Processed with MOLDIV
Processed with MOLDIV
Processed with MOLDIV
Processed with MOLDIV
It’s the weekend, and that means the best in Retro Record Reviews are coming your way, courtesy of My Treacherous Friends. It’s a bit of a mixed bag this week, in every sense: we’ve got nine albums, two singles, and a timeless soundtrack. There’s some blues, some industrial, New Wave (natch!), and new millennium pop. Finally, as usual, there’s the good, the bad, and the regrettable. Let’s get into it.
Erasure, 1991 – Chorus
This is my first time hearing this album. I was a latecomer to Erasure, despite growing up in the ‘80s. They didn’t have much in the way of mainstream radio presence in the U.S. even though their sound was perfectly tuned to the synthwave/New Wave electro-pop that dominated the airplay in those days.
And despite the fact that their music should be right in my wheelhouse, the fact of the matter is that I’ve only ever been a casual fan even though I love a lot of their songs.
Case in point, nonsingle “Waiting For The Day” is as good as anything this band has ever done. It argues for becoming more than a casual fan since clearly their deeper album cuts have as much to offer as the hits. And speaking of hits, the title track and “Love To Hate You” are amazing examples of such, the latter featuring one of Andy Bell’s best vocal performances. “Breath Of Life” and “Am I Right?” round out the single releases from this disc in fine fashion.
There are plenty of reminders throughout the album that Vince Clarke founded Depeche Mode before departing after their first album – there are echoes of early DM at certain points and it’s safe to say that a decade on, Vince and Martin had done their share of influencing one another. This is not to imply that Chorus is derivative or a rehash of earlier efforts; if this was a new release in 2020 it would still sound fresh and new. As I listen to it for the first time 28 years after its release, I find myself repeatedly pulled in by a progression in an instrumental bridge, captured by backing vocals, amused by a turn of phrase. It’s a great record and it is easier, three decades removed, to be less impacted by the instrumentation while still recognizing the skill and mastery in the songwriting and vocals. There are a couple tracks that threaten to slip into dance-track homogeny, but nothing I feel like I’ll have to skip on future listens.
I was lucky to find this one at the Savers last time I stopped in. After listening to Chorus, I’m even more excited to listen to their next album, which I was also able to pick up on the same thrift store run. Read on for more Erasure…
Erasure, 1994 – I Say I Say I Say
I Say I Say I Say was the sixth full-length from Erasure and the first issued after their early best-of, Pop! The First 20 Hits, was released in 1992. Given that that collection is where I cut my teeth with this band, I’m going into this album completely blind and I’ve got no idea what to expect – I don’t recognize a single song title on the disc.
The first standout on the album is “I Love Saturday” which, it turns out, was also a single but I’ve never heard it before. It is peppy among other moderately downtempo numbers that are a far departure from the upbeat Chorus. They’re still very good, with pretty synth melodies winding their way through and around Andy Bell’s vocals. They’re just not as hook-laden and catchy, for the most part, and I find myself missing that signature Erasure sound. The semi-operatic choral aspects of “So The Story Goes,” for example – Bell’s voice is certainly up to the challenge of matching their soaring, angelic tones, but the grandiosity lacks the immediate gratification of Pop!’s nonstop dance’n’fun vibe. As a casual fan of the band, I want that signature sound so I’m not as patient with the songs where it’s lacking.
“Run To The Sun,” another single from the album, delivers that sound in spades. Uptempo and super-synthy, it carries the sound of Erasure at their best in an instant-vintage offering that flawlessly conjures the feel of their early hits. “Always” is a song whose chorus is familiar even if I didn’t recognize the title. It’s a good midtempo single with an uplifting refrain that sort of straddles the line between early Erasure and the somewhat mellower material that makes up parts of this album.
Overall, a bit of a grab bag, with the singles making up most of the best cuts and distracting backing vocals making up the worst (the latter point particularly surprising, since the backing vocals were among the stronger points for Chorus). It isn’t essential listening, but neither is it fit for the slag heap. Let’s leave the synthesizers for a moment and get unplugged…
Eric Clapton, 1992 – Unplugged
I’ll start out by saying that I’m a big fan of Clapton’s electric blues, and this album is not that. Nonetheless, it was this release that really put the MTV Unplugged releases on the map as vital additions to any participating musician’s catalog. EC’s reimagining of his most famous lays as relaxed acoustic balladry shows a near-genius ear for arrangement and reinterpretation. Instead of the technically proficient and heartfelt electric wails that are part of his trademark sound, everything here proceeds at an unhurried shuffle that knows where it’s going and is enjoying the journey there.
Playing acoustic limits some of Clapton’s expressiveness on his instrument; “Layla,” while great in this version, just doesn’t have the same impact in an acoustic rendition as it has in the electric original. However, this version of “Tears In Heaven” is in many ways superior to the original.
There are a few standouts here – the dobro work on “Running On Faith” is mesmerizing. “Before You Accuse Me” fares very well in this unplugged session. The less said about the kazoo section in “San Francisco Bay Blues,” the better. Mostly, though, the album is just a comfortable, laid-back affair with a small-room, intimate feel about it.
If you’ve already heard the acoustic versions of “Layla” and “Tears In Heaven” – and who hasn’t? – then you know what you’re getting from this album. If an hour’s worth of that sort of chill blues is appealing, then this is the record for you. Me, I’ll stick with his electric output. We’re gonna take a break from albums to review a couple of singles next…
Foo Fighters, 1997 – Monkey Wrench & Everlong
Finding CD singles at the Savers or Salvation Army is a rarity, so I have a tendency to pick them up when I find them, regardless of whether or not I like – or am even familiar with – the act in question. Thus it is that I wound up with two singles from Foo Fighters, a band about whom I don’t know anything apart from the fact that Dave Grohl does a pretty good Chris Walken impression… and a general sense that their type of music isn’t the sort of thing I normally listen to.
A little online research reveals that these are the first & second singles from the band’s sophomore effort, The Colour And The Shape. The songs are, as expected, a sort of post-grunge hard rock that I don’t hate but that I never really dug, either. However, the “b-sides” (in quotes because this is a CD) are definitely interesting. There are two covers: Tubeway Army’s “Down In The Park” and Vanity 6’s “Drive Me Wild” and then each disc has a version of Foo Fighters song “See You.”
First of all, “Monkey Wrench” is the better single, with an almost ‘80s post-punk/New Wave feel to it. I’m surprised. I actually really, really like this song. “Everlong” isn’t terrible but it doesn’t do anything for me. The Vanity 6 cover sounds like a tongue-in-cheek take, the spoken word lyrics overly earnest and therefore hilarious. But “Down In The Park” is a lovingly reimagined cover that moves smoothly from New Wave homage to hard rock jam. And finally, “See You” is presented here, first as an acoustic take and then in a live setting. Both are great recordings, lighthearted and mostly cheerful.
I haven’t been fully converted to a Foo Fighters fan by virtue of these two singles, but I definitely enjoyed them much more than I’d expected to, particularly the b-sides. And at a buck apiece, the reward turned out to be well worth the risk and I’ll check out any of their recordings I come across in the future. Proceed at your own risk – I have some unkind things to say about a ’90s album from a band that should never have left the ’80s…
Go West, 1992 – Indian Summer
I don’t write very many negative reviews. I’ve been accused of being overly effusive in my praise of far too many records. So these few paragraphs should tide those people over until I hear something I really hate.
I was completely unaware of this album until I saw it for sale at the local Savers for two bills. I was a big fan of their stateside hits “We Close Our Eyes” from 1985 and “King Of Wishful Thinking” from 1990’s Pretty Woman soundtrack. The keyboard riff in “We Close Our Eyes,” in particular, is a near-perfect encapsulation of ‘80s synthpop and New Wave in just a couple measures.
But what a difference a few years make. Indian Summer, released late in 1992, finds the band still clinging to their New Wave roots. They recycle “King Of Wishful Thinking” here and its inclusion propelled this record to become the most successful release of their career. Sales aside, lacking the pop hooks of some of their best singles, this album feels like a man out of time in a post “Smells Like Teen Spirit” landscape.
There are a couple of half-decent attempts at a bit of blue-eyed soul on “What You Won’t Do For Love” and “Tell Me,” but The Blow Monkeys were much better at this sort of thing. The previously referenced soundtrack single is always a treat. “That’s What Love Can Do” captures a hint of that old New Wave magic without quite pulling it off. Closing cut “A Taste Of Things To Come,” whose title triggers a thousand oral sex jokes, is actually the record’s saving grace as it finally pulls together all the New Wave elements I loved in their early singles.
Overall, this album falls far short of hopes. I don’t know any other Go West material apart from a couple singles, so I can’t say how it stacks up against their other records but this one was a bit tough to listen through front-to-back despite a handful of fairly decent numbers. If you’re still with me, we’re gonna head back to the ’60s via the ’80s with one of the best soundtracks from my youth…
Various, 1988 – Good Morning, Vietnam
I wore out the cassette version of this soundtrack in 1988 and it served as one of my first forays into the pop/rock of the 1960s. As a collection of mid-‘60s radio mainstays, it’s an extremely well-curated compilation. More on that in a minute, but when I bought it in 1988 it was primarily for the clips of Robin Williams riffing as real-life Army disc jock Adrian Cronauer.
Admittedly, at sixteen, I didn’t get all the references in Williams’s jokes at the time. “What’s the weather like out there? It’s hot! Damn hot! …It’s so damn hot I saw one of those little guys in the orange robes burst into flames!” It would be years before I caught the self-immolation joke (who even knew you could make a joke about that?) and despite its questionable taste, Robin Williams is able to play it for a laugh in an inoffensive manner. With Williams there was no time to get offended; by the time you registered one joke he was already two topics further down the road.
The soundtrack is perfectly balanced between these bon mots and some of the best pop of the decade. No Beatles or Doors, but appearances from The Beach Boys, The Vogues, Van Morrison’s Them, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas. The list goes on. I became mildly obsessed with James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” for a while thanks to this album. “Baby Please Don’t Go” is still an all-time favorite. Outside of the Beatles’ back catalog, this collection did more than any other album to open my tastes up to the Golden Age Of Pop.
The movie and the soundtrack end somewhat incongruously with Louis Armstrong’s timeless “What A Wonderful World,” a mellow, downtempo number in contrast with the high-energy pop and manic comedy that populated the rest of the record. And if I have one complaint about the disc it’s that it is way too short – at only 35 minutes, there’s plenty of room to have packed in some more hits, though I know licensing can be a bitch.
Apart from that, I can’t find any fault with this soundtrack. I haven’t listened to the whole thing all at once since those days when I used to ride my bike all over town with my Walkman on, and listening to it today was an instant nostalgia trip. Given that all these songs were already 20-plus years old when I first heard them, the disc has a timeless feel to it another 30-plus years on. Fast forward to the new millennium with some dynamite pop that I missed altogether when it came out fifteen years ago…
Gwen Stefani, 2004 – Love.Angel.Music.Baby.
Two things: one, this album was so much more enjoyable than I’d anticipated. And two, how the hell is this record fifteen years old already? Kee-rist! I still think of “Hollaback Girl” as a recent single.
I wouldn’t have expected this to be up my alley, but there was a still-sealed copy for two bucks at the thrift shop and I remembered “Hollaback Girl” being a not-too-bad single and I liked some No Doubt stuff in the ‘90s and I thought I’d give it a go.
I like it right off the bat, but calling it a solo album is a little goofy given the number of collaborators, chief among them No Doubt’s bassist, Tony Kanal and former Non-Blonde Linda Perry. Apparently, it was loosely conceptualized as an attempt to modernize the sounds of ‘80s pop music. If I’d known that beforehand I’d have been much more excited to check it out. As it is, that bit of latent trivia comes as a pleasant surprise.
I started this review halfway through the album – specifically while listening to “Bubble Pop Electric,” which is such a perfect piece of electro-pop it definitely could have come from The Decade Of Greed. Speaking of greed, conspicuous consumption is the watchword on “Rich Girl (featuring Eve)” and the silky smooth baby-making groove of “Luxurious.”
And the rest of the album is just as entertaining. The cultural appropriation of “Harajuku Girls” turns into a love letter to Japanese fashion. “What You Waiting For?” is a massive opening cut that sets the tone for the whole album. Fully half of the tracks on this disc were released as singles, but any of them could have been. It is a record chock full of hits and everything is layered in modernized throwback sensibilities.
At a time when Madonna had ceased to carry any sort of pop-cultural relevance, this album makes a case for Stefani assuming her mantle. Ultimately, she didn’t have nearly the impact that Madge had, but this solo debut certainly serves as an argument for her to have been a contender. You know you love it when I get obscure, so keep reading to learn about a little-known Shriekback side-project…
Happyhead, 1992 – Give Happyhead
This one is purely on the self-indulgence tip, as I’ve never heard anyone mention or reference this one-off.
And yet, I love the album and, to this day, can’t understand why it wasn’t a bigger hit. Maybe part of it is the bad timing of releasing an electro-pop album in the Nevermind era that I alluded to with the Go West album. Whatever the reason for its commercial failure, it hasn’t dimmed my view of this disc in the twenty-seven years since its release.
To give you an idea of its obscurity, Happyhead doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. It was a one-and-done collaboration between David Barratt (who does have his own Wikipedia page, although it doesn’t mention Happyhead) and Shriekback’s Carl Marsh (who gets a mention on Shriekback’s Wiki page but doesn’t get his own). And I strongly recommend this CD for Shriekback fans. Though fabulous all on its own, it could do double-duty as The Lost Shriekback Record, though it isn’t quite as dark as its parent outfit. But if fun, synth-driven, guitar-accented, electro-dance-pop loaded down with clever lyrics sounds like it might be your bag this is more than worth seeking out.
It was one of my favorite releases of 1992 and for years thereafter (before it became easy to look things up online) I would scour record shops hoping for a sophomore follow-up, but one never materialized. Instead, I returned again and again to Give Happyhead to marvel over couplets like “Cold precision in terror and art / A bullet and a ballet are a vowel apart…”
There were two singles: “Digital Love Thing” and “Fabulous,” neither of which made any headway up the charts. And just like that, the album and the band that spawned it faded into obscurity, another piece of esoterica in a handful of CD collections. Put this in your list of discs to seek out. Fasten your seatbelts: more mediocrity on the way. But don’t worry, it gets better before we get to the end.
Hate Dept., 1999 – Technical Difficulties
It’s only fair to make it clear that I do not listen to a lot of industrial music, so I’m out of my depth here from the get-go. I don’t dislike it on principle, but if you’ve read this blog for any length of time you know it’s not my first choice, either. In short, industrial acts have to go the extra mile to really capture my attention.
I don’t get a lot of that extra effort from this Hate Dept. CD. It’s not bad. I don’t hate it. The name of the band and the album seem a bit generic and uninspired but the music is fine. For the most part, though, it just doesn’t have a hook that’s pulling me in and making me want to hear this album again. The musicianship is very good and I think I’d have preferred this as an instrumental release.
There are hints of similar bands here and there – Nine Inch Nails, KMFDM, that lot- but it’s not on the same level, either commercially or from a production standpoint. It would be much improved with the vocals removed, but then I have a fairly low tolerance for yelling in music.
One of the most interesting songs on the disc is the quieter, more melodic “Wait,” which does away with a lot of the industrial elements and actually incorporates a trumpet, which seems oddly out of place on this record but not at all unwelcome on this particular track.
Apparently, Hate Dept. saw some minor commercial success with the single “Release It,” included here. It’s got an insistent beat that would make excellent dance club fodder but nothing that really sets it apart from anything else on the record. It sounds like it could have been used in the soundtrack to the original The Matrix.
This album might appeal to me more if I was an angrier person who achieved catharsis through aggressive-sounding music. It would actually be pretty good for that purpose. But it’s not something I can see myself revisiting any time in the near future. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s head to the big finish: two albums – one brand new to me, the other an old favorite – that I absolutely loved listening to this week…
Icehouse, 1982 – Primitive Man
If synthpop and New Wave from the late, great ‘80s is your bag, then climb aboard. I’ll admit that this album passed me by in 1982. I was eleven years old and this didn’t get a lot of exposure in the U.S. A few weeks ago, however, someone played “Great Southern Land” for me and I had to have a copy of it on CD. And because of the strict, self-imposed, and always shifting guidelines I have for writing this blog, I’m only just getting to listen to the album for the first time today.
One of the things that surprised me about this recording is that it is more-or-less a solo affair for frontman Iva Davies; the only sounds not created by Davies are some additional percussion provided by co-producer Keith Forsey. (Although, this expanded edition has bonus tracks featuring additional musicians.) It really does sound like a full band affair throughout. The other surprise was that this is one of those records that got a wildly different release in the U.S. than it did in its native Australia, with a different song sequence and omissions and additions to the tracklist. For the sake of this review, we’re talking about the U.S. edition.
“Uniform” gets moved to the top of the playlist, as it was a single in the U.S./U.K. markets. It’s a fine piece of jaunty synth-pop but doesn’t truly set the tone for the record, as it is far from the strongest track here. That distinction would go to the sprawling “Great Southern Land” and “Trojan Blue,” back-to-back and smack-dab center of the tracklist, each cresting the five-minute mark. These are followed up by the stunningly New Wave double-tap of “Love In Motion” and “Mysterious Thing,” the latter of which, in particular, would have crushed airwaves of the era had it been given a chance. It is the most ‘80s song on the whole album.
“One By One” sounds like early-to-mid-decade Simple Minds (in the best possible way) and, in fact, Forsey would go on to co-write and produce the Simple Minds smash “Don’t You Forget About Me” a few years later. The original U.S. release ends with “Goodnight Mr. Matthews,” eschewing “Break These Chains” from the Australian release and instead including the non-album Aussie single “Love In Motion.” “Break These Chains” is the first of the bonus tracks included here, a driving, guitar-fueled incendiary that sounds years ahead of its time.
It astounds me that I can listen to an album for the first time – one that was released 37 years ago – and it still sounds as fresh and new as anything being released today (in many cases, far better). For every bitter disappointment (see the earlier review of Go West’s Indian Summer) there’s a shining jewel like Primitive Man, with its shades of U2, Simple Minds, and David Bowie, an indispensable New Wave masterpiece. (The fact that I’ve managed to dispense with it until today is irrelevant. Now that I’ve heard it, it’s definitely going to be a part of the ever-expanding regular rotation.)
The bonus tracks here are a mixed bag. The German-language version of “Uniform” is a curiosity, at best. Single mixes of “Street Cafe” and “Hey Little Girl” are de rigueur and don’t add a lot to the overall package. But the inclusion of “Break These Chains” and “Over The Line,” along with a 1994 reworking of “Great Southern Land” are welcome additions indeed.
You can usually get a feel for how much I like a recording based simply on how much I end up writing about it. In this case, it’s quite a lot on both counts. I don’t know how I missed this album for almost 40 years, but I guess there’s something to be said for delayed gratification. And finally, a controversial classic from one of the biggest bands of my youth…
INXS, 1992 – Welcome To Wherever You Are
INXS’s eighth full-length release opens, appropriately, with the Eastern-tinged intro piece “Questions,” a trippy, disorienting soundscape with Michael Hutchence’s distorted vocals chanting a litany of “How do you…” inquiries but offering no solutions. The uncertainty of the album’s title extends to its opening cut.
So it makes sense that the first answer is, quite literally, “Heaven Sent,” the first single off of Welcome To Wherever You Are and the first proper song on the disc. The vocals are buried in the mix under layers of thunderous guitar & bass – right up until the chorus when they get brought to the fore. Even with no discernible lyrics, it’s a catchy song on the strength of Garry Gary Beers’s massive bassline and the vocal hook in the refrain.
Other singles include “Baby Don’t Cry,” the excellent “Not Enough Time” (this album’s “Never Tear Us Apart”), “Taste It,” and “Beautiful Girl,” and all of the singles are top-notch, hook-laden affairs that still get stuck in my head 27 years later.
The disc is also chock-full of album cuts that rival the singles, chief among them “Communication” and “Back On Line.” “All Around” has an excellent Andrew Farriss guitar riff that sucks you in and positively exudes momentum. “Wishing Well,” with its chill tempo and vocal melody, provides a nice follow up to “Beautiful Girl.” “Men And Women” is a drawn-out, spaced-out, droning closer that echoes the disorientation of the opener, neatly bookending the whole album.
This was the last of Golden Era INXS LPs which, for me, span from 1985’s Listen Like Thieves through Welcome To Wherever You Are in 1992. The boys had mastered their craft and were able to churn out commercial singles seemingly at will, demolishing global charts in the process. After this record, the hits fell off precipitously – they still charted, but not as dominantly as in the mid-‘80s to early-‘90s.
Thus it’s surprising to me that Welcome… doesn’t receive a heartier welcome from most INXS fans. My friends over at The PopCulturalists panned it pretty broadly, both opining that it didn’t have much to offer outside “Not Enough Time” and “Heaven Sent.” Musical taste is subjective, of course, but at the time of release, these fellas were bigger INXS fans than I was. I really liked this when it was first released and still do, listening to it again this past week. Friends aside, I rarely hear anyone reference Welcome… or any of its singles and I can’t figure out why. Maybe I just enjoy it more than it really warrants. And I’m okay with that.
Another week in the books. Another stack of CDs reviewed. And if you missed them this week, I had On This Day entries for Robert Palmer and Everclear.
Next week I’m on vacation and, if you’re in the States, we’ve got Thanksgiving coming up. That will either mean more free time to spend listening to music and sharing my thoughts, or more time with the honey-do list keeping me away from my computer and my CDs. But I’m sure I’ll have something for you this time next week.
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Until next time, keep those discs spinning.