I found this CD in a used shop in New York weeks before its U.S. release (not a good sign). I bought it solely as a curiosity, and would probably have never taken a risk at full price for two reasons. For one, covers albums, while they can sometimes be creative in their song selection and approach (listen to The Church's A BOX OF BIRDS or Bowie's PIN-UPS), are generally unnecessary, especially if the songs are very well known and don't lend themselves well to the particular artist (listen to Duran Duran's THANK YOU). One glance at the track listing of NEON LIGHTS, and you can see that Simple Minds has unfortunately decided to drag out the old warhorses like GLORIA, when they should have dug deeper into their record collection.
The second problem is, Simple Minds' quality control has been lacking since - let's be honest - SPARKLE IN THE RAIN. Despite Jim Kerr's negative comments about "Don't You Forget About Me," he and his band have been trying hard ever since to try to recapture commercial glory by hopping on the latest pop music fad (and sometimes a few years too late). On NEON LIGHTS, it seems that the Minds have been listening to their kids' house and techno records, and have created quite awful dance versions of the aforementioned GLORIA, HELLO, I LOVE YOU and LOVE WILL TEAR US APART. Kerr even resorts to a Cher-type vocal distortion trick on BEING BOILED that's downright embarassing.
It's also no surprise that the Minds would cover Bowie, but why choose THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD? Nirvana's version of this song will be the definitive version for years to come - so much so that Bowie himself dragged it out of mothballs on his subsequent tours. But the Minds add absolutely nothing new to the song.
But like the rest of their late 80s and 1990s albums, there are moments on NEON LIGHTS when you are suddenly reminded of the ethereal and uplifting band the Minds used to be. Their version of ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES, in particular, is quite powerful, with Kerr's soaring vocals the strongest I've heard in years. Their hushed, accoustic version of FOR YOUR PLEASURE should please Mr. Bryan Ferry, while the emotional DANCING BAREFOOT is far superior to - dare I say it? - U2's stadium rock version.
And for a good chuckle, listen to their techno-lite version of Echo and the Bunnymen's BRING ON THE DANCING HORSES, and marvel at Kerr's dead-on impersonation of Ian McCulloch.
So taken on its own merits, NEON LIGHTS is a pleasant enough diversion as we await new material. But this fan hopes the Minds have one more NEW GOLD DREAM or SPARKLE IN THE RAIN left in them (I've heard NEAPOLIS praised as such, but it wasn't released here). Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect your favorite musicians to live up to their glory days as they enter middle age. But as their 80s counterparts U2, The Church and Echo and the Bunnymen have shown lately, it is possible to produce strong and creative material years later while retaining the sound that made you famous. Let's hope the Minds will follow suit.