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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Black Box Recorder: The Worst Of Black Box Recorder

BLACK BOX RECORDER: THE WORST OF BLACK BOX RECORDER (2001)

1) Seasons In The Sun; 2) Watch The Angel Not The Wire; 3) Jackie Sixty; 4) Start As You Mean To Go On; 5) The Facts Of Life (remix); 6) Lord Lucan Is Missing; 7) Wonderful Life; 8) Uptown Top Ranking; 9) Brutality; 10) Factory Radio; 11) Soul Boy; 12) Rock'n'Roll Suicide.

Much of this album has been made redundant upon being converted into bonus tracks to the new CD editions of England Made Me and Facts Of Life — no big surprise, since most of the songs were originally B-sides on singles taken from those albums. That said, this compilation still merits a separate review, since every single song on it, and that goes beyond the B-sides, rules to high heaven, and plus, only a band like Black Box Recorder could dare to slap the semi-ironic, semi-bombastic title of The Worst on a record that so clearly contains some of the best. Because for Luke Haines, the best is the worst — in the sense that, the more uncomfortable you feel about any of his songs, the better they probably are.

Since this is a compilation, thinking conceptual thoughts about the record would be rather point­less, but it does open up a few extra edges and links to BBR that would otherwise be missed. For instance: David Bowie liked Jacques Brel, enough to cover his songs, and on this album, BBR cover both Brel and Bowie — as long as the songs have something to do with quiet desperation and impending demise (ʽSeasons In The Sunʼ and ʽRock'n'Roll Suicideʼ both qualify). The arran­gements and particularly Sarah's vocal adaptations are almost enough to make me cherish the covers over the originals (at the very least, ʽSeasons In The Sunʼ is definitely a morbid improve­ment over the hit version by Terry Jacks — might have been even better if the band reverted to Brel's original French lyrics of ʽLe Moribondʼ, but Nixey's French might not have been good enough for that, especially since her little phonetic peculiarities are an integral part of the band's magic, and they could have suffered in the transition to a non-native language).

Still another cover is ʽUptown Top Rankingʼ, formerly a visiting card for the one-hit reggae wonder Althea & Donna — the original was a slightly ironic, slightly defying piece of «norm­core propaganda», as they'd say nowadays ("no pop no style, I strictly roots"); BBR extract it from their nostalgic attic, dust it off, freeze it up, and prove that they can put a little whiff of genuine Black Box Recor­der™ spirit into anything. The main difference is that the old version had life and humor in it; the new version has bleakness and claustrophobia in it, but the basic message of "no pop no style" remains the same. Consequently, it is more interesting to compare these two versions than, say, the two versions of ʽRock'n'Roll Suicideʼ, where they basically preserve Bowie's original emotions, merely cutting down the bombastic dramaticism.

As for the originals, well, they are instructive. For instance, I never knew anything about «Jackie 60», which was apparently one of the hottest and kinkiest New York party events in the 1990s, sort of a symbol of complete freedom of sexual identity — and here is Luke Haines writing a song about it in non-too flattering terms: ʽSave me, save me from Jackie Sixty, take me, take me to the top of the worldʼ, Sarah coos in her trademark frigid-seductive manner, as the incredibly catchy pop song, with acid political incorrectness, attacks the allegedly phoney «world of Jackie 60»: "This isn't mother nature boy / Stripped naked and frightened / The only reason that you're here / Is because you've been invited". Spelled out wicked and strong, and nobody could even use the words as a pretext for accusations of homophobia.

Other highlights include the short and unusually hard-rocking ʽLord Lucan Is Missingʼ (another good reason to catch up on celebrity history — apparently Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan, was quite a colorful figure, well worth immortalizing in 1:49 worth of stern hard rock riffage and funereal intonations); ʽStart As You Mean To Go Onʼ, which not only has one of the catchiest basslines on the album, but should also be made required listening for all the hipster youth of today (sometimes being torn to shreds right in your face may serve as helpful shock therapy, although most people probably wouldn't get the message of lines like "topshop, doves and Glastonbury, learned to be a secretary" and "cut our losses, screw our bosses, get out while we're still young"); and ʽBrutalityʼ, a song so unnerving and so ambiguous that it alone could have made Black Box Recorder the biggest anti-hip turn-off ever since the Kinks chose to make themselves deliberately uncool in the eyes of the young generation with Village Green.

Please remember, though, that although the lyrics to at least half of these songs simply beg to become the chief focus of attention (we could quote and analyze till morning, easily enough), they are never delivered at the expense of hooks — verses, choruses, little guitar figures, every­thing fitting the general mood. You certainly do not need to understand one word in order to cherish the gorgeous melancholy of ʽWonderful Lifeʼ, whose lead vocals, harmonies, guitars, wintery keyboards, and music-box chimes are arguably this record's finest musical synthesis, and whose chorus mentions a "wonderful life" in the most sadly ironic manner possible.

Overall, no question about the rating — thumbs up a-plenty — except that I generally agree with the idea of eventually disbanding the record, as long as nothing on it ever gets lost, and fattening up the running lengths of the two «proper» albums: even despite the monotonousness of the mood, this is songwriting and performing of such high quality that I'd have no problem whatso­ever with, say, a 60-minute running length for England Made Me (well, that's pretty much how it goes on the new CD edition).

2 comments:

  1. I don’t know, man! Speaking as a hipster youth, I don’t feel especially shocked by “Start As You Mean To Go On”; I may be too dumb for it, but— stripped of its obligatory layer of turn-of-the-Willennium sarcasm—it reads like a rather pro forma “YOU’RE GETTING OLD TOO FAST” harangue. I’m also not all that unnerved by “Brutality”—mainly because I think it's a pretty unambiguous song. The band tips their hand from the get-go—only an ironic reactionary would use that title for a weren’t-the-old-days-better ballad—and between the talk of iron fists and nervous breakdowns and drunk driving, it’s pretty damn clear nostalgia is the last thing on their minds; in terms of anti-hip pro-establishment ambiguity, it doesn’t hold a candle to R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People”—a song about Tiananmen Square propaganda that got played on Sesame Street—or Talking Heads’ “Don’t Worry About The Government”—a feel-good political statement so earnest-sounding and stone-faced and note-perfect that I still have no idea whether David Byrne was being serious.

    It is a really good song, though—and Black Box Recorder seem like a really interesting band. Thanks for writing about them, George—and keep on keepin' on!

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  2. Calling an album "The Worst Of" was done many years ago by Jefferson Airplane.

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