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This Day and Age Is Impoverished in Love
Runrig: In Search of Angels
Survive the stresses of a youth in rock, and this is the kind of fate that awaits you: your lead singer of more than two decades, the only one you've ever made a record with, leaves the band not in a storm of artistic differences or a heady daze of out-of-control substance abuse and sordid sexual collusion, but because he needs to concentrate full-time on his political career. And here you are, the rest of you, the ones that neglected to get other careers, after nine studio albums, two live records, a best-of and a brief but tantalizing TV-commercial-induced glimpse of potential fame, staring at the end of an era and trying to summon the strength to start a new one. Your lives in music wrap around you like a deck of snapshots sewn into a cape: an album you made when you were kids that sounded prematurely ancient and unfathomably isolated even then, an island dance band that it's hard to believe shared a century, much less a continent, with the throes of punk going on across the narrow water between Skye and the rest of Scotland, back before they gave up and built a bridge; the early Eighties on a label of your own, a slow three album metamorphosis into half a rock-and-roll band, half a national conscience; and then a decade as enduring as anybody's, four records that capture the emotional tenor and romantic logic of Celtic identity a thousand times more powerfully and eloquently than any coffee-table photo album of gracefully crumbling ancestral fortresses and brusque, shaggy, munificent cows, and then one more, perhaps prefiguring the end, on which you looked around and realized that somewhere along the way you'd grown up. That could have been enough. Runrig have already made, I claim when I'm feeling categorical, the greatest live album of all time (1988's Once in a Lifetime), and most inspiringly life-affirming work in all of art (1993's Amazing Things). They have earned, if anybody has, the right to disappear back into the hills, back to their own hearths, back to their own families and dreams, and leave the rest of us to our noisy fascination with mercenary, polyglot modernity. I would miss them, I knew, when I heard about Donnie Munro's departure, but I didn't, or at least couldn't, begrudge them their peace.
And so, holding this new album in my hand after all, the severed wires of an abandoned telephone pole against a faded blue sky and the words In Search of Angels across the top, I am proud and grateful and terrified enough that for a moment I forget there are any other emotions, start to forget that physical balance isn't an emotional function. "I'm alive again on a Maymorning", the album opens, and in a breath I know this is how the seasons changing will sound to me from now on. One era ends and another begins. Of course another era begins; how could I ever have imagined it wouldn't? If Runrig hadn't made another record, somebody else would have, so why shouldn't they stick around to see that it's done right? Donnie's disarmingly earnest voice was perfectly suited to Runrig's aesthetic, but the band's charisma was an ensemble effect, not his doing. He didn't write songs or play instruments, and it seems to me that his departure coincided with the end of an era more than it caused it, and that replacing him, however regrettable a necessity, was less a matter of filling a void than filling a role. I don't have the sense, as I did when Fish left Marillion, that Donnie tore out part of the band's soul and took it with him as a vindictive souvenir, even though he ought to have known perfectly well that he'd never be able to operate it by himself. I think Donnie packed his cases and had one last look around, everything bare and white, his hat in his hand, like a wistful Vanessa Redgrave, and walked out across the gravel driveway to the waiting car.
New beginnings are supposed to be wobbly, that's part of their charm, and In Search of Angels has its share of uncertainty. Cape Breton singer Bruce Guthro, who takes over for Donnie, fits in with admirable aplomb, but I don't yet have the sense that he's part of the band, or vice versa. He didn't write these songs, either, but he's the band's most obvious new element, so he's bound to get blamed for how ordinary some of them sound. The slow ballad "Life Is Hard", sung in a different voice, could slip right into Jewel's Spirit somewhere. The measured, melancholy "This Is Not a Love Song" is closer to John Waite's "Missing You" than anything else I can think of. "Cho Buidhe Is a Bha i Riabh" wears its ethnic enthusiasm a little too brightly for my tastes, like the Peruvian pan-flautists busking outside the Harvard Square subway station, anxious to impress their exoticness upon Korean tourists who seem, frankly, to be experiencing enough cultural dissonance just from being caught in the crossfire of the endless affectionate barker's war between the two newsstands on either side of Mass Ave. "In Search of Angels" itself is reverent and elegant, but also a folk song whose mournful sighs could have come from American musical history as easily as from Scotland's. But Runrig had already begun, back on Mara, to tear down some of the fences they used to keep between themselves and the rest of the world, so I expect these songs would have sounded this way even without Bruce. I'm not sure exactly, in these moments, where Runrig thinks they're headed, but I long ago suspended judgment and agreed to follow them anywhere.
And besides, take those four songs away and you've still got two-thirds of a record to which nobody but Runrig could do justice. "Maymorning" is a ringing, open-hearted Celtic anthem, like Big Country's Stuart Adamson is always a little too self-conscious, and remembers the compromises of wakefulness too well, to write. "Ribhinn Donn" is plaintive and Gaelic, sung mostly by Rory Macdonald as a sensible alternative, I presume, to teaching Bruce the lyrics phonetically. Parts of the mid-tempo "Big Sky" remind me of Mark Cohn and Robbie Robertson, but the choruses launch themselves into the sun like nobody ever warned them about melting wings. "Da Mhile Bliadhna" is another in Runrig's long line of Gaelic terrace-anthems for a country in which the sports fans are thoughtful patriots, "A Dh'Innse Na Firinn" another in the nearly-as-long line of squarely implacable marching themes, a song I will try to teach my children before they have a chance to discover the hollow joys of counting beer bottles. "All Things Must Change" sparkles with Malcolm Jones' pealing guitar, like a Dire Straits that never heard of New Orleans or MTV. The atmospheric "Travellers", with its haunting backing choir, picks up a thread begun by the b-side orchestral reworking of Mara's "The Mighty Atlantic". This album's masterpiece for me, though, and so far my favorite song of the year by a wide margin, is the first single, "The Message". None of the individual ingredients are especially new. The twirling guitar-, accordion- and pipe-hooks are centuries old in essence, and have been adapted to rock many times before by Big Country and Runrig themselves. The murmuring synth-bass/drum-loop foundation is a minor variation on one they invented for Mara. The rhythm-guitar charge in the choruses is basically the same one that propels every second song in Runrig's repertoire, and the text is Runrig's favorite theme, the infinite patience with which the landscape tolerates our frenetic disregard and then gently reminds us of our immortality. But ah, who could possibly resent these touches' recurrence? Lots of people, I suppose intellectually, but with this song playing I stop thinking about individual tastes and start thinking that this is the way all rock songs should sound, the form finally perfected after decades of erratic progress, or perhaps how all songs should sound, the culmination of centuries. What music rouses you so thoroughly that you can't concentrate on anything but the elusive convictions that the universe is sensibly ordered, and that your place within it is good? This is mine.
Runrig: The Archive Series / Long Distance
The Runrig best-of Long Distance, released a couple years ago, was the nominal epilogue to the band's first era. I already had all the songs on it, so I didn't buy it (purchasing wholly-redundant compilations being a collectors' folly I have so far succeeded in limiting to Big Country), but apparently somebody had a few too many made, as several are being unloaded as bonus discs with this new album of BBC recordings, so I've ended up with a copy after all. Its selection, chosen at least partially by fan-club votes, doesn't attempt the hopeless task of reproducing, in miniature, Runrig's complex evolution, instead simply extracting some of the most memorable moments. There's nothing at all from the first four albums, the subjective history rewriting the early days, not unreasonably, as if they were encapsulated by 1987's breakthrough The Cutter and the Clan, half of which is present here (the pulsing "Alba", the pop-gospel "Hearts of Olden Glory", the wiry "Rocket to the Moon", the trademark fight-song "Protect and Survive" and the one from the beer commercial, "An Ubhal as Airde"). The redemptive "Skye/Loch Lomond" stretch from Once in a Lifetime is included intact, and this time the compilation actually ends with it, redressing the sequencing anomaly that is, to me, the live album's sole flaw. The sometimes-overlooked Searchlight is represented by the timeless "Every River" and the tense "Siol Ghoraidh", the Capture the Heart EP by the joyous "(Stepping Down the) Glory Road", the more ethereal The Big Wheel by the understated "Abhainn An T-Sluaigh" (a brief flash of skepticism comes over me at the idea that fans really picked this slow Gaelic lullaby over Heartland's propulsive "Dance Called America" or The Big Wheel's infectious "Edge of the World"), the twangy "Hearthammer" and the soaring "Flower of the West". Amazing Things cannot, in my heavily biased opinion, be meaningfully reduced, and "Wonderful" and "The Greatest Flame" don't really represent its depth, but if you have to pick two songs from the album, as opposed to for it, these are accessible pop on their own terms. Mara, still too fresh in everybody's mind to compete with the older records, is given the token nod of "The Mighty Atlantic/Mara Theme". And the compilation's one de rigueur new recording is "Rhythm of My Heart", Runrig's surprisingly heartfelt and endearingly innocent remake of the song popularized by Rod Stewart, perhaps the one thing that will never sound right without Donnie.
The BBC-session disc to which the collection is attached is a stranger amalgamation. Its first four tracks are recordings from a 1989 radio appearance, "Protect and Survive", "Hearts of Olden Glory", an electric rendition of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" (originally done as a b-side to the Searchlight single "News From Heaven"), and the The Cutter and the Clan road-/love-song "The Only Rose". These all sound fine, but the studio versions sounded fine too, and these don't add much. The rest of the disc is from a 1996 Glasgow concert, and hearing a Scottish audience's fanaticism is part of the magic of Once in a Lifetime, but Transmitting Live, the second Runrig live album, was just done in 1994, so this set is necessarily less surprising, and perhaps inevitably my favorite parts of it are the four songs from Mara, which postdates the other two live albums, especially the humble, shuffling performance of "The Dancing Floor", although the acoustic-guitar/rhythmic-applause/bagpipe intro to "Healer in Your Heart" is also very nice, and I'll gladly take ten more versions of "(Stepping Down the) Glory Road", if somebody is hoarding them somewhere.
Fish: Raingods With Zippos
Speaking both of coping with adulthood and departed lead singers, ex-Marillion leader Fish has managed to resist the pull of politics, and is now on solo album number six. Solo albums one through four were all lamentable to one degree or another, I thought, but I liked Sunsets on Empire quite a bit, and Raingods With Zippos offers further evidence that Fish has finally found an idiom that involves neither a Miss-Havisham-like reliving of his Marillion days, nor the dreary ambition to become a taller Phil Collins. "Tumbledown" alternates between Mickey Simmonds' stately solo piano and a blaring rock strut (with a guest appearance by Big Country guitarist Bruce Watson, and a bracing harmony wail from Elizabeth Antwi), and the cadence of the chorus explains why Fish stuck with "Zippos" in the title, even though it meant putting a trademark symbol on the cover. The verses of "Mission Statement" are cartoon metal-blues, but the chorus bolts hoarsely towards "Two Tickets to Paradise". Antwi takes co-writing credit and the second lead (and Watson adds mandolin) for "Incomplete", which might only be a pretty duet were it not for Fish's traditional penchant for elegies to failed romance in which we only get to hear his perspective. Nicola King supplies silky harmony for "Tilted Cross", which comes out sounding uncannily like folk-rock, Steve Vantiss' double-bass and Davey Crichton's fiddle doing little to dispel the illusion. "Faith Healer"'s arrangement, however, is massive, banks of synth strings and seething metal guitar dueling like UFO after an invigorating weekend immersion in Celtic Frost and Rage Against the Machine. The slow, airy "Rites of Passage" could be Fish's belated submission for the Titanic soundtrack, musically ideal but tragically disqualified by the anachronistic parking metaphor.
The second half of the record is Fish's first post-Marillion attempt at an epic suite, the six-part "Plague of Ghosts". The meditative opening, "Old Haunts", is the way Marillion might also have begun, during Fish's tenure or even now, but "Digging Deep" is jittery and clipped, like a funk-metal Joe Jackson. "Chocolate Frogs" is a muttering ambient collage over which Fish reads, then howls, a monologue that appears to be about drug addiction, although I can't quite discern whether the drugs, for which the chocolate frogs are a metaphor, are the subject or are themselves a metaphor for some deeper personal problem. A skittering drum-and-bass underpinning goads "Waving at Stars", and I keep expecting it to explode into catharsis, but the resolution is deferred through the gradual build-up of "Rain Gods Dancing" and another sultry, preparatory minute or two of "Wake-Up Call (Make It Happen)", and when it does arrive, it's nowhere near as heroic as I expected. Examining the lyrics, though, I see that this makes sense. This is a story of awakening, and so it ends not with triumph or rapture but with quiet and slightly bleary determination. The self-help-mantra repetition of "We can make it happen", with which the suite concludes, is a long way from the polysyllabic rants of Script for a Jester's Tear and Fugazi, the delirious love poetry of Misplaced Childhood or the drunken loneliness of Clutching at Straws, but Fish sounds like he believes it, like perhaps he owes it his life. We must be willing to try, the raingods suggest, things that seem to be against our nature. Our nature, after all, may be precisely our problem.
Marillion: Script for a Jester's Tear (remaster)
The grand Marillion reissue campaign, begun in 1997, has recently completed, with the result that the band's first eight studio albums, four with Fish and four with Steve Hogarth, are now all available in digitally remastered form, in cases whose spines spell out the band's name, each album augmented by a disc of bonus tracks and voluminous notes by the band members, including lengthy reminiscences from Fish for his albums, and even notes from cover-artist Mark Wilkinson. In a fit of consumer diligence, I have subjected these remastered albums to my rigorous methodology for determining whether it was a good idea to re-buy CDs I have, in fact, already purchased, which is to put the new CD in my 1998 audiophile player with the idiotically expensive connectors and the old one in my 1989 consumer player with the frayed Radio Shack cables, and flip back and forth between the two with a smug smile on my face. The new ones do sound better, actually, even with the discs reversed respective to the players, but these albums were all well-produced to begin with. And it hardly matters, because fans are going to buy these editions for the bonus discs, and non-fans aren't going to buy double-disc sets no matter how many bits they employ.
The Fish incarnation of Marillion produced a handful of important b-sides, most of which were compiled once on B'Sides Themselves, but in the new catalog order that collection is basically obsolete, and the b-sides are distributed across the bonus discs for the contemporaneous albums, although the use of subtly different versions means that completists will still want both. The bonus disc for Script for a Jester's Tear gets two versions of the definitive early battle-hymn single "Market Square Heroes", the histrionic "Three Boats Down From the Candy", the sprawling nineteen-minute excursion "Grendel" (perhaps Marillion's answer to Spinal Tap's "Jazz Odyssey"), demo versions of the album tracks "Chelsea Monday" and "He Knows You Know", and the halting "Charting the Single", which has one of the most charmingly inept drum-machine loops in my awareness. The bonus tracks match the album's demeanor, relentlessly overthought and fundamentally uncooperative, but slipping into hauntingly lyrical asides at odd moments. As with Kate Bush's first two albums, it took me a long time to learn to love these, and even now part of my fondness for them is rueful, hearing all the ragged edges that Marillion would later sand off, studying them like childhood photos of an adult crush, and never really hearing them, regardless of the mastering technology, because I can't clear my mind of what they would lead to.
Marillion: Fugazi (remaster)
There are only three Fish/Marillion b-sides that I consider as indispensable as any of their album tracks. "Market Square Heroes" is one, and the bonus disc for Fugazi adds the twelve-inch version of the second, "Cinderella Search", the cascades of synth-bells, Fish's strained falsetto and the chorus' weird lurch still sounding inexplicably marvelous to me, Steve Rothery adding an early prototype of what would become his archetypical guitar solo. There's also an alternate mix of "Assassing", intriguingly rough demos of the album tracks "Punch & Judy", "She Chameleon", "Emerald Lies" and "Incubus", and, for some bizarre reason nowhere explained, "Three Boats Down From the Candy" again.
Marillion: Misplaced Childhood (remaster)
The bonus disc for Marillion's masterpiece, Misplaced Childhood, adds the third of my three favorite b-sides, the prostitute ode "Lady Nina" (originally the flipside of the "Kayleigh" single and later released on the US tour EP Brief Encounter), which has another gloriously stilted drum-machine groove but a chorus almost as buoyant as "Kayleigh"'s own. The other b-side from Brief Encounter, the venomous "Freaks", follows, along with an alternate mix of "Kayleigh" and the extended versions of "Lavender Blue" and "Heart of Lothian". We then start over with a demo iteration of the entirety of Misplaced Childhood, the third complete version of this album now available (the second being the live one on The Thieving Magpie). I don't listen to the live version very often, and I don't expect I'll listen to this one repeatedly, either, as in many places these versions of such familiar songs just sound wrong to me, but it's worth the price of the reissue to hear it once and glean some notion of how much of one of my ten favorite albums was in Marillion's heads and hands from the outset and how much was only perfected at the end.
Marillion: Clutching at Straws (remaster)
The only real b-side left for Clutching at Straws' bonus disc is the somewhat overwrought "Tux On". This arrives sandwiched between an alternate mix of "Incommunicado" and the extended version of the original album's CD bonus track, and later on are demo versions of "White Russian" and "Sugar Mice", but the bulk of the disc is filled by seven half-finished recordings from the abortive post-Clutching attempt to write another album with Fish, a digression turned into a surreal spot-the-element game by the fact that many musical passages from these songs ended up in different form in later Hogarth/Marillion songs and some of the lyrics resurfaced on Fish's first solo album. Hearing how many parts of Seasons End were already in existence before Steve Hogarth's arrival also goes a long way towards explaining why Holidays in Eden, for which he was around from the start, turned out so differently. This is really one for the dedicated fans only, though, as if you don't know the songs in which all these ideas ended up after the diaspora, you'll have no idea what's remarkable about these sketches.
Marillion: Seasons End (remaster)
Hogarth-era Marillion haven't bothered with many b-sides, but Seasons End, perhaps due to the backlog from the abandoned sessions with Fish, had two, the dense and mesmerizing "The Bell in the Sea" and the shinier "The Release". There's also the twelve-inch version of "The Uninvited Guest", and then we're into the demos for "The King of Sunset Town", "Holloway Girl", "Seasons End", "The Uninvited Guest", "Berlin" and "The Bell in the Sea". If you listen to these reissues in order you're likely to end up very confused, as between the bonus disc for Clutching at Straws, the regular version of Seasons End, and then these demos, you will have heard most of the important riffs three or four times each. With a little inspection and programming, though, you can listen to each single song go through three distinct stages, as the Fish demo evolves into the Hogarth demo and then into the final album track. It's not quite the Pet Sounds box set, but I care about these songs, as I don't about the Beach Boys.
Marillion: Holidays in Eden (remaster)
Holidays in Eden had a couple b-sides, too, the churning "How Can It Hurt" and the lilting (if sinister) acoustic lullaby "A Collection", but the US edition of the album included both of them, so they don't really count to me any more. The cover of Rare Bird's "Sympathy" was one of two new songs on the band's 1992 best-of, the other being the crashing, New Wave-ish "I Will Walk on Water", included here in an alternate mix. There are also lovely acoustic versions of "Cover My Eyes (Pain and Heaven)" and "Sympathy", and then the by-now-familiar pile of demos, most interestingly a boisterously mainstream "You Don't Need Anyone", which ended up never being used, and a couple embryonic forms of later tracks that the band are shown making in the video From Stoke Row to Ipanema.
Marillion: Brave (remaster)
The nominal b-sides from the Brave era were all just jams and outtakes, and I have four versions of this, my least favorite Marillion record (although "least favorite Marillion record" is wildly relative), between the album itself, the live performance on Made Again, and the two complete demo iterations on The Making of Brave, so I really didn't need more demos of it. But what, was I going to not buy this? The acoustic version of "Alone Again in the Lap of Luxury" is exquisite, and there are liner notes to read.
Marillion: Afraid of Sunlight (remaster)
Remastering an album that is only four years old is inane for any sake but completeness, but they needed somewhere to put the "N", and if Fish was going to get four reissues Hogarth wanted four too, so here it is. As with Brave, the bonus disc is all demos and outtakes, which reveal, I think, the interesting secret that except for the obvious temporary pop insanity of "Cannibal Surf Babe", most of the difference between the meandering Brave and the comparatively focused Afraid of Sunlight was due to more-decisive editing.
Marillion: These Chains
Perhaps, after assembling two straight bonus discs of demos, Marillion started to feel a little embarrassed about their lack of real b-sides. They have a ways to go to be ready for a two-disc reissue of Radiation, as this UK single for "These Chains" has only two other tracks, one of which, the "Big Beat Mix" of "Memory of Water", was already a bonus on the US version of the album, but the middle track, at least, is a b-side of the truest sort, a live cover of Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees". This would have been a perfect opportunity for Marillion to demonstrate why the frequently-repeated idea that Radiohead are the new progressive rock is ridiculous, but they actually play the song straight, letting the tension between the ways in which Hogarth and Thom Yorke's voices resemble each other and the ways that their attitudes differ drive the performance. When Yorke sings these words, it sounds to me like the bitterness is threatening to consume him, like the world is almost too disappointing to inhabit. When Hogarth sings them, he sounds more like Christopher Robin, like even our worst flaws are eminently lovable. It's hard to argue that Yorke is wrong, but I'll admit to a preference for records, however grandly misguided, that leaving me feeling better than I felt before they started, not worse. There are enough ways to feel worse.
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