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Pieces You've Never Seen
Big Country: I'm Not Ashamed #1
I haven't done a single round-up since issue 16, and they're backed up to the point where I'll need two weeks to get through them, so let's make a start. Big Country, as I've documented amply elsewhere, is my favorite band. They're also a pretty good b-sides band, which I can say with some shards of objectivity, as their singles reliably contain non-album songs that are as strong as any of their work, and they've put out an impressive shadow catalog of material that way.
This first single for "I'm Not Ashamed", the lead track from their seventh studio album, Why the Long Face?, has a relatively low yield for a Big Country single. Tracks one and four are "I'm Not Ashamed" in edited and full versions; the full version is on the album, and the edited version is only shorter, not remixed or rearranged in any way, and so doesn't interest me in the slightest. The second track, "One in a Million (1st visit)", is a semi-acoustic demo-ish version of the song, which appears on the album in more electric form. The drastic difference between the two versions is that the entire verse structure of the album version is missing from this one, which is composed entirely of what would become the song's choruses (repeated enough that the song isn't much shorter this way). This makes the album version much more interesting, I think, but also makes this sketch all the more intriguing by contrast. The one actual new song on this single is "Monday Tuesday Girl", which is also in a demo-sounding form, though electric guitars and full drums blend with the acoustics and bongos. The song has an infectious bounce to it, but not much muscle by the album's standards. All in all, this isn't one of Big Country's better singles, and is probably unlikely to be of much interest to anybody other than incurably obsessive collectors like me.
Big Country: I'm Not Ashamed #2
The second single (they aren't labeled "one" and "two", but the first one is TRAX 1009, with the Big Country logo in blue, and this one is TRAX 1010, with the logo in yellow) does a little better. The first track is the obligatory reprise of the title song, here the single edit again. Track two, though, is a sinister Adamson composition called "Crazytimes", which sounds like it could have been an upbeat square-dance sing-along if it weren't played at a grinding half-speed that reminds me of Neil Young. This one strikes me as a much more significant piece than "Monday Tuesday Girl".
This single's remixes are more notable, as well. The first one, "Big Country", is a sweepingly reworked acoustic canter through "In a Big Country", which I presume those of you who are older than twelve will recall. I was struck, when I saw the band in London on the tour for their live album Without the Aid of a Safety Net, that in concert they played "In a Big Country" in the acoustic half of the show, and I was a little disappointed that on the album they broke down and used it in electric form, right near the end where you'd expect to find "the hit". This version captures much of the loose charm of the acoustic rendition. The other remix is a goofily groovy version of "Blue on a Green Planet" referred to as the "cool version". The driving guitars from the album are completely replaced with Seventies-style wocka-wocka stabs, the vocals are minor-key and half spoken, and little "toodle-ee-oo" backing-vocal flourishes proliferate. As a stand-alone piece this would probably be my least favorite thing that Big Country has ever recorded, but as a clever bit of self-deprecating style-gaming, it's priceless.
Marillion: Beautiful #1
Marillion's record on singles has been somewhat uneven lately. The first three singles from their last album, Brave, featured only nine tracks, total, with five of them from the album, one a long improvised jam that appeared on two different singles, one an underwhelming orchestral version of an album track, and the last a short and forgettable instrumental. The "Beautiful" set gets off to what looks like a better start. Besides "Beautiful" here, there's the non-album track "Live Forever", and demo versions of "Great Escape" and "Hard as Love", two Brave tracks. This turns out to be less impressive than it sounds, however. Calling "Live Forever" a "track" is almost over-generous. It's a four-and-a-half minute improvisation that doesn't go much of anywhere, either instrumentally, vocally or lyrically. It sounds like the band played it once, and that's about how many times I recommend you listen to it.
As for the two demos, they're either breathtaking or redundant, depending on whether you've acquired the two-CD sketch collection The Making of Brave from Marillion's fan club or bought it from them on their current tour. If you haven't, then hearing these songs pulled out of the polished context of Brave and done with rough uncertainty, erratic production values, and Steve Hogarth "na nana"ing aimlessly through the bits where he either hasn't written the words yet, or has forgotten them, is quite a revelation. If you have The Making of Brave, though, you've got over two hours of Brave rough cuts, and don't need these excerpts.
Marillion: Beautiful #2
The second part of the set slips down into low-yield again. There are only three songs, and two of them are album versions ("Afraid of Sunrise" joins "Beautiful"). The third, "Icon", is another meandering improvisation. The band has now established their fondness for including improvised bits on their singles, so I'm not surprised by it, but the fact that they've now done it three times doesn't keep it from seeming like a pointless cop-out every time they do. When Marillion actually sets out to write a song, they put a lot of work and craftsmanship into it. These improvisations, to me, ache from the absence of those qualities.
Del Amitri: Here and Now #2
I reviewed the first half of this pair months ago. This part backs up "Here and Now" with three live tracks recorded at "'T' in the Park" (an Edinburgh outdoor music thing, I believe) in 1994 for a BBC broadcast: "Stone Cold Sober" and "When I Want You" from 1989's Waking Hours, and "Always the Last to Know" from 1992's Change Everything. I have mixed feelings about Del Amitri live. I've seen them twice here in Boston, and while they put on a great show, there's this magical melancholy atmosphere on their studio albums that they either can't or won't replicate in concert, and so while I like their live incarnation, it's a fondness that pales greatly compared to how much I adore their albums.
I'm not sure whether they work differently in Scottish air, or whether just committing these live performances to disc somehow restores the element that seems missing to me when I'm standing in front of Ian Harvie's monitor, but these recordings sound amazing. "Stone Cold Sober" is my favorite Del Amitri song, and one of my favorite songs in the world, period, and they storm through it with a bracing menace. "Always the Last to Know" is a beautiful, lilting song, and this version is charged and desperate in addition. "When I Want You"'s album grace here seems only enhanced by the ragged edges of the distorted guitars. I'm not sure whether a Del Amitri live album could displace Waking Hours in my affections, but it might be worth a shot.
Del Amitri: Driving with the Brakes On #1
"Driving with the Brakes On" is the second single from Twisted, and this first part adds three non-album b-sides. The first one, "Life by Mistake", is a mid-tempo rock song with thickly distorted guitars and dry drums. The second, "In the Meantime", is a slow, sad, organ-driven ballad. The third, "A Little Luck" (not to be confused with the album track "Never Enough", which has the line "A little love is never enough"), is a dark, echoey meditation that sounds to me like Del Amitri's version of Halloween music. Fans won't want to miss these songs, but I doubt they'd make my Del Amitri b-sides honor roll.
Del Amitri: Driving with the Brakes On #2
The second part is a peculiar exercise in pointlessness that the British engage in at times, when their imagination fails them at single-assembly time, a "mini greatest hits packages". Translated out of marketing-speak, this means that this single is simply filled out with songs from earlier albums. What they think the audience is for such a disc, I don't know, especially one stamped "Limited Edition" for good measure, as this one is. The only reason its audience happens to include me is that for circuitous reasons I was forced to order this disc from an importer without knowing what its contents were. If you had, for some reason, to summarize Del Amitri in four songs, then "Driving with the Brakes On", "Nothing Ever Happens", "Kiss This Thing Goodbye" and "Always the Last to Know" aren't an idiotic set, but anybody who likes the music enough to sit through four songs of it would almost certainly be better advised to buy one of the three albums, and get a large enough block of the band's music to sit back and actually appreciate, before some other disc in your changer whirls it away.
Del Amitri: Roll to Me US
After piles of UK Del Amitri singles, A&M finally decided to give the band a US single release, making this the only disc in this issue that US audiences can buy for a reasonable price. You even get some of the authentic British-single experience, with three non-album b-sides. Okay, the bluesy "Scared to Live" appeared previously in the UK on the 1990 between-albums EP Spit in the Rain, and the galloping "Long Way Down" was on the first UK single for "Here and Now". But the quiet hymn "Someone Else Will" is unique to this single -- unless it appears on one of the three even newer UK singles that I don't have yet, which it probably does. But anyway, making these songs available in the US is a nice gesture, especially since Spit in the Rain is nearly impossible to find any more, and anybody who has two or more of the band's albums ought to go out and get a copy of this before they disappear. And no, Justin Currie does not have a candle stuck up his nose in the cover photograph; that's just the white background visible through the gap between his body and Ian's behind him. See?
Del Amitri: Roll to Me #1
The first part of the UK set for "Roll to Me" adds yet another non-album song, the liturgical "In the Frame", on which nice harmony vocals blend with acoustic guitar and quiet organ. The other two tracks are acoustic versions of two Twisted songs, "Food for Songs" and "One Thing Left to Do". The version of "Food for Songs" is grim and forbidding, with a rumbling bass-drum part providing ambient turbulence throughout. The version of "One Thing Left to Do" is a more conventional acoustic rendition, soft drums supporting acoustic guitars and a hushed, unprocessed vocal. Del Amitri's album work rarely approaches overproduced, but it does tend to be polished enough that hearing these acoustic versions provides an interesting insight into the structure of the underlying compositions.
Long Fin Killie: Buttergut
Buttergut is effectively the single for the Houdini track "The Lamberton Lamplighter", which opens this disc. Its b-sides here are three songs that didn't make the album, "Suki", "Boy Racer" and "Butterbelly". "Suki" is a jerky, sawing piece of mania that reminds me a bit of the Gang of Four, with a keening violin fixating on particular notes for measures at a time. "Boy Racer" features total bowed cacophony over a doleful, stolidly intoned bass part, which all gives way periodically to quick "chorus" thrashing of guitar harmonics. What the text concerns I do not know, and given the band's lyrical predilections elsewhere, I think that this title is perhaps best left unexplicated. "Butterbelly" turns out to be an impressive nine-minute mini-symphony, reminiscent in form of the "bonus" tail end of the album's final track, "Unconscious Gangs of Men". It opens with a repetitive guitar (or mandolin?) introduction, which eventually adds some echo processing and heavily reverbed textural vocals. Drums join this further on, and as the drums pick up their pace a bass comes in, and the reverb gets progressively thicker, until the arrangement reaches a raging boil, at which point everything but the processed reverse-echo backs out, and the reverb feedback pulses on its own inertia for a good minute before the song finally shudders to a halt. This single stands on its own the most solidly of any of this week's subjects, I think, and also makes a very worthy twenty-three minute prequel to Houdini.
Long Fin Killie: The Heads of Dead Surfers
This one adds less. "Hollywood Gem" and "The Heads of Dead Surfers" are great songs, but they're on the album, which you should have gotten by now (you've had a week since I reviewed it, what's holding you up?). "Flaccid Tabloid" has an interesting lyrical diatribe, but I can't listen to its flatulent horn-section eruptions with a straight face. "Stacked" is solid, but it's short, and I doubt I'll care to hear it badly enough to drag this disc out very often.
Runrig: An Ubhal as Airde
And lastly, Runrig put out a new single recently. They don't have another new album or anything, but "An Ubhal As Airde", a song from their 1988 album The Cutter and the Clan, was used in a Carlsberg TV ad in the UK a while back, and this did what ten albums over nearly two decades had failed to do, giving them their first genuine hit outside of Scotland. Hoping to capitalize on this small window of opportunity to drive a wedge of exposure into a broader audience (what an unpleasant metaphor), Chrysalis reissued the song on this single, accompanying it with a song apiece from the band's last three albums (a tactic that I don't resent here, where the lead song is a reissue to begin with). They pick "Abhainn An T-Sluaigh", from The Big Wheel, a fitting Gaelic bridge from the atmospheric "An Ubhal As Airde" toward the less-traditional rock songs that are really Runrig's current stock in trade. "The Greatest Flame", from Amazing Things, is an exemplar of this, a ringing anthem with much of the power of Joshua Tree-era U2. And last, to give casual listeners a glimpse of the grandeur of Runrig's live show, they include the live version of "Flower of the West" from Transmitting Live, a rousing and epic performance with a distinctly Big Country-like "cha" interlude at the end.
This selection hardly gives an accurate impression of the span of styles covered in Runrig's career, but its restriction to the later, more ethereal material is appropriate given the goal of getting people who liked the commercial interested enough to perhaps buy a whole Runrig album. With that beachhead established, expansion and conquest can follow. The lowlands will stamp and spin to "A Dance Called America" and "Protect and Survive" yet, just you listen.
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