Review by Filip Mašić
Assigned by Benjamin Lefebvre
The visual aesthetic’s a bit.. conformist, innit? A goofy pop-rock album, no-one was surprised to learn. But those can be valuable in all sorts of different ways. So let’s dig in. Released in 1989, it’s quite retro in style, but more than that, it essentially *is* a sequence of tropes welded together mercilessly and unapologetically. Confidently. It could easily have been blandly derivative and amounted to nothing, but the flair with which it’s done makes it something more.
The tropes, tho… there’s a crapload of them. Unapologetic! Every song clearly aspires to a tradition, mostly in the pop canon. Upbeat hectic anthem, Carole King-ish piano ballad, quirky blues-rocker, ambient dirge, then… I mean, idk how to describe “Renaissance Man”, but I damn well feel like I’ve heard the whole thing before. So much déjà-vu. Country ballad. 80s smooth pop. And zooming in… you def know the sus4 thing in “Moose” (e.g. at the very end) from like every piano ballad ever. “Hyde Park Corner” has that lick at 0:20, Hendrix chords, vocal/instrument call-and-response, boogie-woogie walking bass. The all-together-now ending on “Renaissance Man”… its jaunty clarinet, vocal growls, mystery dramatic false chord (bonnnngggg!). Lots of cues from the Beatles around ’67, ’68, like the endings of “Hyde Park” and “Graham”. “Whistle Song” ends just like Jethro Tull. Tons of stuff that’s hard to verbalise but you just *know* – the whole album has that reconstituted feel, of awaiting the next throwback.
So, the album fundamentally doesn’t assert a strong original identity. That’s not what it’s about. In some limited senses, it does. The biggest is Melanie Pappenheim, the female vocal. Best known for the Bad Wolf theme from Doctor Who? Seriously beautiful singing, *all* over the album, with a glassy pristine texture that suits the quirky lyrics. They are kinda stereotypically quirky, but Melanie’s prim, clean vocal cooing “or will I play staccato… which might cause instant death?” on “Moose” is the charm of the album. Those melodies about “contemplating crayons” and “hearing table-tennis” save the otherwise stolid, empty song.
Another sense is the off-the-cuff musical-theatre feel running throughout the album… a bit unconventional. But these aren’t the point – what makes the album *work* is that all the tropes are woven together really skilfully. Exploring the songs is a joy. Take the musical-theatre aspect, enacted most vividly by “Graham, Return!”. The song stitches together so many disparate segments, some overtly *theatrical* and story-telling, others with a strong *musical* identity, namely this kind of honky-tonk rhythm and mixolydian scale (whose major-with-a-bluesy-twist feel is used well throughout the album, to make it upbeat yet weird). Take my notes from the song’s breakdown:
“bang bang bang bang trombone
regal british brass tune
chill mixo honky reprise
big-band brass optimistic chorus
eerie electronic melody”
It’s colourful, wonderful, has comedy brass (shoutout to the random trumpet note introducing each chorus, ha). Great! If that’s too choppy and theatrical, other songs show serious subtleties that elevate the album beyond the pastiche I first insinuated it might be. The keyboard (I guess from sole album composer/lyricist Johnny Miller) and Melanie’s vocals run through the verses of “Whistle Song” in total unbroken unison, with breakneck acrobatics from Melanie (+ hilarious lyrics about looking slim to please him..), then flows into creative comping under the whistle solo (of course there’s a whistle solo), fleshing out some identity. Not to mention the dynamic breaks that bookend the solos and imbue a rollicking feel. Which reappears on <s-e-g-u-e> “Hyde Park Corner”, where the sense of tropes being strung together is matched by a sense of cool melodies, harmonies, vibes being strung together. It’s the little things like the emphatic increases in pitch within the staccato string-section bursts punctuating the Lovely Rita–esque coda of that song. I was at this famous corner the other day. It’s a confusing hellish trap well-deserving of those shrill bursts of anxiety.
Check the accidentals and modulations where you least expect them – 1:20 into “Len Smoothchurch”, or the end of each phrase in “Roundabout”. It’s all about subversion; you expect a different chord at 1:20 and so get taken on a journey. Same goes for all the detailed arrangements – the music actively resists repetition, throwing twists and subverting, which is a boon I see throughout all the music I like. So props to them for that. That 1:20 moment actually prompted me to dig into the harmony a bit… I decided that bit is Em7 → E♭M9. There’s depth and colour to most arrangements, jazzy subtleties tying together the material unobtrusively, accentuating the simple yet diverse pop harmonies that define the album. This does make it feel uninteresting on first listens, but it rewards digging a bit deeper. Even on a yucky saccharine 80s song like “Smoothchurch”! Which is lyrically some sort of character assassination or…
I rate the texture, too. An acoustic feel complemented by all sorts of strings, brass, woodwinds, organ-things, ethereal electric pianos. Some distinctive, creatively-applied textures from the clarinet and baritone sax, not to mention the strong backing vocal arrangements everywhere. The production is clear but sadly reflects the compartmentalised feel of classic pop-rock, lacking the intricate dynamics, drive, expansiveness of more modern orchestration-heavy rock, like Arcade Fire’s Funeral.
The best song by far is the ambient dirge, “Bring Back The Mary Hopkin Days”. That’s a, err *checks Wikipedia* 60s folk singer signed to Apple. Well. The throwback continues. But this song is *the* one that feels like it breaks free from the pervasive homage vibe, more like a serious work in its chosen style, which is still pretty familiar. I left it till this point in the review because it’s a peak in so many of the things that I’ve said make the album great. Melanie’s lead vocal is extraordinary. It goes full operatic soprano, going into awesome slides, playing the changes brilliantly, changes that are as pretty and subversive as ever. The counterpoint she sings in the second verse, over a male vocal reprising the melody of the first, is clever, exploratory, and just fits, with the clashing lyrics adding great rhythms to boot. The song structure is staunchly anti-repetitive – stately Dorian ambient chords, a weeping slide guitar, all brought to life by the electric organ, with details I love like grim power-chord cadences (0:27) and chords that get coloured in halfway through (2:42).
And the bit at 3:05 is *something else*. As a modern abstract jazz–head, these 30s are my album highlight. After the slide-guitar bit resolves into a hopeful major chord, the key jumps up a semitone and goes into an ethereal Velvet Underground–like texture, with fuzzier organ and double-time as a mellower Melanie comes in over some Sunday Morning–like bells, wordlessly meandering over a Lydian scale (an even-brighter version of the major scale), sometimes dramatically plunging into the parallel minor, controlled so it doesn’t disturb the dream. This exploration and intertwining of brightness and darkness is kinda breathtaking and a rare creative step that boldly escapes all the retro. The closer “Roundabout” goes for a similar vibe, with a sick intro that sees a bass note gradually descend for 2 minutes as the harmony is fleshed out among bell-like notes and morse code–ish rhythms, and has a lovely whispery male/female vocal duet, alternating with Melanie’s leading operatic runs.
This album celebrates music. It rifles through the history of pop-rock, a vibrant guided tour held together by clever arrangements and an undercurrent of subtleties that reward a closer look. It’s just that this doesn’t make for an album that stays with you long after the initial celebration. Musical identity is forged by innovation, by individual out-there ideas that can be passed down by word-of-mouth and quoted. There are some here, demonstrably, but not enough to be timeless.