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Suck These Noises From My Head
Boo Radleys: Wake Up Boo! #1
I have decided, as much because I bought them all at once as anything else, to treat these seven Boo Radleys singles as an episodically released anti-album to their record Wake Up!, an audio Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Like the play, this work repeats parts of the album literally, echoes some from different perspectives, and includes a large number of scenes both unknown to the original and, often, essentially tangential to the original's plot.
It begins, appropriately enough, the same way the real album does, with "Wake Up Boo!", the album version exactly. After this effervescent, gleaming and inspirational beginning, though, the anti-album quickly steps into the wings. "Janus", the first b-side, is distracted, bleak and ragged, with oddly processed guitar harmonics sighing mournfully amidst the soft chords and delicate brushed drums. The backstage narrative then quickly becomes strange, as it passes into the eight-plus-minute evolutionary epic "Blues for George Michael". The first section of this finds Sice singing in a waiflike falsetto over some bizarre reversed accompaniment. Drums, guitar and some trumpet arrive in time to underscore the part of the song that clearly pertains to the title, a short admonition to George to remember that his music will outlast his record label tormentors. That's all over by two minutes into the song, though. There ensues a short section of muted chanting, followed by a sort of oceanic stretch of atmospheric meandering. The calm, drifting parts of this eventually fade away and are replaced with some very beepy synthesizer gurgling. This gets increasingly ominous and arrhythmic for a while, until a resolute trumpet (or keyboard facsimile thereof) returns to usher the song back toward sensibility. It stops a little short, however, and Sice proceeds to repeat "I've drunk the stuff down; / I feel better, I feel stronger" for a while. The chorus, such as it is, flutters through briefly, and then gives way again to a trio played by choppily echoed electric guitar, determinedly nuanceless trumpet, and some unexplained and muted siren noises.
This clamor finally subsides, and is replaced by "Friendship Song", an amiable guitar-pop outing that plays something like a rough low-fi draft for a song that would have made the album if they'd ever found time to clean it up and finish it. In parts this song reminds me of both the Posies and the Three O'Clock, with Sice singing in a particularly Michael Quercio-like whine in several places. This, too, drifts off a little, though, and the last two minutes or so of it find the chorus repeated listlessly over a wandering bass line and some oblique synth-strings. The world behind the scenery is much less ordered than the one in front of it.
Boo Radleys: Wake Up Boo! #2
Installment two rewinds time a little bit, which Stoppard didn't try but which is in keeping with the spirit of the exercise all the same, I would contend. The version of "Wake Up Boo!" here on part two is subtitled "Music for Astronauts", which turns out to mean "Played totally normally, except that at the end, instead of stopping, this version kicks in a fast dance-club groove and slams into five minutes of noisy semi-techno that at one point quotes what I believe is the hook from some old Steve Miller song, at another point sounds remarkably like EMF, and eventually winds up in dub."
"...And Tomorrow the World", the first b-side here, starts out like it's going to be a sweet pop gem, all a cappella echo-round harmonies. After a verse of that, though, it transforms into some semi-psychedelic rambling, from which it is rescued only temporarily by a verse sung in such a silly voice by Sice that it almost sounds like Ween has made an unanticipated appearance in the studio. This single then concludes with the semi-documentary audio-collage "The History of Creation Parts 17 & 36". The raw material for this is the band being interviewed about their experiences with Creation Records, but this text is subjected to so much processing, editing and other mutilation that it ends up sounding rather like the animals from Creature Comforts performing their own version of Frank Zappa's "Porn Wars". Fascinating, if only slightly informative.
Boo Radleys: Find the Answer Within #1
The anti-album then snaps back into sync with the real one for "Find the Answer Within", the album version of which graces the first part of its single. While the album goes on to "Reaching Out From Here", though, the anti-album spirals off into the edgy "Don't Take Your Gun to Town", where dry drums and a frayed and flanged guitar twine around a plaintive vocal. As with "Friendship Song", this track clearly shares much of its heritage with the glossy pop productions on the album, but rawer surroundings make it something else entirely. So, too with "Wallpaper", in which stately piano and reverent organ support a song that reminds me alternately of the Housemartins' gospel moments and "Bridge Over Troubled Waters". These are almost certainly the anti-album's denizens' most coherent moments, the scenes where the anti-play comes the closest to establishing its own reason for existence, rather than simply shadowing the nominal source.
Boo Radleys: Find the Answer Within #2
It's fitting, then, that the next installment finds the first remix, the first shared album scene skewed because of the point of view of the anti-album's protagonists. The remix here is by the High Llamas, and shares with their album Gideon Gaye both a fondness for ornate arrangements and careful strings, and a propensity to irritate me by obsessively repeating musical elements that don't seem to me to possess enough animating nuance to justify the repetition. The dub coda, in particular, seems utterly purposeless to me.
For b-sides this part first offers "The Only Word I Can Find". An unhurried anthem, this song is full of guitar squall and cymbal splashes, with only airy vocals and some keyboards keeping it from sounding like Radiohead. "Very Together", the other track, is catchy in parts and becalmed in others, and echoes the "Like some outmoded sixties throwback" part of the album's "Joel" in a couple places.
Boo Radleys: It's Lulu #1
The anti-album then performs some drastic time travel, and backs up two tracks on the album to reprise "It's Lulu" (in a "single version" that I think is only cut differently than the album one). This is an interesting narrative effect, as I find myself forgetting that "Find the Answer Within" has already happened, and thinking that somehow a whole lot more time has passed backstage between "Wake Up Boo!" and "It's Lulu" than the one intervening track that takes place on the album. After so much strangeness, the gleeful focus of "It's Lulu" is bracing.
It is also, of course, misleading. No sooner have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern been summoned out into the lights to play their roles than they find themselves in the dark once again, no clearer on their fate than before. The musical manifestation of this here is "This Is Not About Me", a slow acoustic song that seems somehow uncomfortable with its restrained pace. The vocal duet is shaky and unpolished, and to me sounds like it wants desperately to break into something more heroic, if only the musical accompaniment would oblige.
Our uneasy heroes' curiosities then get the better of them for a bit, and we are treated to somewhat obscured views of what is going on meanwhile, back in the album. There's a High Llamas remix of "Reaching Out From Here" that I like even less than their reworking of "Find the Answer Within", and a Stereolab mix of "Martin, Doom! It's Seven O'Clock" that mostly expands on the original by extending the slow passages with some vaguely ambient burbling noises. The point of these exercises is not at all clear to me, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's resultant perplexity is, I think, wholly understandable.
Boo Radleys: It's Lulu #2
Hearing "It's Lulu" again, unaltered, can't be much help to them in reestablishing their bearings. And when it leads this second time into a jittery Justin Warfield dance remix of "Joel", a song that doesn't lend itself particularly well to this treatment, their baffled looks are to be expected.
At this point, the backstage narrative casts off from the main one entirely, never to rejoin it. The first proper b-side here, "Tambo", is a short song full of extraterrestrial-creature noises, placidly oblivious acoustic guitar strumming, and a vocal part that goes nowhere in particular. The other one, "Donkey", with some country-ish guitar plonking and silly lyrics about indifferent personal hygiene, is almost entirely from another world than Wake Up!.
Boo Radleys: From the Bench at Belvidere
Those two odd digressions lead to this new single, which isn't from Wake Up! at all. The title track is a languid, meditative affair that, in the chorus, even reminds me a little of the Bee Gee's. Gone is the bouncy brass of the album, and in its place there's only some fairly aimless flute playing that might have been extracted from a Jethro Tull warm-up session, and some especially cheesy vibes. "Hi Falutin", next, has the rhythm track of a Jesus Jones or EMF song, but not much to flesh it out with. The chanted vocals are very EMF like, but too fuzzed to follow, which makes it hard to sing along with them, and there's only the ghost of a melody to give the surging bass line counterpoint and direction. "Crushed", on the other hand, sounds like an attempted Tom Waits imitation in which they've tried to match his aesthetic by playing back their master tapes at half speed, so that the vocals sound drugged and the drums waterlogged, and the melodies move in a dream-like semi-paralysis.
And then, right at the end of it all, just when things seem to have spiraled hopelessly out of control, comes an unexpected moment of pop redemption. "Almost Nearly There", with sparking acoustic guitar, warm electric, enthusiastic handclaps, harpsichord, melodica-ish keyboards and a sweet vocal from Sice, is unforced and delightful. I think that, although I appreciate having had this inverted perspective on the Boo Radleys and Wake Up!, unlike with Shakespeare and Stoppard the parallel narrative is really most useful to make me better appreciate the original. Nonetheless, I'm pleased to hear it get a happy ending.
Finn: Suffer Never #1
In keeping with the Finn brothers' family-only side project, the b-sides from their first two two-part singles are entirely 1989 demo versions of songs the two of them wrote together that later appeared under other names. This one has "Strangeness & Charm" and "In Love With It All" (both of which eventually appeared on Tim's 1993 solo album Before & After, along with a Finn/O'Maonlai/White composition that prefigured ALT), and "Four Seasons in One Day", later used on Crowded House's Woodface. All three are intriguing to hear in this understated format. "Strangeness & Charm" I like much better this way, as the simple strings and acoustic guitars keep the focus on the brothers' cheerful harmonies. Tim's subsequent solo version tries to make something much more complicated out of this simple song, and to me loses track of its appeal. "In Love With It All", on the other hand, feels much more complete and confident in its later incarnation, where slicker production brings out the synthesizer hooks and transforms the demo's understated harmonies into something transcendent and grand. "Four Seasons in One Day" is especially interesting for production reasons. The demo has that unavoidable recorded-in-a-small-room ambience to it, but for the final version Neil and Mitchell Froom almost seem to recreate that sense intentionally, and the subtle differences between the two versions are thus very revealing. The later version makes more of a more confident vocal from Neil, I think, but the harmonies at the end of the demo sound somehow just a little purer to me than those on the album version.
Finn: Suffer Never #2
Part two adds Woodface's "Weather With You", "Catherine Wheel" from Crowded House's Together Alone, and another demo called "Prodigal Son" that, if it's appeared elsewhere before, I can't locate. "Weather With You" already seemed like one of Crowded House's most appealing songs to me, but this version makes the one on the album seem positively busy and distanced by comparison. Here the instrumentation doesn't intrude as much on the voices, with the result that the song is even more focused on its achingly beautiful melody and harmony. On the album the vocals are processed so that the Finns sound like some sort of strange chorus heard across an empty church, or perhaps through a window. Here they sound like two brothers singing together. Very cool both ways. "Catherine Wheel", on the other hand, is only a sketch of its future self. The demo is slower than the album version, and I feel the lack of Youth's richly atmospheric production much more than I miss polish on the other demos. The demo finds a pretty, solid core of a song in need of some sort of inspiration; the final version has found it. What would have become of "Prodigal Son" I don't know. The melody may be a shade too tricky for its own good, though I suspect Tim could have turned that into a virtue. Finn fans will appreciate this as an unearthed treasure, but I don't think it's one of the brothers' better songs.
Finn: Angel's Heap #1
By the second single, the pressure at the b-side faucet seems to have gone down some, and these two discs add only four demos between them, all from Woodface. This one has "It's Only Natural" and "Chocolate Cake". The good news is that, at least in my opinion, they've here traded quantity for quality. The demo version of "It's Only Natural" is amazing; it sounds like it was recorded in one take, live, with one brother playing guitar and the other clapping while they both sing, and the way they both lean into the beat with their voices, to make up for the lack of other players, gives the song a charmingly human energy. I like "Chocolate Cake" better this way, as well. On the album its instrumental bounce is emphasized so much that the song becomes cloyingly goofy to me. In the demo the guitars and organ are much less overbearing, and the song seems better balanced this way.
Finn: Angel's Heap #2
The second disc adds "There Goes God" and "How Will You Go". I like the album version of "There Goes God" a lot, but the demo makes me realize that on the album the fuller instrumentation both distracts from the words of the song (I can't believe I'd never consciously noted the exact text of the chorus: "Hey, don't look now, / There goes God / In his sexy pants / And his sausage dog, / And he can't stand Beelzebub / 'Cause he looks so good in black."), and usurps the song's forward impetus from the singing. On the demo the words seem to drive the song both topically and musically. The gruff low strings on the demo (synthesized? I can't quite be sure) are also a nice touch, and easier to appreciate in their relative isolation. "How Will You Go", oddly, almost sounds more like a demo to me on the album. The actual demo's vocal production is much clearer and stronger than that of the album version, with the result that the latter now sounds unfinished to me, as if they gave up before getting a really good performance, and then decided to cover it up by burying the voices in the mix. In fact, the one thing this set of demos leaves me wondering most is why the Finns didn't play the tapes back, hear what they had, and just release the whole set as it was. I'm not sad they didn't, just mystified.
Del Amitri: Tell Her This #1
The Del Amitri single parade continues with this, the fourth single from their fourth album, Twisted. This time they have thankfully abandoned their temporary fascination with "mini-greatest hits" release-wasting, and both discs of this set feature new material. Part one has the non-album tracks "A Better Man" and "The Last Love Song", and an "alternative version" of the Change Everything song "When You Were Young". "A Better Man" is solid, if typical, Del Amitri fare, with a steady snare snap, buildings as metaphors for relationships, and Justin Currie's voice swelling up into the chorus. Just when you think that he might not have any original insights left for this narrative, though, one slips out right toward the end: "Maybe a better man ... / Wouldn't leave you to believe / Someday he may be a better man." After a whole song of the narrator pleading his case, he undermines the whole thing by admitting that this very pleading is proof that he is not, yet, improved, and may never be. Amazing what you can make out of just a little self-awareness.
Irony is good, too, and you'd be hard pressed to call it anything else when Justin Currie writes a song called "The Last Love Song". I'm so amused by this conceit that I can hardly pay attention to the words. Of course it is the narrator saying that this is the last love song, not Justin himself. He is only playing a character. Mournful slide guitar sighs along with his character, as he laments not the death of a relationship, but its entrance into a phase where it is no longer sufficient to hum empty endearments. The gleeful nonsense syllables the band sings are then actually part of the story, which is rarely true of nonsense syllables in pop music, and the cheer with which they are sung is actually fitting, and yet impressive, reflecting the singer's determination to squeeze a few more joyful minutes of fluff out of life before turning to face his soberer future.
The remake of "When You Were Young" is fine, I guess. It's a little more upbeat than the original, but I didn't think there was anything wrong with it to begin with.
Del Amitri: Tell Her This #2
Part two adds "Whisky Remorse", "Fred Partington's Daughter" and an alternative version of "Learn to Cry". The first of these is actually a reprise, as it originally appeared on the CD single for "Be My Downfall". It's a good song, and if you missed it the first time you shouldn't screw up your second chance, but since I already have the older single, I'd have rather heard something new. Having said that, though, I notice that "Fred Partington's Daughter" has a 1990 publishing date on it, which probably means that it, too, appeared somewhere else before, only this one I don't have, so I don't complain. My selfishness becomes apparent. All the same, I'm glad to have it. It's a bouncy English-folky drinking song, though the fact that it's a bouncy Del Amitri drinking song means that it has a sad twist at the end of the otherwise bawdy saga, and then when you go back and inspect the whole thing more closely you realize that it's actually depressing right from the outset. I love these songs. I know they're depressing, but I am seldom more content than listening to something thoughtfully sad. There's a passage in Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity where the narrator wonders whether he likes sad pop songs because he's depressed, or he's depressed because he listens to so many sad pop songs. There were a lot of things in High Fidelity that caused shudders of recognition in me, but that prompted one of the most violent ones. And I can no more give these songs up than he could.
The remake of "Learn to Cry", originally a b-side to "Always the Last to Know", seems just as unnecessary to me as the one of "When You Were Young", but if you're going to reuse a b-side, at least remaking it is more interesting than just printing it again.
Big Country: Non!
Speaking of just printing again, three of the four songs on this Big Country single are unaltered album tracks, and the fourth is only an acoustic version of another. I mention the single anyway because 1) Big Country are my favorite band, and I rarely miss an opportunity to mention them, and 2) the single is a benefit release for Greenpeace, which gives you a reason to buy it quite apart from the musical contents. And to be fair, the four songs here are all understandable inclusions, given the cause. The three taken from the band's last album, Why the Long Face?, are "Post Nuclear Talking Blues", which has nothing to do with nuclear armaments, really, but does mention the word "nuclear" in the title, which makes it ideal for an EP subtitled "Stop the Tests"; "Blue on a Green Planet", which is a love song, but has the words "green planet" in the title; and the human-accountability anthem "God's Great Mistake", which actually is relevant, despite the odd-seeming title. The acoustic version is a tense rendition of "All Go Together", a song about shared fate from their previous album, The Buffalo Skinners. There's even a poster in the box. Yes, okay, it's just a poster of the word "Non!" in big letters, which may not be of that much use to those of us without a window facing France. But you shouldn't need posters to get you to buy Big Country records, anyway. My threats and entreaties should be more than enough.
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