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The Blood Dries with Desire
18 · 30 May 95
Then Jerico: Electric
Some time last year, after helping out with some project or other at work, I was given a gift certificate to the CD store in the mall across the street from our offices. It was a thoughtful gesture, but I was hautily somewhat skeptical that I'd be able to find anything I really wanted at a mall-quality CD store. Still, CD shopping is certainly more fun than working, so I took a long lunch and ventured into the store in question. A few minutes scanning the bins quickly confirmed my suspicion that unless I was suddenly overcome by a freak hankering for Whitesnake or one of the Jacksons, spending twenty dollars of play money there was going to require creativity. Just when I was getting worried that I was going to have to settle for something embarrassingly dull, like blank cassettes, I ran across the all-important "Budget" bin, the one place worth scouring for treasures in even the most boring music store.
When I discovered a whole rack full of CDs marked down to a desperation $1.99, I knew my gift certificate would see good use. Of the ten CDs I bought, seven of them were completely unknown to me. On one I knew the producer, and the ninth was the solo album by Dale Bozzio from Missing Persons. The tenth, an album called First (The Sound of Music), by a band called Then Jerico, I bought for the tenuous reason that on it they covered "Prairie Rose", a Roxy Music song that Big Country, my favorite band, also covered. A few of the discs went quickly into the spare-jewel-case stack, but Age of Chance and the Love Club I turned out to really like, and Eight Seconds, Gamalon and Violence were all good enough to not throw away.
Still, Then Jerico was far and away the find of the batch. I quickly tracked down their second album, The Big Area, and then was disappointed to learn that there weren't any more. Last week, though, an idle flip of bin dividers turned up this recent posthumous collection, which doubles as a best-of and a b-sides compendium, and gives me a perfect excuse to plug the group here.
Then Jerico is a strange band, and it doesn't surprise me that they didn't last long. They strike me as what the Alarm might have been like, if they'd set out to be Duran Duran, or possibly like a cross between Cry Before Dawn and Spandau Ballet. They make grand, anthemic pop-rock, but they do it with this air that their audience consists primarily of hysterical thirteen-year-old girls whose desires in life can be succinctly summarized as "dancing and posters". The tension between dance-rock slickness and passionate commitment shows up throughout, and half the time it sounds like even singer Mark Shaw isn't sure whether he's singing something he really believes, or whether he's just trying to sound like he might be because in the post-Bono era sincerity is considered very sexy.
Whatever the motivations, though, the resulting music that Then Jerico produced is patently electrifying. They take the Big Music of Big Country, the Alarm, early U2 and the Waterboys, and marry it to a pop dance energy with astonishing aplomb. The only thing that keeps me from thinking that Then Jerico will be the crossover force to lead unsuspecting Escape Club fans to Runrig is the fact that they are already dead and gone, and it didn't happen.
As two-album legacies go, they leave behind an awesome one. Their two studio albums are pretty similar, and both firmly out of print, so it's not unlikely that this compilation is as close to them as you'll easily get. As stand-in for them, though, it does pretty well. First (The Sound of Music) is represented by "Blessed Days", "The Motive (Living Without You)", "Prairie Rose" and "A Quiet Place (Apathy and Sympathy)". The exclusion of the single "Muscle Deep" is odd, but otherwise I can't argue with their choices. "A Quiet Place" is particularly uplifting, and the cover of "Prairie Rose" will be a revelation to both Roxy Music and Big Country fans.
The Big Area, the second Then Jerico album, is represented here by "Big Area", "You Ought to Know", "Reeling" and "Darkest Hour". Again, these are excellent songs, but I miss "Song for the Brokenhearted", "Sugar Box" and the album's edgy CD bonus track, "Under Fire".
Fortunately, Electric has reasons of its own to exist, even if you have (or get) the two original albums, as six songs here are appearing on CD for the first time. "The Big Sweep" and "Fault" are the two sides of the band's 1985 debut single. They're a good deal rougher than any of the band's album work, reminding me more of Hunters and Collectors than anything else, and hearing them provides an interesting perspective on their later, more polished sound. "One Life" and "Electric" are taken from a 1987 EP that also featured "Prairie Rose" and "Fault", and they're about halfway from "The Big Sweep" to First, stylistically. Where the last two non-album tracks are from, I have no idea, and the liner notes offer no hint. "The Word" is a 1987 track that may be recorded live, though it's hard to tell, and the crowd noises at the beginning and end may well just have been grafted on. "Clank (Countdown to Oblivion)" is from 1986, and has some particularly Edge-like guitar noises. My guess would be that "The Word" and "Clank" are single b-sides, but I'd be proud to flaunt either one, myself.
My one regret is that the compilation has rekindled my disappointment that the band doesn't still exist, and I now find myself wandering the aisles trying to think of another band with a similar kinetic spiritedness. Try as I might, the closest I seem to be able to come is Alphaville, and that's just not the same. My CD International guide lists what looks like a solo album by Mark Shaw, though, called Almost, so I guess it's time to check in with the $1.99 bins again.
While I'm flirting with trashy dance-pop, why not go all the way? I've mentioned Roxette several times in the course of these columns, so it's probably past time for me to confront the issue head on, and let those of you who are going to cancel your subscriptions as a result do so immediately, so that we can both get on with our lives.
I like Roxette. In fact, I like Roxette a lot. I am in awe of the pop songwriting prowess of Per Gessle, and I could listen to Marie Frederiksson sing that noise that large trucks make when they're backing up. As far as I'm concerned, Roxette are the most deserving recipients of #1 hits in the history of music. There are several bands I like better, and plenty of bands who've had even more chart success than Roxette, but they are the point where the charts and I reach the greatest degree of agreement.
I realize, of course, that many people loathe them. Moreover, they're often held to be, along with ABBA, the antithesis of true rock and roll, and proof that the Swedes should stick to building safe cars and keep their mouths shut. In the unlikely event that those of you dead set against the band are willing to keep reading, though, let me urge you to consider giving Roxette a second chance.
The first thing to recognize, in any effort to accept Roxette, is that they are not ABBA. All it takes to be convinced of this is to listen to a couple Roxette songs, and then a couple of ABBA ones. What you may find, as I did, is that Roxette sounds like the version of ABBA in your mind. I've developed the same self-conscious retro-fascination with ABBA that millions of others have contracted, and we all remember "Dancing Queen" and "Name of the Game" as glorious, but as actually executed by ABBA back in the dark ages of music production, even their best moments can be termed "gutless and shrill" without much need for personal-opinion disclaiming. By the standards of mid-Nineties rock music, ABBA just doesn't cut it. Roxette, on the other hand, has translated the confectionery gloss of ABBA into the right vernacular for modern audiences to appreciate it. Put more simply, Roxette rock.
Now, stop sputtering. They do, really! Not always, mind you, but they have rock and roll in them, in a way that ABBA barely had the Bay City Rollers in them. Sure, many Roxette songs are unadulterated pop fluff, but to me their albums mix the fluff with just enough genuine substance that the whole thing never quite ends up seeming cloying. Your mileage may vary--hell, your direction may vary. I'm just saying that if you're judging them on the basis of only "It Must Have Been Love", you may not actually hate them as much as you think you do.
And if you can manage to give in to their charms, the experience is pretty amazing. Every Roxette album has at least two moments that make me deliriously ecstatic (the hiccups in "Dressed for Success", the hush of "Half a Woman, Half a Shadow" and the grace of "Listen to Your Heart"; the giddy chorus of "Joyride" and the Scandinavian way Marie sings "tok" in "Small Talk"; "The Heart Shaped Sea", slow and sad, and the first half of "It Must Have Been Love" where it's just Marie, a piano, and half of Chile; the drive of "Sleeping in my Car" and the silly triumph of "The First Girl on the Moon"), and I've quickly reached the level of appreciation where I don't need to hit Skip even once. I also get an odd thrill from the fact that this stuff is so popular. Listening to "The Look", tapping along with it happily, I suddenly think "Well, maybe the world's not such an unbearably awful place after all. I mean, I'm not about to forgive them for the fact that hardly anybody buys Scott Miller's records, and Daniel Keys Moran can't keep his books in print, but they stood up for Classic Coke, and they went to see Four Weddings and a Funeral, and a few million of them howled with pain when ABC killed My So-Called Life. And, for all the soulless crap they pushed up the music charts, they at least weren't too stuck up to like Roxette."
All that said, however, this particular Roxette issue is hardly the place to begin your education. For one thing, it's currently only available as a hideously expensive Japanese import (mine was so expensive that the 10% discount for showing my PBS membership card was more than the $3.00 Tower coupon I had). For another, much of this disc is alternate versions of things whose original versions you ought to learn to love first. If you've already resigned yourself to liking the band, though, and just haven't gotten to the stage where you're willing to buy two-part import singles in order to get a couple acoustic versions, then this compilation is cost-effective even in its trans-Pacific form. All twelve of these tracks are from singles, and at import prices even four CD singles would cost more than this.
Eight of these tracks are alternate versions. "Vulnerable" is the single version, "Fingertips" is a energized 1993 single remake, "Dressed for Success" is a snappy US remix, "Fireworks" is a remix by Jesus Jones (and unmistakably so, at that), and "Spending My Time" is a dance remix. Of these, I'm not that crazy about what they did to "Spending My Time", but the other four are very cool. In addition, "Joyride", "The Look" and "Dangerous" are acoustic versions from MTV Unplugged, and both "Joyride" and "The Look" are done with a full band. As Roxette is ordinarily a studio construct, hearing a full-band incarnation, especially in the distinctly studio-trick-free Unplugged setting, is a delightful change, though admittedly one that you could approximate more cheaply by buying Tourism.
The other four songs are non-album b-sides. "The Sweet Hello, The Sad Goodbye" is light and wistful. "The Voice" is meditative and jazzy, with a slinky bass part that then kicks into a chorus that reminds me pleasantly of T'Pau, another shiny pop-rock band I was sad to see fold. "Almost Unreal", a demo, is presumably a rejected track originally intended for Crash! Boom! Bang!, though I can't imagine why they didn't use it. "One is Such a Lonely Number", a 1987 demo on which neither Per nor Marie actually play any instruments, is the oddest song here. It's catchy, and might have fit in tolerably well on Look Sharp!, and it's fun to hear a moment unearthed from their early days, but more than that it just shows, by contrast, how far they've come in the last eight years.
Maybe by the time eight more go by, you'll even have warmed to them...
Thin White Rope: Spoor
If you need an antidote for Roxette, Thin White Rope is about as far a remove as you'll find while still remaining within the art form of people with guitars. The description of TWR in my book says that they "make music that sounds like a soundtrack to a Sam Raimi remake of High Noon, where the zombies are cowboys, or vice versa". Trouser Press calls them "the Twilight Zone house band", if you'd rather trust a book that's actually been published. Either way, Thin White Rope is a profoundly disturbing band, and an acquired taste in about the same way that you only slowly learn to appreciate arsenic. They play a warped, Western-flavored semi-psychedelic guitar rock that, for once, I can't think of a good "x crossed with y" analog to describe. ("Leonard Cohen backed up by Grant Lee Buffalo" is the right sort of spirit, but they don't actually sound anything like that.)
TWR is dead now. There are five studio albums, a double live album, and a best-of compilation that came out last year. This roundup of single tracks, covers, demos, and the entirety of the Red Sun EP, should pretty much complete the history of Thin White Rope, and make for an unusually orderly closed catalog. As with Roxette, though, this is probably the place to end your TWR collection, not begin it.
Four of the covers are from Red Sun: "Town Without Pity" was the theme song of the 1961 film of the same name; "Man with the Golden Gun" is presumably the theme to that Bond film, though I haven't attempted to verify this; "They're Hanging Me Tonight" was written by "Low/Wolpert", and I have no idea who they were; "Some Velvet Morning" is a Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra song from 1968. Elsewhere, they cover the Stooges "Little Doll", Bob Dylan's "Outlaw Blues", Roky Erickson's "Burn the Flames", the Poster Children's "Eye", the Velvet Underground's "Here She Comes Now" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen". The rest of the tracks are the acoustic version of "Red Sun" from that EP, the late single "Ants are Cavemen", a double-speed live version of "Moonhead" (here called "Skinhead"), and demo versions of "Tina and Glen" (from The Ruby Sea) and "Munich Eunich" (from In the Spanish Cave).
If you like Thin White Rope, you'll definitely want this. Being one disc away from completion will haunt you until you break down and buy it (or it will if you're anything like me, anyway). And you won't be sorry. The demos are great, and the Red Sun stuff is essential if you don't have it already. The demented Christmas carol is a hilarious snippet. The VU cover makes VU themselves sound like McBride and the Ride. TWR were an amazing band, and this comes through just as clearly on covers as it does on their original material. For those of you as of yet uninitiated, though, I'd recommend beginning somewhere where their own material predominates. My personal favorite of the TWR albums is The Ruby Sea, their last, but their debut, Exploring the Axis, might also be a good place to start. The best-of, When Worlds Collide, has a decent selection, but I think you're better served experiencing an album all the way through.
Although, with Thin White Rope, this is sort of like saying that choosing to die by being slightly hung, partially guillotined, grazed by bullets, minorly electrocuted and trace poisoned doesn't allow you to fully appreciate any one method. But yes, faced with that situation, I'd probably recommend that you opt to simply be ripped apart by the undead. And Thin White Rope, of course, would be the perfect soundtrack.