Record Review: OMD – English Electric [tin – part 3]

Paul + Andy ©2013 Ed Fielding

Paul + Andy ©2013 Ed Fielding

When OMD returned in 2010 with “History Of Modern,” I couldn’t help but notice that “auxiliary vocalist” Paul Humphreys was sitting out the album, with none of his dulcet tones on the mic. This has been corrected with “English Electric” but the results are problematic. The mid-tempo ballad “Stay With Me” has all of the hallmarks of OMD at their worst while offering what sounds like a Listening Pool track afforded a little bit more nobility via the completely electronic sonic palette. Humphreys took the original McCluskey demo of this tune, and wrote completely new lyrics to it and I have to admit, that the end result is borderline soporific schlagerpop.

The lyrics are far more banal than the rest of the material on offer here. They’re not as bad as the previous album’s “If You Want It” but they veer uncomfortably close to such hackneyed sentiments. Nor do they fit in with the underlying emotional bitterness that factor in all of the other songs here. It’s simply a guy pleading for his partner not to leave. The oom-pah beat should have been beneath OMD but it rears its ugly head here… shamelessly. The one shining moment in the song is when the music bed drops out after the middle eight for yet another variation on the “Europe Endless” sequencer line to come foreground and add a bit of dignity to the proceedings. The resulting song is not a complete miss, but it is the closest thing to one on this decidedly consistent album.

“Dresden” marries jaunty OMD melodies to what sounds like a song about the breakup of McCluskey’s marriage. Interesting that he compares it to Dresden! The melody recalls “Sister Marie Says” from the last album a bit too much, but the lack of a chorus gives the song a breathless, propulsive quality that appeals to me in spite of that fact. McCluskey’s real bass guitar is also a welcome addition to this laptop-driven album. It sounds like the only time he uncased it was for this track. The tune’s riffage is redolent of Joe Meek’s “Telstar,” so how can I not ultimately capitulate to it? The song’s brisk tempo [the only one in this program of a dozen tracks] serves also to lift this song above the mid-tempo ballad morass that nips at the heels of this album.

The penultimate track is “Atomic Ranch” a glitchy interlude with the final appearance of the synthetic voices, which act like a geek chorus throughout “English Electric.”  The promised future that wasn’t delivered sounds like a Bill Nelson track that the band hijacked and put into a meat grinder. The animation for the video included on the DVD in this set looks like something Nelson would have killed for over the last 20 years. It’s nothing more than a generic Nelson cover given animation and a deeply bitter spin of cynicism.

I’m impressed that McCluskey gets the “sample an African American female singer” vibe spot on this time. “Sometimes” on the last album made me just cringe. I now have to skip it in playback. The eponymous”Final Song” works like a fiend for me. Possibly because the song they built the track upon isn’t a well known spiritual! The cut is strongly reminiscent of the 1993 B-side “The Place You Fear The Most.”

This new song is also a gentle electro-samba given a rhythmic underpinning by looped breath samples and it looks like the “B-side revisited” approach that saw “The Avenue” being used to build a new track like “New Holy Ground” on “History Of Modern” saw the “Dream Of Me” B-side being the inspiration for “Final Song.” In addition to the breath samples, a woman saying “uh-huh” and sounding not a million miles away from the similar hook on Book Of Love’s “boy” single. Finally, a woman saying “tick-tock” is dropped into the track at various points; the first time I’ve heard that particular hook used since The Boomtown Rats “Like Clockwork” back in 1978!

McCluskey’s singing is as gentle and lilting as he’s ever crooned, which makes the contrast between the vibe of the song and the lyrical content of this tune all the more vivid. Because on an album where the lyrical content is unremittingly bleak and bitter as it is [apart from the Humphreys track] “Final Song” really twists the knife in like he’s never done before with lyrics such as these.

“Bring out the dead when the plague has gone,
Toll the bell for the silent one
Kicking the dog that has done no wrong,
Spitting the words to the final song.

Break all the bones of the dying man,
Drink the blood from the poison can
Singing in the dark when the crowd has gone,
The empty words of the final song

Burn the pins in the voodoo doll,
Dripping lies and vitriol
Cursing the years that you stayed too long,
Singing the words of the final song” – Final Song

This is the track, apart from “Our System,” that I really want to grab and hold onto on this record. Sure, it sounds inspired by the earlier B-side, but as with “New Holy Ground” on the last album, the new attention carefully given an old idea really bore fruit here and was well worth the time and effort.  More importantly, these two tracks leap off the super-homogenized sound of this album to come to a more vivid life. All of the songs here are earworms to varying degrees, but “Our System” and particularly “Final Song,” sound more interesting in that they differ greatly from the limited sonic palette the band pursued on this album. The lack of sonic variety adds to the sense of cohesion and uniformity, but at some cost of novelty. Personally, I like a wider variety of sounds to make up an album, though your mileage may vary.

Next: …You have entered the bonus level…

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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One Response to Record Review: OMD – English Electric [tin – part 3]

  1. Echorich says:

    I have to admit that I did not have the same critical reaction to many of the tracks which you take to task on English Electric. I’m not arguing that your opinion is out of line – a band like OMD will always have very large shoes to fill with every new release. They also will always, no matter how much we try, have their new material compared to the highs and lows of their earlier material.
    For this reason I chose to just let English Electric wash over me and not disect it. I can hear much of what you describe when I analyse each track, but I have to admit that I am totally in love with Metroland, Night Cafe and Helen of Troy. Final Song is one of the band’s finest moments in my mind.

    Like

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