Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Welcome to the Beautiful South

I don’t know why, but I often have a solid memory of when and especially where I purchased the music that I have added to my collection. In the past, a lot of these purchases were made during days filled with other exciting and memorable activities. Growing up, record shopping excursions normally involved a trip to Portland, a two hour drive from the coast, so these trips were often combined with concerts or some such adventure. An especially memorable trip was one on a sunny spring day where Matt and I skipped school in May of 1989 to go to a New Order concert, but along the way I picked up just released CDs like The Cure’s Disintegration, Swans’ Burning World, The Replacements Don’t Tell A Soul, and New Model Army’s Thunder and Consolation. The day was fun, the show was great, but these four albums are ones that I still love and listen to.

Less than a year later, after a snowy Friday evening in January of 1990 I found myself feeling trapped in the Frosty Grave (Forest Grove, OR) in a dull college dorm room wondering if I was truly willing to make the two hour trek via bus into Portland just to get out of the bleak environs I found myself in. Yes, I wanted to get away, but I didn’t have a lot of money and the journey was a brutal one. Luckily, I ran into two of my friends who had just started to date. One had a car and was indeed planning on driving into Portland, if I didn’t mind stopping off at Planned Parenthood along the way. I shrugged and went along. I never asked any details about why we went to Planned Parenthood, because it was none of my business, but it didn’t stop me from playing with the bowl of condoms in the waiting room and making a scene that ended with a different colored condom unwrapped and placed on each of my fingers while adopting a Smokey the Bear voice. I think it was some sort of impromptu PSA that only made my friend and everyone else in the waiting area uncomfortable. Speaking of uncomfortable, the overnight snow had by this time turned into a massive slush puddle everywhere, and the only shoes I took to college with me for my freshman year were leather and filled with holes in the soles and rips at the seams.

Anyway, our destination downtown was the old block on Park Avenue where one could find Crocodile Records, Rock-n-Roll Fashion, and around the corner on Taylor, Hamburger Mary’s. I say “old block,” because none of these shops are currently there. In fact, that entire city block was demolished and rebuilt as the Fox Tower several years ago. Clearly, I headed into Crocodile Records. It was a small, mostly used music shop that was best for finding new promo CDs for cheap. I perused the vinyl and drooled over a copy of Joy Division’s “Transmission” 12” single that was in pristine condition, but didn’t have the 7 or 8 bucks needed to buy it. So, I was stuck with looking through the $1 CD bin on the counter near the register. This proved fruitless as well, except for a radio promo for a song named “You Keep it All In” by The Beautiful South. I had never heard the band before, nor did I know anything about them. However, I had seen their album in the shops and ads for it in magazines I regularly read. It stuck in my mind, because I loved the cover. It depicted two old timey looking sepia toned photographs. The left side found a married woman in a white blouse and gardening styled hat about to swallow the business end of a revolver, while the right half had a picture of a shirtless and shaved headed man lighting a cigarette. For whatever reason, the cover intrigued me, and I had always had good luck buying records based solely on cover art. In this case, I could spend a buck and sample their sound, so I made the purchase and headed next door to find the other two checking out all of those rock-n-roll fashion.

By the time I finally listened to the song back in my dorm room, while I removed my cold and wet socks and slapped them down against the tile floor, I was not sure what to make of it. Even though the promo included no cover, the music didn’t seem to fit what my memory of the album cover had been. During those days, I was nearing the height of my short-lived love of industrial music, so when I heard flutes opening the short snappy song, I was a bit thrown. The song is snappy and includes actual snapping! It is the ultimate sound of adult contemporary from that time. The instrumentation is smooth and flawless and has a tinge of the 80s Euro soul of Sade, Danny Wilson (“Mary’s Prayer”), Johnny Hates Jazz, Black, Curiosity Killed the Cat, and the like from that era. It also eventually reminded me of the few Housemartins songs I had heard, as I found myself examining the song over and over. It was definitely catchy, but it was still a mystery to me. The lyrics, like that album cover, did not fit the music. The opening verse, after the flutes and snapping, is sung with perfection by a woman who sounded to me a bit like Natalie Merchant when she sang “Like the Weather.” The second verse comes in with a male vocalist who reminded me of the guy from the Housemartins (which it is!) and that’s where I noticed things going a bit off. He sings: “That’s right / the conversation we had last night / when all I wanted to do was / knife you in the heart” and it was these words that appealed to my still teenage world of acerbic wit and cynicism. It didn’t take long for me to love this song, but I was a bit afraid to share it with my new friends. I suppose it had become a guilty pleasure.

I didn’t wind up actually buying the full album until school was out for the summer and I was able to put some money together from a job and start buying CDs again. There was that album cover welcoming us to their dark world with a polished sheen. One could say that this is a musical version of a David Lynch-ian world where one’s seemingly perfect and nice neighbors may be bearing horrific secrets behind closed doors. The aforementioned “You Keep it All In” depicts a fighting couple who seem to have a murderous past, while their child “sleeps alone with the light.” Another horror show is found in the “Woman in the Wall” where we find a man who has killed his wife and left her corpse in their home’s wall, where he can be found declaring his love for her and speaking to her at night until “the rotting wall began to drip.” Not every song is filled with killing and death, but nearly every song is filled with a dark edge that belies the jaunty smooth pop of the music. Every song is adorned with flawless percussion, brass arrangements and stellar piano playing, while the two main vocalists Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway (also from the Housemartins) croon impeccably throughout. Briana Corrigan ads her sweet voice occasionally (she later joined the group full time for their next two albums) to add a foil for these argumentative songs. Two songs that delve closest to the Housemartins’ roots would be two of the poppier numbers – “From Under the Covers” and “Oh Blackpool.” The latter attacks the snobbery within the copy cat fleeting world of fashion, while the former depicts a man who simply cannot get out of bed to join the corporate rat race over the top of an energetic gliding soundtrack that closes with fantastic vocal harmonies and a sparkling trumpet refrain. “Have You Ever Been Away?” tackles some politics and includes the following fighting words sung in a soulful falsetto: “I’m afraid your Rule Britannia mania doesn’t ring so true / if I was captain of the waves I’d turn the gun on you / any last requests before you join the dead? / I’ll crap into your Union Jack and wrap it round your head.” There are three epic songs here that all question the motives of love and all clearly land somewhere in the cynical side of things. The album opens with “Song for Whoever,” which is a genius pop song about writing love songs based on a series of soulless relationships. Paul Heaton sings prettily “I love you in the songs I write and sing….I wrote so many songs about you I forget your name,” but by the end the used women get their revenge. Later in “Love Is” we find Heaton once again questioning the motivation behind relationships. In this case he’s wondering if fame, power and money outweigh anything else when it comes to love and it all comes to a frantic end with the Heaton belting out the stolen Beatles line “She loves you yeah yeah yeah” repeatedly before turning it into “I love me yeah yeah yeah.” The album finishes with the nicely titled “I Love You (But You’re Boring).” The song opens with this verse: “Birds are singing in the trees / as we rise up on a beautiful morning / but I can’t hear / that beautiful sound / because I’m permanently yawning,” but makes one wonder which one in the couple is boring, because the one being sung about is constantly distracted and uninvolved. Along the way they also cover “Girlfriend” as made popular by US R&B artist Pebbles, which I had forgotten about. It seems like an odd choice at first, but it acts as the other side of the coin for the rest of the love songs within (“girlfriend, how could you let him treat you so bad”).

This album didn’t turn out to be my favorite from The Beautiful South, but it certainly launched a love affair I had with them for the next 16 years. The best are their first three albums, of which I lean towards their third, 1992’s 0898 with their second, 1990’s Choke being a close second. Once Brianna Corrigan left (partially, and not surprisingly, over the content of their sinister lyrics), they lost some of their spark. And even though they did find chart success in their homeland, I am amazed at how little of an impact they made here in the States. I highly recommend their work and long ago stopped feeling guilty about it.

(I wonder sometimes if I would've given this band a fair shake if I had seen this video first.)

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Yet another album I'll have to check out thanks to you! I remember those sad, lonely evenings in FG and I love the idea of you playing with the condoms in the waiting area. I'm certain someone got a kick out of it.

    I miss Crocodile - what a cool place to hang out (second only to Powell's in my opinion).

    Thanks for yet another stellar review of a band that means a lot to you.