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Wail of a time   Print

by Robin Denselow
Guardian
March 19, 1988

MORRISSEY; Viva Hate (HMV CSD3787)
JONI MITCHELL: Chalk Marks in A Rain Storm (Geffen GHS24172)
JAMES TAYLOR: Never Die Young (CBS 460434)
PREFAB SPROUT: From Langley Park to Memphis (Kitchenware KWLP9)
ANDY WHITE: Kiss The Big Stone (Decca FLP101)
TINA TURNER: Tina Live In Europe (Capitol ESTD1)
BILLY OCEAN: Tear Down These Walls (Jive HIP57)

It's a week in which the most celebrated exponent of the Eighties Mancunian depressional competes with the most distinguished exponent of the Seventies Los Angeles confessional, and the British boy wins by a sniff. Morrissey and Mitchell may seem an add couple to compare but in their very different ways both have succeeded in expanding the range of what's possible within a pop song, and both have edged from self-analysis to analysis of the wildly contrasting societies in which they operate.

Morrissey's often over-the-top studies in depression, and any other shade of gloom, continue in his first full excursion without the Smiths, which starts with a wailing study in sexual jealousy and ends with the most outrageous, personal political song of the Eighties, Margaret On The Guillotine, with its lament "people like you make me feel tired - when will you die?"

There was a danger that he would collapse in a puddle of his own despair without the sturdy originality of Johnny Marr's musical settings and guitar work to balance the carefully-constructed lyrics, but he survives, thanks to considerable help from bassist and producer Stephen Street and guitarist Vini Reilly. He is no longer part of an exceptional band, but at least he has good backing musicians.

The settings range wildly, from the opening clash of elecro-percussion and the East, through to the lush use of strings on Everyday Is Like Sunday, a wonderfully atmospheric piece about life in a ghastly English seaside town, or the light guitar work on Late Night, Maudlin Street, a carefully-written piece of glum nostalgia, with hints of darker tragedies, all set within a distinctly English, decaying setting. No one else could get away with songs like these.

Joni Mitcdhell could once be relied on to produce wildly adventurous albums (showing far greater musical skills in the process), but her latest LP is a disappointment, not because it's bad but because it's rather ordinary. That's a real surprise, after her remarkable 20-year recording career.

In that time she has developed from early folk-rock through to elaborate pieces that showed off her range and acrobatic vocals, or to jazz-influenced works like Mingus, just as her lyrics have moved from the thoughtful and confessional to the more political songs of Dog Eat Dog. Released three years ago, it showed she was ahead of the times with her warning about the growing power of TV evangelists.

There's no such trail-blazing spirit here, even though the album was recorded with help from a remarkable collection of musicians, from Peter Gabriel to Billy Idol, Willie Nelson to Wayne Shorter. None of them succeeds in helping her to break through a classy, languid mood typified by the opening tracks My Secret Place and Number One. There's a gentle wash of synthesizers and clever, inter-locking backing vocals which create a soporific mood that takes the edge her vocals. Many of the tracks are gentle and pleasant, like the forgettable cover versions of Cool Water and Corrina Corrina, while the issue songs are decidedly uneven.

Some, lie Re-occurring Dreams, deal with the consumer society in a depressingly obvious way (a montage of adverts). She succeeds best with anti-war songs like the chanting Tea Leaf Prophesy (with Wendy and Lisa of Prince fame helping with the vocals), or Beat Of Black Wings, in which Benjamin Orr of The Cars joins her in a startingly vicious story of the brutalization of military life. Here , at last, Mitchell sparks with the old passion, but it's sad the backing doesn't match the lyrics.

Also from the introspective Seventies survivors' camp, there's a solid set from James Taylor, who sounds as reliably doleful as ever, and now mixes his songs with a dash or two of country, a hint of jazz and a little gentle rock. Ballads like Valentine's Day, a clever piece about gangsters and emotional punch-ups, or Letter in The Mail, about closing down small-town America, show that he's still taking care with his gentle, personal lyrics. He's also taking care with the presentation. As a wolf enthusiast, I recommend the front cover.

After a batch of strong lyricists like those, it's depressing to turn to Prefab Sprout. Paddy McAloon and his colleagues are a clever bunch, with a classy, sophisticated post-Steely Dan harmony style, but they don't seem to know what to do with their talent, perhaps because the lyrics are so unsuccessful that they've given the band a collective loss of confidence. One of the better songs, Cars And Girls, promises to be a thoughtful treatment of Springsteen's appeal but skids badly on such embarrassing lines as "Brucie's thoughts - pretty streamers - guess this world needs its dreamers."

Elsewhere, they throw in a burst of frothy rock, hints of out-takes from Broadway musicals, and even superstar help from Pete Townshend and Stevie Wonder, but none of it quite works because it's an exercise in style without substance, approached with no passion, commitment or emotion.

Andy White, from Belfast, is a stylish performer who is obsessed with the USA, mixes Irish styles with a hint or two of American West Coast rock, and is backed by the perfect musicians for the job - Costello's rhythm section and Van Morrison's guitarist, with pipes, violin or saxophone aded in. White's debut LP was over-influenced by mid-period Dylan, but also included funny and brave songs like Religious Persuasion. This time he has (almost) got rid of the Dylan obsessin, but also lost his sense of humour.

Instead, there are clever, gently rhythmic songs like Here Come The Girls, folksy acoustic pieces and jolly, muted rockers. Ideal for tours with Suzanne Vega.

Finally, a couple of guaranteed commercial hits from the black music scene. Tina Turner's live double set contains one LP of the songs that brought her from the clubs to the big stadiums, and another of oldies and other people's songs. It includes all the expected favourites, the new single, which is a crashing version of Robert Palmer's Addicted To Love and duets with the likes of Clapton, Cray and Bowie. Most live albums are to be avoided, but Ms. Turner has always been better on stage than on record, so this is an exception. There aren't too many surprises, but there are no disappointments either.

Billy Ocean's LP is disappointing. He has written great pop dance singles, from Caribbean Queen to the recent Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car, and has deservedly followed his UK success in the States. He may be great for the dance floor, in small bursts, but this set has too many forgettable tracks.

 

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