It’s like they couldn’t help it, all the British bands that invented themselves in the wake of the Sex Pistols. As hard as they tried not to, they created some of the loveliest pop music one can imagine, with smarts and restraint and pretension, lots of pretension. In their willful endeavor to be a serious, art-y band in an evolving psych-goth-pop scene, Liverpool’s Echo and the Bunnymen were not the equal of Siouxsie and the Banshees or the Cure or even Simple Minds, but they had it in them to produce one of their era’s best records in 1984’s Ocean Rain. As unique as it is in its genre for its use of an orchestra the album nonetheless captures the period, as romantic impulses toward grand gestures infused particularly British music with a youthful, surrealistic poetry — it didn’t always work, of course, and didn’t always need to work to be successful: if you were to ask me to name an album that summed up 1984, I’d point to, among others, Ocean Rain, even as I was a teenage metalhead. But it’s not a perfect album. Singer Ian McCulloch’s reach as a lyricist at times exceeds his grasp, and two of the record’s tracks (“Yo Yo Man” and “Thorn of Crowns”) threaten to bring down Ocean Rain‘s otherwise glistening pop dramas and diminish the band’s full flowering.
The title track closes the album, and “Ocean Rain” is a study in building pop ballad tension across five minutes of orchestra and guitars, with McCulloch and the band finding peaks and shifting down, delivering lyrics perfect for 80s college angst. Echo and the Bunnymen would never be this good again, but they really are so good on Ocean Rain that nothing else compares to this jeweled and flawed masterpiece.
soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here:soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.
Hey everyone, my apologies for taking so long to get episode 7 recorded. Still, I hope you enjoy it–over two hours of prog and New Wave. This episode features new songs from Big Big Train, Frost*, Mike Kershaw, Airbag, and Ayreon.
In addition, songs from Neal Morse, The Tangent, Salander, The Reasoning, New Model Army, New Order, Foo Fighters, Catherine Wheel, Echo and the Bunnymen, and The Cure.
A few days ago, I felt absolutely snarky and thought, “why not write down exactly what I think of music from the 1980s.” In some ways, I feel I have the right to do this in a manner I could never do for any other decade.
After all, I was in seventh grade when a very disturbed fanboy tried to kill the fortieth president, and I was a first-semester senior in college when the Berlin Wall came down.
Yes, I’m very much a man of the 1980s. Reagan, Rush, Blade Runner. . . how I remember the 1980s. I came of age in that rather incredible decade.
Life continued after 1989, however, though I wasn’t so sure at the time that it would.
1990 proved to be one of the most interesting years in my personal life when it came to career choices as well as to music.
The chances are quite good that you’re not reading this post because you want to know my career choices or why I made them. So, I’ll confine myself to the music that I loved that year.
I owe almost all of my good fortune to three very great guys, Ron Strayer (now, a high up with Microsoft), Kevin McCormick (now, justly, a progarchy editor), and Craig Breaden (now, happily, one of progarchy’s editors). Ron introduced me to what would very soon be called “alternative” but was then being called “college rock” or “modern rock.” Kevin sent me recommendations, including the rather insistent demand to purchase cds by World Party and The Sundays. And, finally, Craig introduced me not only to neo-psychedelia but also to psychedelia from its original age. It was Craig who introduced me to Van Morrison, Spooky Tooth, Procol Harum, and Traffic.
I’d loved prog and New Wave all of my 22 years at that point, but my vision was pretty limited to only these genres by the end of 1989. Well, this isn’t quite accurate. I also knew classical and jazz fairly well.
With the help of three friends, 1990 opened up huge musical vistas for me in the non-jazz, non-classic genres.
Richard Thompson, as a part of French Frith Kaiser Thompson, wrote two of the best songs I’ve ever: “Peppermint Rock” and “The Killing Jar.” Folk acid psychedelia by guys who had been there before there was a need for a revival.
Suzanne Vega’s third album, DAYS OF OPEN HAND, came out that year, and it’s still one of my favorite albums. Vega has always produced gorgeous pop and folk in the vein of XTC and others. If this is pop, it’s very high pop. Importantly, she never became political like so many of her counterparts. Rather, she gracefully let the music and lyrics remain art. Her breathy vocals–weird and yet captivating–only add to her appeal.
Echo and the Bunnymen’s almost totally forgotten and (when remembered) maligned album, REVERBERATION, is a slice of pop-rock perfection. Yes, it’s missing Ian McCulloch, but this only lets Will Sergeant soar. Frankly, their sound hit its height with OCEAN RAIN and fell flat on the follow-up album. This one, REVERBERATION, reveals an effective rebirth of the band. The new vocalist, while not possessing the cancerous gravel of McCulloch’s voice, captures the spirit of the lyrics perfectly. Word play and cliché become clever and, indeed, addictive. There’s not a dud song on the album, but the employment of psychedelic Indian musicians really works rather perfectly on “Enlighten Me” and on the Doorish “Flaming Red.” The former is one of the finest songs the band ever wrote.
Mazzy Star. Hardly anyone remembers this California psychedelic folk and navel-gazing band that emerged from the underground band, Opal. Too bad–as 1990’s SHE HANGS BRIGHTLY is a thing of disturbing beauty. Walls of sound, clever lyrics, and earnest production make this album a masterpiece of the neo-psych revival.
“Is it too late, baby?” World Party. What to say about this about that hasn’t been said by a million others? While Karl Wallinger continues to make interesting music (despite severe health problems), he really threw every thing his soul possessed into GOODBYE JUMBO. From the crazy Beatle-sque cover to the basement production, this is a gem. All of the songs work very well, though they rarely reach beyond simple Beatle’s pop. Taken as a whole, however, this is a prog-pop album. Not that the individual songs are prog. They’re not even close. But, imagine a really, really, really clever Paul McCartney reworking side 2 of Abbey Road. Then, you’d have GOODBYE JUMBO. Thank you, world, indeed.
The Sundays. Ok, so the lead singer is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. This doesn’t hurt my opinion of the band. But, really, it’s her voice. That voice. How to describe it? There are no words, really, that could capture it. She’s playful. She’s earnest. She’s flirtatious. She’s so utterly sincere. Oh, Harriet. At one time, you were my Beatrice. Her husband, David Gavurin, knows exactly how to write music to match his wife’s voice. What a team. And, they did the album merely for the fun of it, which makes it even more enjoyable. If you don’t own this or if you’ve never heard of The Sundays, treat yourself. You’ll never regret this purchase. Promise.
Charlatans UK. SOME FRIENDLY. I know next to nothing about this band, but I absolutely dug their sound when Ron introduced them to me. I’d never quite heard drumming like this (though, The Cure would use the exact same style on their 1991 album, WISH). The drums, the keyboards, and the bass make this one of the most interesting albums I’ve ever heard it. While I wouldn’t place it up there with the previous albums I’ve mentioned in terms of outright excellence and staying power, it’s still really good.
House of Love. Album title? I’m not sure, as there’s none listed. Just the band’s name with a butterfly. Some of the album fails, but when it works, it works in a stellar fashion. The album is worth owning for the first two tracks alone—”Hannah” and “Shine On”—which really blend into one continuous 10-minute track. Great build up and perfect execution on these two songs. From what little I know of the band, they were a bunch of really raucous and idiotic druggies. Still, some amazing talent there.
Cocteau Twins, HEAVEN OR LAS VEGAS. The best for last? I’m not sure, but, sheesh, do I love this album. Aside from LOVELESS by My Bloody Valentine, no album reaches as close to shoe-gaze perfection as does HEAVEN OR LAS VEGAS. This album simply never ages. It’s so weird and yet so continuously captivating. I assume the artsts behind Cocteau Twins wield some special instrument to speed up or delay time, but I can’t verify this. Listening to this album is NEVER a casual experience. It demands full immersion, but you re-emerge not as one drowned but as one baptized.
For some one of my age (46), it’s very hard not to trap Echo and the Bunnymen in the best memories of my youth.
From 1980 to 1984, the band produced four classic albums in a row, the best of which was HEAVEN UP HERE. Their self-titled album of 1987 was ok, but nothing spectacular. In 1990, with a new singer, Echo released an album that has stood the test of time rather well. Though it’s simply not Echo and the Bunnymen, REVERBERATION is a really catchy pop-rock album with a lot of neo-psychadelia. REVERBERATION, still, is better than anything else Echo has released post-OCEAN RAIN.
In 1997, Echo reformed with Ian McCulloch once again taking lead vocals. Everything Echo has produced since 1997 has been unsatisfying, an Echo of an Echo with momentary flashes of brilliance.
The new album, METEORITES, slated to come out in four days, is good but not astounding. Maybe this is simply my fault, my failure to appreciate all that is currently Echo. I very much want the Echo of my youth–angry, hard edged, nasty, lush, claustrophobic, and angular.
METERORITES is, as I just noted, good but not astounding. It’s a safe and nice return to the late 1980s without causing any problems and without taking any serious chances. What saddens me, though, is that the album is on the edge of astounding. A different producer, a different engineer, a different some one (as Rush has down with their last several albums) might have made METEORITES spectacular.
As McCulloch has recently said, METEORITES is a concept album. And, so it seems to be. There’s a lot of discussion of religion, especially historical religion. I’m just not sure what it all means. Still, Echo was always best when combining elements of hard rock and prog with pop sensibilities.
McCulloch’s voice is excellent and the same can be said of Sargeant’s guitar work. But, again, it’s all so safe. The bass and the drums are bland, and, thus, an essential part of Echo seems missing.
The Guardian is streaming the entire album, and you can judge for yourself before buying it. After listening, I’ve decided not to purchase it. I know I would only listen to it a few times, but then I would forget about it, relegating it to mere un-accessed space on my hard drive.
If you’re looking for the best of Echo, you must return to the band’s past: CROCODILES (1980); HEAVEN UP HERE (1981); PORCUPINE (1983); and OCEAN RAIN (1984). These four albums rank as four of the best in the rock era. Additionally, as Pete Blum has recently argued, the best modern Echo is to be found in Sergeant and Patterson’s prog band, Poltergeist.