Take These Days Away
104 · 23 January 97
Mexico 70: Imperial Comet Hour
Not knowing anything about international soccer, though it may not technically be a life handicap, will interfere with your understanding at least four things about Imperial Comet Hour (counting just the ones I caught myself). First, World Cup competitions are usually referred to by the name of the host country and the year the Cup was or will be held there; thus France 98, USA 94, Italia 90 and so on back to, as you may have guessed by now, Mexico 70. Second, the forward position in soccer is sometimes called "striker"; thus the phrase "striker's luck", in "Every Hour", has nothing to do with labor protesters, who, unaccustomed to being used as symbols of opportunistic good fortune, will probably be relieved to hear it. Third, George Best and Geoff Hurst, protagonists of the song "Best & Hurst", were forwards who played professionally in England in the Sixties. Both are regarded as legendary, but while Hurst, an Englishman, got to be part of England's winning 1966 World Cup team, Best was from Northern Ireland, and his country failed to even qualify for a World Cup during his career.
The fourth thing is not on the album, but is the thought I had while listening to it the first time, which was, in its entirety, "Promotion!", an accolade that requires a slightly longer explanation. In most countries with established professional soccer leagues, you see, the membership of each division is not fixed. Each level has a set number of teams, but at the end of the season a few hapless teams fall off the bottom of the standings into the next division down (this is called relegation), while a like number of teams from the top of the lower division are promoted to replace them. This practice is wholly unknown in the US, where the passionately-held belief in social mobility is outranked by the even more passionately-held belief in corporate entitlement. Too many licensing deals and franchise pyramids are constructed around American professional sports teams for anybody to condone eminently reasonable ideas like making the New York Jets spend next season playing against SUNY/Purchase and Hunter. It's a shame, I think, because the system makes sport a much healthier metaphor. "Second division" still carries some inevitable element of "not good enough for first" judgment, but there's a sense that a second division team is still a real thing, not just a feeder system for some other club, and the fact that teams can change divisions encourages you not to assume that their current context is intrinsic or permanent.
In soccer it takes a whole season to move up, but in music it can often happen much faster. As of their previous album, 1994's The Dust Has Come to Stay, Mexico 70 were part of my personal Britpop second division (actually, since they're English, the second division is the First Division, but never mind that). They were a good second division band, and the ringing, ebullient, pulsing, Lucy-Show-ish anthem "Heaven in Your Eyes" was enough to keep them on my watch list, but the rest of the album lacked, it seemed to me, the musical ambition and sense of self that distinguishes great bands from the ones that provide the contrast. It was not music that let me down, but it was not music that lifted me up. If it weren't for my other life designing computer software, it is subsequent albums by bands just like this, bands for whom I harbor more affection than hope, that I wouldn't be able to afford. But I keep getting paid, so I keep buying them. A tall pile of spare jewel cases in the corner of the room attests to the mixed results of this practice, but the albums that reward my persistence more than justify the ones that don't. It's possible, I suppose, that an album could win me over with just a single chord, or maybe even a single note. I fell in love with Matthew Sweet's "Sick of Myself", come to think of it, on the basis of some pick noises with no particular pitch. Still, few albums have endeared themselves to me as quickly as Imperial Comet Hour. After some pause-button scrutiny, I've located the point in "Every Hour", the opening track, where my heart began to swell; it is just as the timer on my CD player flips to 0:03. Admittedly, not a lot has happened by this point. The guitars, maybe one distorted electric and a 12-string acoustic, have rung just three chords. There have been eight hi-hat hits and four snares. The bass and kick drum don't come in until 0:11, the vocals not until 0:21. Still, in the peal of those first chords, and in the sparkle of the reverb as they fall away, are the seeds of this album's magic, traces of the aura that the other seconds and songs all glow with. These are the opening seconds of an album still breathless and amazed at the sounds it can make, and at how much of its desperate love of music is apparent in its voice.
Of course, albums do not rigorously adhere to the rules of fractal geometry, and many of the rules I would personally have built into a universe were omitted from this one, so it is possible for an entrancing few seconds to lead to a forgettable rest of an album. Happily, at least for me, that doesn't happen here. Against the Beatlesque current of Britpop, by which I suppose I mostly mean Oasis, Mexico 70 sound like a back-roads tour of forgotten stops in between the two. "Every Hour", the rest of the song, is alternately plaintive and surging, something like the Dream Academy and the Lucy Show joining forces to demonstrate what a cheerful Smiths song might have sounded like. "I Want You", with its accented harmonies and martial snare rolls, could be a joint project of the Style Council and Ned's Atomic Dustbin. The largely-acoustic "Till You've Spoken" and the muted "So Do I" both seem to me like what Pop Art might have sounded like if the Steinharts had been British. The sturdy, electric "Best & Hurst", on the other hand, all straight-aways and roaring guitar hooks (and backing vocals by ex-Map of the World leader Khalid Hanifi, of all people), could pass in Boston for a Heretix or Smackmelon song. "It'll Never Happen Again", soft and wistful, makes me think of Aztec Camera and Prefab Sprout, but "In Time" melds unsteady falsetto shivers to massive waves of glancingly My Bloody Valentine-like guitar noise. "Hate for You" sways with whispered soul and a slow, reassuring rhythm, and the surging, giddy "Me All Over" is like "Beat Surrender" with bottleneck guitar licks in place of the horns. Airy backing vocals drift through "Days Can't Touch You Now", trademark Elvis Costello slap-back echoes rattle the Crowded House-ish melodic poise of "Little Tears" and "Jimmy McGriff" throbs with bass they might have borrowed from the Skids. There are no keyboards, so the album isn't as explicitly anachronistic as it might have been, but juxtaposed with current commercial standards like Oasis and Bush it has to be considered largely old-fashioned, thoughtful where it could have seethed with angst, earnest where it could have sneered, inventive even where the broadest familiar stroke would have served. The American production, done by Tim Patalan in Michigan, doesn't attempt to force the band into any of the categories, on either side of the ocean, that might have suggested themselves. Probably this all will mean that Imperial Comet Hour won't mar the band's obscurity much, but in my personal league I'll have no problem finding a more popular band to send down in their place.
The Sound: Shock of Daylight & Heads and Hearts
Speaking of old-fashioned, the first two releases by British reissue boutique Renascent return to circulation part of the catalog of what may be the band to encapsulate the spirit of the Eighties with the most frightening thoroughness. How I managed to totally miss The Sound the first time around I can't imagine, since they made exactly the sort of music I was into at the time and they are in Trouser Press, but missing them then leaves me to discover them now, and I'll probably appreciate them more this way. If you abhor swirling big-arrangement pretensions and over-complicated emotional histrionics, you will want to avoid this album. If you have slipped into comfortable denial about ever having worn parachute pants, dyed your hair three colors, or experimented with massive accessory asymmetry, this album could undo years of therapy. On the other hand, if you feel a tiny twinge of wistfulness at the thought, a little wave of nostalgia with enough tingling energy left in it that you almost get up and go see if your old collection of bandannas, sleeveless t-shirts and Echo and the Bunnymen concert pins is still in that box in the hall closet under your old photography portfolios that you keep meaning to peer into, or, if, and this would be profoundly tragic, you didn't have this phase of your life (too old? too young? spent Eighties closeted with your chess tutor?), then you could ask for no better opportunity to vive it, re- or otherwise.
The first of Renascent's two remastered discs combines the six-song 1984 EP Shock of Daylight with the band's fourth full album, Heads and Hearts, and a pair of non-album bonus tracks. EPs were a dubious marketing invention, but whatever its origin, for a short time there really was a subtly distinct art form there. Making a cohesive, balanced disk with four to six songs on it is a different discipline from either filling an album twice as long, or padding a single with b-sides, and the two-sided-ness of vinyl also influenced the character of the problem, since an EP side had to justify itself with only two or three songs. Shock of Daylight could be the textbook example of how to approach the task. Side one opens with "Golden Soldiers", a pounding, frenetic blast of squalling guitars, hammered piano, galloping bass, brass stabs and dueling voices, something like the early Simple Minds running low on patience. "Longest Days", which would have been the middle of the first EP side, takes advantage of "Golden Soldiers"' inertia to make a relatively fast mid-tempo song seem slower than it is. Glassy synthesizers and a popping bass line provide most of the animation, while feedback-smoothed guitars and some more horns buzz overhead and a blocky drum machine track clicks below. This bridges the way to the Armoury Show-like "Counting the Days", which speeds up just enough to be noticeable, its simple hook enunciated by keyboards and trumpets while Borland's second vocal provides the intensity to balance the quiet lead.
With "Longest Days" and "Counting the Days" having built up the anticipation (and need) for something stranger, the second side opens with the stark "Winter", a cycle of emphatically plucked acoustic guitar notes and Borland's anaesthetized voice augmented, for most of the song, only by a few strategically-placed washes of keyboard ambience, the obsessive instrumental minimalism mirroring the song's claustrophobic lyrical sentiments. The EP's pace now having been pretty effectively killed, "'a new way of life'" starts it up again. Angular and rawer than the opening triptych, its Echo and the Bunnymen-ishness mitigated by some vertiginous Human League-like key modulations, it exists in an interesting symbiosis, I think, with "Winter", since it serves as a fitting recovery from the prior song's disconcerting stasis, but almost needs it to justify its lack of the first side's uncluttered melodic appeal. To "Dreams Then Plans", then, is left the task of resolving these abrasive tendencies with both the rosy pop glow of the two "Days" songs and the various impulses of the other three tracks, which it does chiefly with a stabbing guitar hook that evolves into the central melodic motif for a pair of dramatic crescendos, the concluding one ending with an abruptness calculated, I suspect, to get you to flip the EP over and start again.
On this CD, though, "Dreams Then Plans" leads, with no pause for reflection, into "Whirlpool", the opening track of Heads and Hearts, squealing guitar solos piercing a dense bank of synthesizers and roiling bass. Borland's vocal resemblance to Jim Kerr is particularly unmistakable on the verses here, where he repeatedly falls away from his notes, trembling emotively. "Total Recall", on the other hand, with its echoing guitars and eerie synthesizers, recalls the early Chameleons and the later Skids. "Under You" settles into a steady drum groove with choppy guitar accents, and mostly lets Borland, a saxophone and some whirling keyboard figures hold the stage. The synths make up even more of "Burning Part of Me", which rises to symphonic transport and plunges to tentative ticks in alternation. The first side would have ended, I think, with the defiantly hopeful "Love Is Not a Ghost", a smoother, quicker pop ballad with a pair of wide-eyed sax solos that both seem to cut off as if debilitating self-consciousness set in very suddenly, the second onset taking the whole song down with it.
"Wildest Dreams", to open side two, slows to a crawl propelled by only shuffling drums. Dreamlike processed atmospherics drift through, helping give the song a little of the feel of U2's The Unforgettable Fire, and Borland's dramatic vocals mix in some of the spirit of Echo and the Bunnymen's Ocean Rain, both of which albums probably appeared approximately while the Sound were recording this. Some of the atmosphere leaks into "One Thousand Reasons", as well, but by the chorus the band's natural predilection for melody has returned, and parts of the song remind me of the Armoury Show again, and of Then Jerico. "Restless Time" continues to accelerate, taught vocals and shiny keyboards swapping roles so that the vocals act more like sonics, while the keys take the melody. "Mining for Heart" is the successor to "Winter", moaning portmanteau keyboards and a twitching monotonic guitar pulse prodding the reverse-reverbed vocals. "World As It Is", with its bizarre, metallic percussion, spasmodic bass and vocal cadences, piano and orchestral-hit samples and shouted choruses, is almost self-parody. The album finishes calmly and beautifully, though, with the stately "Temperature Drop", which seems made to be heard from an arena floor, your sweat just beginning to cool as you realize that the show is drawing to a close.
Of the two CD bonus tracks, "Blood and Poison", with its anvil-strike piano dissonances, skittering guitar and stop-start architecture, feels like a good song idea that just didn't quite work out, but the deliciously bouncy "Steel Your Air", which wouldn't be out of place in a Hunters & Collectors set, is a b-side of the very best sort: a cool song that would have sounded absurdly out of place on the album.
The Sound: In the Hothouse
Despite all The Sound's other studio albums waiting to have their own new leases on life, Renascent's second selection is the band's 1985 live album, In the Hothouse. This results in more track overlap than seems ideal to me if these two discs are to represent the band's entire career; the fifteen songs performed on the original LP include "Counting the Days" from Shock of Daylight and "Under You", "Total Recall", "Wildest Dreams" and "Burning Part of Me" from Heads and Hearts, all of which, to my ears, sound close enough to the album versions that little is accomplished by repeating them here. But perhaps other volumes are on the way. Of the other songs, then, "Winning" is harsh and insistent, "Skeletons" dark and Jobsonic, "Prove Me Wrong" exuberantly cheerful and snappy, "Heartland" ragged and stirring, "Hothouse" almost bluesy and "Judgement" sketchy and a little lost. The best part of the album, for me, by far, is the quartet of songs it ends with, "Red Paint", "Silent Air", "Sense of Purpose" and "Missiles". The band seem to relax on these, perhaps finally having dispelled the paranoid expectation that the crowd would all leave if they let any song go past three minutes. Borland's tenuous vocal control is pushed to its tolerance when the arrangements expose his singing, but for me that's a detail that gives these live versions a much-needed identity of their own. "Red Paint" is excitingly Comsat-Angels-ish, "Silent Air" is majestic, the bass runs on "Sense of Purpose" are electrifying, and "Missiles" is unapologetically epic.
The two bonus tracks added to this CD are bootlegged recordings of the fitful dirge "Monument" and the noisy "Fire", from a 1984 show in Rotterdam. The recordings aren't the best, but the performances sound better to me than most of the ones on the album proper, and scientists still haven't conclusively proven that all those horribly mutilated people you see in the cautionary public-service ads actually got that way because of tape hiss.