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Insipid at first, but really grows on you
on 22 February 2013
There was no reason to expect that these songs would be even half-good. The 8 years since the last album have seen two new compilations, one so-so side project (Bad Lieutenant) and one actively terrible one (Freebass), some unnecessary 12-inch vinyl single remixes, a set of botched album remasters, and worst of all, a public fall-out that puts the lie to the phrase 'there's no such thing as bad publicity'. Not for me to speculate on the reasons for the split, but Peter Hook, who used to be my favourite member of the band, hasn't passed by many opportunities to slate his former bandmates, despite being the first to leave. It reminds me of finishing with someone, then complaining when they get new friends and a new squeeze - get over it Peter, it's no longer your business! For a band who used to be 'cool' it's a complete turnaround. Until the 90s they were mysterious and it was difficult to find out anything about them. Now you wish they'd all just shut up. No wonder their popularity has eroded.
So, the album comes with low expectations, to put it mildly. Add to that that the last album (Sirens' Call) wasn't particularly well-received, and that these tracks are erroneously often presented as offcuts or outtakes (actually they were recorded at the same time but were supposed to be the core of the next album), why should you look any further?
Actually, I don't think Sirens' Call was a bad album - just a wildly inconsistent one - with some of their best ever tunes (title track, Turn, Who's Joe?) and some of their worst (Jetstream) along with a fair few that sounded like they were written by a different band entirely (I Told You So, Working Overtime). Overall, the album was let down by slightly flat, glossy production that smoothed out the rough edges too much.
On the first few listens, it's just the same case here - just more of the same slightly disappointing songs with few real hooks. The production is still flattish and too many of the songs are mid-paced. You would hope that had they released them they might have been edited and sharpened at least. However, after putting the album away I realised the songs had begun to embed themselves in my brain, and revealed some hidden treasures. I haven't stopped listening since:
1) I'll Stay With You. Should have been a single instead of Jetstream. The most instant song and stands comparison with their best work of the last decade or so.
2) Sugarcane. As the name suggests, it's a saccharine bit of froth about the travails of being rich and famous. Vibrant, but disco-ey and cheesy (particularly the chorus) You'll either love or hate it. I love it.
3) Recoil. Melancholic slower number. The vocals are beautiful but the Latin-ish arrangement sounds very easy-listening. It's promising but I wish they'd roughened it up a bit. It also goes on for ever. It reminds me of 'It's Probably Me' by Sting, but that's possibly a better song!
4) Californian Grass. Simply beautiful, slow-burning song. Doesn't sound much on first few listens but play it loud and you get it.
5) Hellbent. The first time I heard this song (on 2011's Total Compilation) I thought it sounded like a weak retread of 1998's Brutal. But it has a nagging chorus and a driving riff that really sticks in the brain. It does indicate the flatness of the production though - the 2011 Total version is essentially the same mix but sounds a lot more crystalline and sharper.
6) Shake it Up. Rough, haphazard, shouty song that sounds vaguely like a rocked-up version of 1983 hit Confusion. Could do with some editing and has far too many different things going on. B-side material.
7) I've Got A Feeling. Simple but effective lyrics - a very atmospheric song with a great guitar line. Another one that sounds like nothing on first listen but really improves.
8) I Told You So. The original was on the parent album and was a reggae-lite number that didn't really gel. This version is entirely different - a stripped down, Velvets-ish number with stark drums and squalling guitar. The version appeared first on a vinyl single in 2006 but this remix is shorter, sharper and punchier. One of my least favourite songs on Sirens and one of the best here - who'd have thought it?
All in all, this isn't a completists' only collection. There are a number of tunes that show NO were still trying something different in their dying days, and many of these songs would have clearly improved the parent album. What's also good is how nicely it is packaged - I've got the vinyl version with extra CD, and it's a simple but striking design that harks back to their glory days, rather than the half-assed cover of their last album. It's a mellow and intriguing bunch of songs that is definitely worth getting. My only real gripe is that they missed a trick not including the Mac Quayle remix of Guilt is a Useless Emotion. This is only available on the US version of Sirens and not only does it completely destroy the original, but it's one of the best songs they've done in years - another lost single. Adding it here would have got it a deserved wider audience and increased the punchiness of the album no end.