Aural Fixations

RECORDS

THE NOVEITY OF British band with something to say started to wear of about the time (1979) punks and wavers appeared in my hometown. Seattle Once you have caught the fancy of the moneyed suburbs, the price on your integrity becomes too big to resist: I knew that if Seattle had discovered British protest bands, their days were numbered. Three years later, Paul, Welfer--the prototypical Angry Young Man--cashed in the Jam's inarticulate outrage for the smooth sounds of cabaret Jazz at the same time that Boy George--the painted mockery of preening masculinity--snared the attention of transatlantic audiences. The dire warnings about the System co-opting integrity bands like the Clash was only rock-press pablum. Even if Joe Strummer had held on to his elitist-bashing ethics in the face of record label take-over attempts of the sort T. Boone Pickens would admire, the great unwashed masses of record buyers would have written out his doom. Fashion sells, quality endures--but a band has to sell to quality endures--but a band has to sell to endure, an ugly truth for musicians with a mission.

Although it's fronted by a Frenchman, the Stranglers used to thrash harder and scream louder than almost any other band. But Jean-Jacques Burnel, the vocal power behind the band, anticipated the swing of the gustatory pendulum on their album, IV, alienating some of their hardcore spikes-n-nails support. Aural Sculpture, the Strangler's latest, completes their metamorphosis from outraged punk outcasts to ingratiating pop insiders.

But even the middle-roader melodies like "Skin Deep" can't conceal the hard edges of old; a slight snarl lurks under Burnel's voice, even at its most unctuous. The eardrum-bursting sarcasm of songs like "Bring on the Nubiles" still lingers in the earlobe-singeing insinuations of bourgeois S&M in Punch & Judy:

Judy's always been his bright flag

Shows the audience a smile

Cause she knows when they've all gone home

She can tick him clean in style

The Stranglers have never made a completely successful album. There are always one or two songs on each album, like "Northwinds Blowing," that take their current style one step beyond (in this case into the realm of semi-psychedelic wimpshit) but holes like these can be ignored for the push-pull sophistication of tracks like "The Ice Queen."

The Stranglers, to their credit, won't give in to the requisite dance-floor demands of public success; even the grandes artistes Talking Heads couldn't reach the really big time--permanent Top--40 success--until they meshed funk rhythm with their native melodies.

DANCE ABILITY MANY believe, is the only virtue of British synth-band Depeche Mode. An auspicious pioneer in the synth-pop wavelet of Human League, ex-Human Leaguers Heaven 17, and Soft Cell, "The Mode" looked passe after synthesizer genius Vince Clarke departed for Yaz. The remaining foursome haven't quite thrived, but they haven't died either; and their latest release. Some Great Reward compares well to the brilliant post-Clarke collection. A Broken Frame.

Depeche Mode, whether they realize it or not, are astride the twilight zone of sentiment, sentimentality, and naked-nipple camp. With a synthesizer beat that commands the dance floor, tender melodies that call for industrial-sized Dramamine, and pretty-boy vocals that would do credit to the Krokodiloes. Depeche Mode somehow manages to subvert the teen-age romantic schlock slot they ought to fit so well.

Depeche Mode rips the guts out of Modern Love, and the Modern Love Ballad, by distilling it into its purest form. With a voice oozing tenderness, Alan Wilder sings:

I wan; somebody who cares

For me passionately

With every thought and with every breath

Someone who'll help me see things on a different light

All the things I detest

I will almost like

Principal songwriter and vocalist Martin Gore refuses to take himself or his songs seriously; each cut has a knowing wink to the wise that the song is a calculated appeal to the lowest common denominator--and isn't it fun?

Any band with such a cynical outlook would attract little attention outside of the self-conscious New Wave demimonde; but for less sophisticated ears. Depeche Mode embodies the cool kinetic madness of the best beat-box music, only with the less aggression.

"The Mode's monolithic melodies, abetted by clever consumer-culture sound effects (dropping ping-pong balls, snipping scissors) and super-resonant production, captures the finely-ground precision of the motionmusik, and added to the heartbreak of frustated adolescent romance, how could it miss?

Pretty easily--out in the real world.

Depeche Mode's rare appearance at the Orpheum a few months back was a pretty depressing affair if you weren't looking for a high school pick-up. With most of the musical action programmed into the array of synthesizers and organs, vocalist Gore was left prancing about like a second-string Rod Stewart, with material that could never approach the Rod's exquisitely terrible haunchraunch. The rest of the band was strapped to their machinery, tapping out melodies with one, two, and sometimes even three fingers. Depeche Mode gave good beat, but in a frenetic concert atmosphere pumped up by the attention-glutting Gore, and without their musical detachment. Depeche Mode came off like over-coked record shop clerks who had read too many back issues of The Face. Not a pretty sight.

The Smiths are not a pretty sight either; maybe that is why only study working-class types appear on their album covers. Four uncharismatic youths from Manchester fronted by an ascetic-looking vegetarian with a voice like a choir boy crossed with Slim Whitman, the Smiths burst out in '84 with music that breathed new life into the pop ballad. Vocalist Morrissey (maybe soon singers will call themselves just Sam or Mary) possesses a voice that floats in and around Johnny Marr's guitar riffs in elegant, almost improvised anxiety. Morrissey's lyrics express the range of human emotions from suicidal depression to mild unhappiness; he's the ugly, shy boy who everyone picks on and thinks is a fairy--and they're right, too. Yet the Smith's eponymous debut album never descended into mere whining; the self-pity was tempered by self-deprecating humor and self-aware forgiveness.

The Smith's second album (or second point five Hatful of Hollow contained only one side's worth of original material) shows once more how quickly a band can succumb to it's own worst tendencies. Their latest, Meat is Murder, rails against all of Morrissey's petoutrages; nasty schoolmasters, abusive parents, and carniverousness. The title track epitomizes everything wrong with this record album. With the mooing of cows in the background (electronically processed to sound like singing whales) Morissey says:

and the flesh you so fancifully fry is not so succulent, tasty or nice it's death for no reason and death for no reason is MURDER and the calf that you carve with a smile is MURDER and the turkey you so festively slice is MURDER

Marr's agile guitar practically saves "The Headmaster Ritual". From Morrisey's aggravathig yodels, but otherwise its a losing battle. Only the cuts "How Soon is Now" (arguably the best thing the Smiths have done luckily available elsewere as a single and on Hatful of Hollows) and "this Joke Isn't Funny Any More" have emotional or intellectual integrity--but only by covering well-trod territory the sexual anxiety of an unappealing ingenue. The Smiths, despite their musical originality and superior sensibility, are hemmed in by Morrissey's hang-ups. The newest single. "Shakespeare's Sister," (not on the album is just more yodeling about "going to see the one I love," Where is Dr. Ruth when you need her?

The almost acoustic texture of the Smiths, minus the stomach-churning unhappiness makes Lloyd Cole and the Commotions the most appealing band to burst stateside this year. Four young Scotsman and a transplanted Man-chesterian owned a year and a half age and quickly won a recording contract from Polydor.

Their debut album, Ratilesnake, has crawled into a dark hole in the charts, but it contains understated pop that, while not obviously challenging doesn't dip into the insultingly trivial Rattlesnake suffers from overly wimpy production with Barry Manilow string backups and too little bass or drum support one almost thinks that 'Producer Paul Hardiman' is a pseudonym for James Taylor.

At their recent Boston debut at the Channel. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions put on a well-received show featuring the pleasing blend of guitarists Cole. Neil Clark and bassist Lawrence Donegan. The band is still a little stiff live, but Cole's cryptically personal songs bridge the band's charisma gap.