|McAlmont & Butler/|
Fun Lovin' Criminals/
Future Sound Of London
[The Mail On Sunday, 2002]
McALMONT & BUTLER
BRING IT BACK
FUN LOVIN' CRIMINALS
BAG OF HITS
FUTURE SOUND OF LONDON
AMORPHOUS ANDROGYNOUS: THE ISNESS
SOME PEOPLE are born collaborators. And I don't just mean the French. There are certain musicians who, working on their own or with subordinates, can never coax out that crucial spark generated by scraping up against an equal. Generally, the more friction between the two, the more remarkable the results. Lennon and McCartney. Morrissey and Marr. Rene and Renata. . . and who's heard a peep from either of them since they parted company?
McAlmont and Butler fit the pattern to an ornately curlicued T. In tandem with Brett Anderson, Bernard Butler made the first and best Suede records. Unintentionally hilarious those may have been, but they displayed all the punch and pizzazz so sorely lacking in Butler's own drab, blokey records, which were to Neil Young what a shagpile rug is to a grizzly bear.
David McAlmont was half of a band called Thieves, whose only album (effectively purloined to launch McAlmont as a soloist in 1994) was a finely wrought - often overwrought - delicacy. It contained, in Unworthy, one of the most sublime lost singles of the Nineties. McAlmont was ahead of his time, not so much musically as culturally. His persona as a singer and lyricist, that of a gay butterfly enraptured with his own flamboyance and riven by emotional crises, might serve him well were he starting out today, although the originality of his talent would count against him.
McAlmont's subsequent output was dispiritingly bland, the kind of soulless soul which padded out the charts at the time, but shifted few units on his behalf. The high point of his career, commercially and artistically, has been his joint effort with Butler on 1995's spectacular, Spectoresque hit, Yes. Until now.
Following a prolonged and waspish rift, the duo have made their second album. Bring It Back resembles a sit-down dinner in which every course is dessert. Not merely dessert, but thumping great, sticky slabs of pudding and lavish, cherry-festooned coupes. The songs are expertly confected. Each partner has brought out the other's innate theatricality: Butler's, a fondness for chunky guitars and even heftier arrangements; McAlmont's, a gift for vocal rococo and extravagant flourishes.
The album is a style-hopper. Butler gives the rub to his Suede touchstone, the superior glam-rock of Bowie and Bolan. McAlmont's falsetto echoes Curtis Mayfield, faintly, and disco queen supreme Sylvester, strongly. Bring It Back comes closest in atmosphere to an early Seventies funk soundtrack, as exemplified by Isaac Hayes's melodramatic Shaft, and signalled here by a walloping, wah-wah-fuelled opener entitled Theme From. It's everything their solo work should have been but wasn't. If this is what happens when Butler's notorious petulance suffers an attack of McAlmont's vapours, they should fall out more often.
That contentment is good for the soul but bad for art is borne out by October Road, the new album from James Taylor. Over thirty years ago, Taylor - who was afflicted by mental illness, alcoholism and heroin addiction - cloaked his gnawing malaise in a mellow, folksy sound. He recorded a clutch of excellent albums which, if lachrymose, were nonetheless affecting, and which touched several million nerves among America's self-absorbed Me generation.
Surprised to find himself still alive, Taylor went clean in the mid Eighties. Since then his music has become progressively more positive, serene and, alas, insipid. The darker and more plaintive qualities which rescued Sweet Baby James or the undervalued One Man Dog from mawkishness are long gone. That Taylor is grateful for every day he spends above ground is both fair and commendable. He's certainly given enough pleasure to others to deserve some happiness of his own. But I won't be listening to October Road again.
Fun Lovin' Criminals' best-of CD, Bag Of Hits, is highly enjoyable, with the emphasis on “high”. FLC's existence could be summed up as an attempt to distil the pop-savvy gangster cool of a Tarantino film into sound. Their biggest hit, Scooby Snacks, an unlikely account of drugged-up bank raids, tapped directly into the motherlode by sampling dialogue from Pulp Fiction - which, along with Reservoir Dogs, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now and every biker movie ever made, should be banned from mixing desks for good.
FLC don't need to hammer home the point. Their combination of languid hip hop, rhythm guitar and latin lounge music does the job perfectly well. King Of New York, Scooby Snacks and Love Unlimited stand out from this collection as minor classics, but the whole enchilada plays smoothly from start to finish without a bum note.
Future Sound Of London rank with The Orb as pioneers of ambient techno, and their wayward progress has never been less than intriguing. They may have come up with the daftest title of the year, but they've attached it to a very unusual and satisfying album. Amorphous Androgynous: The Isness is essentially a psychedelic primer covering almost four decades, melting direct pastiches of The Beatles, Pink Floyd and sundry lesser lights into FSOL's more customary wobbly electronica. It's fun to play spot-the-reference (Steve Harley? Kenny Rogers & First Edition? The Thamesmen?), but this record is much more than a muso guessing game or worthy experiment. Unlike many would-be alternatives to the ever more debilitated mainstream, FSOL don't consider it a sin to be easy on the ear. They're no puritans. Rather, their taste for the baroque and the eclectic could be classified as, in both senses, Catholic.
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