Monday, February 20, 2012

Love and other Demons

When I first bought UK band Strangelove’s debut album Time for the Rest of Your Life in the spring of 1994, I found it to be an endlessly long, overdramatic, bombastic collection of songs that I listened to constantly. Patrick Duff’s vocals are so overblown that it could easily be a deal breaker. He seems to do his best at channeling the special vocalizations of William Shatner (which were making a comeback during that time, come to think of it, as his Transformed Man had been released on CD for the first time on a hip indie label) if he could actually sing. Okay, maybe his vocals reminded more of Shatner’s nuanced acting. Whatever the case, it was a bit much, but somehow worked. Whenever I hear the piano ballad “Low-Life” on that album, I imagine a packed Wembley Stadium (or whatever) swaying together, with lighters held aloft and burning bright, all chanting along while choking back their burgeoning emotions. Really, it was sickening then, and still is now, yet, I found myself listening to that album a lot during 1994. I first learned of the band in 1993, when I was a subscriber to the Rough Trade singles club. I sure miss those old singles clubs. I was a long-time subscriber to the Sub Pop and Rough Trade clubs as well as the unbelievably cool Archive Series on Independent Project Records. Anyway, the 7” A-Side was named “Zoo’d Out” and I pretty much ignored it. The song somehow stuck with me enough that I took a chance on their debut CD at an extreme import price, when I happened upon it at Ozone Records nearly a year later (none of their records were released in the US). In the long run, it’s always been Strangelove’s second (of three) long player that has been the go to selection when I decide I need an injection of their overdriven melodrama, so out comes the appropriately titled Love and Other Demons.

The first of the material I heard after the debut arrived in 1996, when I ran across the double CD single “Beautiful Alone.” Before I go on about this fantastic three minute pop-nugget, I must complain about that era of “double singles.” These things were the curse of collector obsessive’s like me. Labels took advantage of us by releasing an artist’s non-LP B-sides across two separately sold CD singles, forcing us to buy two copies of the same single. This act supposedly boosted the chart status and sales of a single and it got out of control in the mid-90s, when some singles were released with separate non-LP B-sides across every format (2 CDs, 10” & 7” vinyl, etc). It was truly an evil practice. Anyway, where was I? Oh right, “Beautiful Alone” is pop music at its lush finest. It’s more upbeat, to the point, and downright catchy than anything on their debut. A soft string arrangement and an acoustic strum are carried along by a driving bass surge, chiming guitar fills and perfectly timed cymbal crashes. During the summer of 1996, ask anyone, I could not get enough of this addictive piece of narcotic bliss. I remember driving around with Wil, Liz and Midori one cloudy Saturday afternoon in Vancouver of all places listening to this song over and over on our way to a small party at a stranger’s home. The warm glow of the song forced me to buy a used and cheap silk shirt for the occasion and was a perfect soundtrack to a fun day and evening.

After hearing this song a million times, the album became a much sought after item, despite yet again having to delve into the realm of high import prices and unreliability of sources to track this stuff down. In this case, I turned to the Bay Area music shop Mod Lang. I phoned them up, asked if they had it in stock and then promptly placed my order. I cannot reiterate enough how much work went into finding my music of choice back then! Again, the effort was worth it, as this album became one of my favorites of that year. Strangelove had trimmed back the fat of their debut considerably, but not enough to lose the flavor. The opening song (and eventually the third single) “Living with the Human Machines” kicks things off with their most aggressive and explosive track. Its pounding beat and siren guitars urge on the still over the top vocals of Patrick Duff. The upfront message of this song is like a slap in the face - a warning to wake up and notice the isolated direction that our society is heading. “20th Century Cold” (back then I never thought about living in the 21st century) continues this theme with some sharp lyrics: “I see myself reflected in the television screen / somewhere far away / I can hear myself scream.” Even better is the angry, lullaby-like “Spiders and Flies,” which asks us to “meet the new world nobody can find.” The world wide web never sounded so ominous as it does throughout this album (“it’s a spider’s web just above your head”), which makes it even more interesting to listen to today, because much of its message is still relevant today. The closest they come to love songs are the ones completely based from a perspective of loneliness. “She’s Everywhere” encapsulates brilliantly the longing for a lost loved one. Similarly, in “Elin’s Photograph,” the narrator’s thoughts are dominated by a picture, much like The Cure’s “Pictures of You” (“take away this photograph so I can live again”). Meanwhile, the string-laced ballad “Sway,” is resigned to simply give everything up and drink life away. Lastly, the epic closer, “The Sea of Black,” truly spells out a finale for the character we’ve followed through this sad paranoid journey (“hear no voice / see no smile / feel no love / by my side”). This is a touching, thoughtful and emotional rollercoaster of an album filled with hummable melodies with enough of an edge to drive its meaning straight down one’s throat. Oh, and yes, it’s way out of control. It predates the big Radiohead landmark OK Computer by a year with its very direct message of isolation by way of technology and it is a sprawling mess that seemed to go underappreciated at the time. Strangelove seemed to get lost behind the big battle for dominance between Oasis, Blur and Suede at that time, but of those bands, they are the one I still listen to every so often.

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