own life, but much later - in 1999, after two decades of failure in the music biz, so that doesn't concern the youthful Adrian of 1980) is certainly an angsty young man, but his problems, while weighty and ponderous, don't seem to overwhelm him into utter despair.  This music hardly ever approaches goth:  melancholy not darkness, exemplified on "Unwritten Law," a moody, mid-tempo synth-ballad that contains a mildly haunting melody that's the loveliest on the record.