on 7 October 2013
"You surely are a truly gifted kid / But you're only as good as the last great thing you did." These famous words from the Prefab Sprout song "Moving the River" echo in my mind as I listen to the new album "Crimson/Red" for the umpteenth time. Yes, songwriter Paddy McAloon is undoubtedly truly gifted, and this the last great thing he did makes him better than ever before.
"Crimson/Red" is nothing short of a miracle. McAloon has fought with eye problems and hearing problems for several years which would have broken lesser men, but notwithstanding these obstacles he managed to rise above them all to create an album so full of energy, confidence and musical intelligence it's truly heartwarming. Just listen to such a sweet gem of a pop song that is "Billy", and all cynical doubts about the power of music are dissolved. Or listen to such a slick and elegant number as "The Best Jewel Thief In the World", and you realize that Paddy McAloon is performing at the top of his game here.
"Crimson/Red" is really a record that wasn't meant to be. For contractual reasons, McAloon had to quickly pick these ten songs and then managed to record them at hyperdrive speed: it took less than two months to complete the album. The songs were picked from his unreleased projects, some of them date from 1997 ("Grief Built the Taj Mahal", "The Old Magician"), others were written in 2011 ("Billy"). It's safe to say that "Crimson/Red" is a kind of "greatest hits" album culled from McAloon's famously vast archive of unreleased songs.
Because of his health problems, Paddy McAloon was forced to play all instruments himself on the album. And he certainly deserves credit for making the record sound lively and timeless. It's even more flabbergasting when one contemplates the fact that he still uses his old 1987 Atari computer to arrange the music. Of course, the sound of the album would have been enriched with the addition of his former band members, but this reviewer firmly believes it is a much better thing to hear these songs performed by Paddy himself, than not being able to hear them at all.
"Crimson/Red" is a record which builds on the past glories of Prefab Sprout, while at the same time opens a door to future releases. There's really nothing nostalgic about this record, but when I listen to it I feel a kind of nostalgia about what is yet to come. This record will undoubtedly prove that there is an audience for Prefab Sprout's music, and that Paddy McAloon should be regarded as one of the most important songwriters of today - in short, he is a national treasure.
Prefab Sprout is back. And Paddy McAloon has through force of will and sleight of hand given us a tantalizing glimpse of his songwriting treasures. He's simply the best jewel thief in the world.
on 7 October 2013
With their best album since the sublime Steve McQueen, Prefab Sprout are back with a bang, and the Old Magician himself, Paddy McAloon is on the toppest of top form. Bacharach and David, McCartney, Brian Wilson, Cole Porter - these are the standards by which you can measure Crimson/Red, and the combination of brilliantly witty and poignant lyrics, and melodic magnificence is here displayed in what Mr McAloon calls the 'strophic form' - magical choruses that lift the songs to new heights. This is one of those albums, Like Absent Friends by Divine Comedy, or Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole, where every track is a standout. In another review on here someone said he manages to make every song both immediately catchy and yet with something new to discover with each fresh hearing, and that is spot on. The List of Impossible Things is a yearningly emotional elegy, with lines like, "Sleeping on cold stone floors, engaged in some new noble cause; stretch out your hands to hold a grandeur that won't be controlled". The Old Magician brings tears to the eyes and Billy - well, I guarantee you'll be singing it around the house after two listens. This is unmissably good pop music.
on 11 October 2013
I'll start by saying that I am a long term Sprouts fan and have eagerly awaited the release of this album. The downside of being a Sprouts fan is that you end up with high expectations. Given the quality of the songs that have gone before, I was highly sceptical about any early comparisons with Steve McQueen and Jordan the Comeback. I've had the album for the best part of a week now and have played it around half a dozen times.
I'll start with the not so good.
Firstly, the album only has 10 songs lasting about 40 minutes. Like any Sprout fan, we would actually want more! Secondly, there are aspects of the production that are not particularly strong. That hasn't caused me too much concern, except when I have tried to play the CD in my car, or listen to it with headphones. Even on high quality headphones, Paddy's voice does not stand apart from the music. In an open room, however, production issues don't cloud what is good about this album, and that is the songs. Third, and I only say this so as to use an exception to prove a point. 'List of Impossible Things' is the one song on the album that has me singing the lyrics of an older Prefab Sprout song along to it. That older song is Dandy of the Danube, one of the B side songs from the King of Rock and Roll single. It's not that the songs are even similar, there is just a hint of similarity. That, however, doesn't stop List of Impossible Things from being a pretty good tune, however. The point I was trying to make is that the other 9 songs don't sound like reworkings of anything that has gone before. Delivering a set of fresh tunes is a challenge for any artist.
Now The Good;
This is a damn fine set of songs and no filler at all on this album. Yes, the songs have that Prefab Sprout sound, but each song stands on its own, and there are some well crafted gems here.
The Best Jewel Thief in the World. This song is catchy. The first time I heard it I thought that it would grate on me because I don't like instantly catchy songs at all, and usually tire of them after 2 or 3 listens. Having now heard this quite a few times over the last week, I have found that it is a catchy tune that is also a grower.
List of Impossible Things. A fine tune, but for me the weakest track on the album. However, as someone who consumes music as a glutton consumes food, weak in terms of this album is still damned good.
Adolescence. Curious with it's retro Atari sound, this is a song that throws lost of stuff at it, so much so that it shouldn't work on paper. On first listen, it didn't really work for me. However, now I would call it one of the stand out tracks on the album.
Grief Built The Taj Mahal. This is the song that sounds least like anything that has gone before, Sproutwise. The curious jangling almost sounded unstructured on first listen, but after hearing it a few times, it is another well crafted piece of work.
The Devil Came A Calling. My personal favourite on the album. Unusually for a Sprouts track, it relies heavily on an acoustic guitar, but very cleverly done.
Billy. An absolute classic of overblown enthusaism. The most confident track on the album. This song is good and it knows it!
The Dreamer. Dreamy and Gentle. I love the way that Paddy sings 'Now I'm just a dreamer, emerging from a dream'. From the same school as 'Where the heart is', but better than that.
The Songs of Danny Galway. Like The Best Jewel Thief in the World, this should also be annoying after a few listens. It sounds like it should be the theme to a popular ITV program. Very uplifting.
The Old Magician. Lyrically very pleasing. One of the album's gems.
Mysterious. The one song on the album that has managed to maintain it's mystery and the least familiar to me after a week of listening. The out of tune harmonica sound that holds this tune together is the most obvious element of the song after a few listens, while the song behind it does not seek to be bold or confident, just beautiful.
All in all, this is a wonderful collection of stories in song. Crimson/red, and many other colours on the palette besides. I did not want to give this 5 stars as I did not believe that Paddy would be capable of delivering something that would match my overhyped expectations. Reinforcing hype is something I find distasteful. However, 5 stars it is. the strength of the songs more than makes up for what is lacking in the production.
Comparisons with Jordan are a little early. However, in a year's time, I strongly suspect that it will have that accolade deservedly. This album looks like a strong candidate to pass the test of time.
If there is such a thing as musical heaven then the announcement of a new album by Paddy McAloon is the very entry through the Pearly Gates. "Crimson/Red" is essentially the widely leaked "Devil came a calling" and even though the Prefab Sprout name is attached to it there is no sign of the band. This album again draws on songs from the huge McAloon musical vault that go back to the nineties, indeed the most recent on this album is some two years old. The resulting album is one that echoes his best work. It revisits the frameworks of prime era McAloon albeit sticking to the "songwriting knitting" and eschewing some of his more clever excesses (songs such as "One of the Broken" would undoubtedly be recognised as one the greatest ballads ever if it didn't have "God" narrating it). The upshot of this is a more straightforward approach on "Crimson/Red" that will delight anyone who loves Prefab Sprout with a passion and deeply admires one of the best songwriters this Island has ever produced.
All is well from the outset. Opener "The Best Jewel Thief in the World" starts with sirens and develops into one of those effortless pop gems that McAloon sings as if a week has barely passed since recording his masterpiece "Steve McQueen" in 1985. His voice is truly remarkable. Listen to the gorgeous and wistful "List of impossible things" where only a lyricist as gifted as him could fit in Abstract Expression into its wordplay. The bubbling "Adolescence" is jam-packed with hooks and melody, and many will note the similarly between "Devil came a calling" with the urgent drive of "Faron Young". In it, McAloon has a tryst with Old Nick and wittily observes that " The Devil came a-calling, no brimstone fire and rain/In fact, I found him charming, articulate, urbane". A clear stand out on "Crimson/Red" is the harmonica-driven "Billy" a song which sees McAloon at his joyous best. The excellent acoustic-driven country sounding "Old Magician" tells of a fading talent and regrets that "death is a lousy disappearing act" while the concluding "Mysterious" is a lush gently rolling ballad. This is topped however by the longest song on the album the beautiful "The Dreamer" which will melt the hearts of those it touches. Finally the "Songs of Danny Galway" is plain great and the whole album wonderfully produced by that Scottish wizard of the mixing desk Calum Malcolm.
McAloon recently admitted in a detailed interview with the Scotsman that "Crimson/Red" is essentially a cherry pick from his long awaited unfinished projects such as "Earth - The story so far" accumulated over the last 15 years. It is a sort of greatest hits collection of unreleased material the oldest of which is 1997s dramatic "Grief built the Taj Mahal. Everyone is aware that a range of health problems not least severe tinnitus has in turn compounded McAloon's obsessive perfectionism. Whether the gap to the next Prefab Sprout album will again be a matter of years is a matter for conjecture. It is great to hear that McAloon's health has improved more recently and he is actively promoting this album. Music so badly needs this "Old Magician" particularly if he has more albums quite this good up his sleeve.
on 7 October 2013
This is the comeback from Prefab Sprout that many of us fans have been waiting for for a very long time. Let's Change the World With Music had some wonderful songs but it always seemed like a polished demo rather than an album proper. Crimson/Red (the name is taken from a lyric in the song Adolescence) contains songs which are right up there with Paddy McAloon's very finest work and that is to damn it with faint praise indeed. The Best Jewel Thief in the World, Billy, The Old Magician, Devil came-a-calling, Songs of Danny Galway are such examples. As always with McAloon the lyrics and word play are second to none. There are a couple of tracks which will take time to grow on this listener such as Adolescence and Grief Built the Taj Mahal but that is the beauty of McAloon's work: you tend to hear different nuances each time you listen it. After a few listens, this album can be bracketed alongside Steve McQueen, Jordan: The Comeback and From Langley Park to Memphis as is finest work. I really hope this album does well for Paddy and he can combat his well-documented deteriorating health issues to carry on producing work of this high standard. I. like other Sprout fans will be hoping "the comeback's underway". Well done Paddy!
on 7 October 2013
This must be one of the greatest comeback albums of all time - this is the first genuinely 'new' album from PS since The Gunman from 2001, which while having some fine moments was not up there with the heady highs of Steve McQueen and Jordan and a disappointing way for PS to go out(Let's change the world with music was new, but at the same time old!) so it's an absolute joy to hear this - a true new Prefab Sprout masterpiece.
Paddy has had numerous well-publicised health issues in recent years, and it would be hard to blame him for stepping back from music completely, but he's still writing songs, singing, playing producing etc, and finally we have something to show for it.
This is what I would call an instant grower, ie it's instantly catchy but there are levels of meaning and emotion that take a few listens to absorb and the more I hear it the more I love it. The Old Magician for instance, great melody, catchy country-ish arrangement, but then start to take in the lyrics and you realise that this is really a song about growing old and cynical, the loss of youthful optimism and how death takes us all in the end, and possibly a metaphor for Paddy himself (is Wendy the magicians assistant - tired of being sawn in two?). The songs of Danny Galway is a tribute to Jimmy Webb, and the marvelous thing about it is that it is as good as anything Webb ever wrote, and when I hear it I feel like weeping, not because it is particularly sad, but because it is so perfect and beautiful, it's hard to believe one guy from County Durham wrote it, recorded it, played it and sang it in his own home studio.
I won't go in to each song as I could talk for a very long time but they are all brilliant, though my overall favourite is probably Billy (also the most recently written song).
Though it's probably unlikely, I'm hoping that this is the start of a new era of more regular new PS albums - Paddy sounds more optimistic and upbeat about releasing new stuff in recent interviews than he has for a long long time. There are even rumours that he may be talking to Thomas Dolby about working together again.....
My advice - buy it!
on 30 October 2013
WOW! Mr Paddy Mc Aloon has restored my faith in good music. Everything he does is magic in sickness and in health. Paddy may look older in his photos but I can reassure you his mind is still perfect. This album has lifted my spirits like never before, especially in these time here in Ireland of Austerity, budgets, depression, anxiety. One listen to this cd has dragged me head first from a serious decline into depression once again. I'm not ashamed to say, I cried and choked back tears listening to this wonderful cd Crimson Red. Having said that, I thought Lets Change The World With Music is a remarkable album also and Paddy is definitely Changing My World with his music. No Mercury prize nominations here but I feel, like all the great artists and writers who were unknown when they were alive, it will take Paddy's passing for people to realise we have a Motzart in our presence all along but some were blind and deaf to his remarkable input to music. A true Genius. I'll not plough thru track by track, it's a pointless exercise at this stage. Every song, every, note, every arrangement, every melody is perfect. Shades of Jordan and Mc Queen and Andromeda all here. It brought me back to happy times and thrust me forward to present times back and forth. Mindblowing stuff from Prefab and Paddy. Thank God for Paddy. You have made my year. And my life to an extent.The Old Magician knocked me over.
on 7 October 2013
If you try really hard, you *might* find a copy of Paddy McAloon's sole "solo" effort, I Trawl the Megahertz, for under twenty quid. On that is a song called Sleeping Rough, in which McAloon explains he'll grow a "long and silver beard" and retire into the woods.
And that's where we thought he was. But, ever perverse, and perhaps in need of some money to keep his aging Atari ST in 3.5" floppies, Paddy signed a deal with some music industry Lucifer and received an advance. A couple of years later, as our hero was busily gilding lilies on a lengthy new concept piece, the devil appeared, charming, articulate and urbaine and waving an apparently signed contract. Paddy was forced to disappear into his boxes of cassettes and dig out 10 songs he could record quickly. So it was that Crimson/Red was born.
Nothing is ever simple in Prefab Sprout land, and what followed bordered on farce. The album accidentally leaked onto soundcloud, and a very excited someone found it emailed the owner of a Prefab Sprout fan site. Which email disappeared into a spam folder. Some months later someone else found it, and this time posted a link onto the fan forum. Within 48 hours the files were ripped from Soundcloud and were being passed around the world, with copyright lawyers in hot pursuit. But like the Jewel Thief of legend, once the music had escaped, not even Interpol would be able to catch it. And so Icebreaker Records, realizing a good piece of publicity when they saw it, decided to bring the release forward 6 months.
And here it is. Those who follow Prefab Sprout know that their albums take a few plays, and this is no exception. But from the moment it comes into focus, it's apparent that this is the most wonderfully tuneful set of meditations about the craft of songwriting, and about youth and age; from adolescence to the point when our faculties unwind. Genuinely magical.
Thomas Dolby once said that Prefab Sprout albums ought to be sold in bookshops, not record shops, and he has a point: this is musical literature, poetic and beautiful, yet far less glassy and impenetrable than, say, From Langley Park to Memphis. It's about as direct and intimate as I've ever heard McAloon. And in many ways continues the themes of Sleeping Rough. I've been living with this album daily since the leak, and it simply hasn't palled.
Really really great.
I've got stacks of time for Pady McAloon as a songwriter - he's consistently brilliant, even if, at times, I find the overly slick sound on some Prefab Sprout records slightly detracts from the overall listening experience (purely a matter of personal taste). Happily, there's no such problem with Crimson/Red - the production values are perfectly judged and never get in the way of what is surely his strongest set of tunes since Steve McQueen (though, unlike seemingly everyone else, I was never all that overawed with Jordan) - there's no weak tracks here but Adolescence and Mysterious in particularly are glorious examples of how McAloon can write songs that just lift up my soul - the perfect antidote for gloomy October evenings.
on 8 December 2013
Of course I'm biased with Steve McQueen still my all time favourite album, and everything since being as good as contemporary music gets. This Prefab Sprout album stands respectably alongside everything else in Paddy's back catalogue. There's not a duff track on it and there is a good handful of standout songs. "Billy"s the perfect pop song: catchy, original and somehow familiar all at the same time. It's difficult to believe it hasn't been around for years. Just under the surface of these smooth and polished pop songs, there are mature themes of retrospection, grief and mortality, There's menace, humour and poignancy. As well as my own copy, I bought the CD for a friend who confessed that driving home and playing it for the first time, he'd had to pull over listening to The Old Magician. Without doubt or a near challenger, this is the best album of 2013. It has a slightly different feel to the production of earlier Prefab Sprout albums, not least since Paddy played every instrument on the whole album and its effectively a solo project. Who knows - Thomas Dolby might just have talked Paddy out of quite so much harmonica?!