Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 67]

simple minds - bigmusicDLXUKCDASimple Minds | Big Music – 3.5

It began with “Blindfolded,”featuring a humming europulse intro, noise guitar loops, and a driving motorik beat. The vibe is 2014 via 1981 in that not only does the energy touch on “Sons + Fascination” era Simple Minds, but the chunky acoustic guitars cheek-by-jowl with humming synths reference the Pete Shelley classic “Homosapien.” Indeed, one can sing the song’s verses effortlessly to the backing track! It’s a dazzling cocktail but most intriguing of all were Jim Kerr’s opaque lyrics, his best in years, albeit more linear on the song’s chorus. The track slots in familiar ground with the last three Simple Minds albums in that its best song was right up front as the  album opener, something Kerr was cognizant of when he made the decision to topload the album with this track  as a statement of intent instead of something more obvious.

Reassuring shards of angular, Burchill chords at outro assure my ears that they still have sight of their strengths amid all of the modern production by Steve Osborne.  I didn’t recognize the name and when I did the research, I discovered amid the list of artists I didn’t even recognize, that I only had one other album from his CV. But what an album it was; Suede’s “Head Music,” the album that finally won me over into raving fandom after years of resistance and one that obsessed me for many months of 1999! There were two albums in the last 16 years that I literally could not stop playing over and over; “Head Music” and OMD’s “History Of Modern.”

The spherical, Berlin school of “Midnight Walking” featured an intro over soft washes of synth actually recalls the sound of Enya’s “Watermark” album and not Tangerine Dream, until the harbingers of ‘big music’ make their first appearance on the album; seriously gated drums. The synth bass syncopates with the keyboard envelopes that output a steady sine wave of propulsive hooks. The song’s “hi-hi-hi” chorus hook dips its toe into the same waters that made DYFAM such a hit, but this track manages to have its cake and eat it too as it stays on the subtler half of the platform. Kerr lyrics obliquely refer to human displacement that could fit both homeless people or masses of people such as the Occupy movement. He wisely leave it open to the listener’s interpretation. The throb of this number sticks like glue in my mind, and right now, almost five months later, it’s still coursing through my brain on heavy rotation right now, so I guess that’s a job well done, seeing as how it’s the third “single” from the new album.

Simple Minds - honesttownCDRThe subtle intro of “Honest Town” seemed hardly the stuff of a lead single until the laid back sequencer riff [echoing the more frenetic random wave that opened “Love Song”] begins. Listening to it, one notices the funky groove that occurs when the notes syncopate against their echoed ghosts on a wide delay*. In the buildup to the first chorus, the swell of the synths heralds the motorik beat that recalls the sturdy, classic 4/4 stomp from True Faith.” Sometimes, simple is best. Heavily effected Burchill guitar cuts like a serrated blade against the forward moving grain of the song. Producer Andy Wright and Gavin Goldberg’s restraint with the impact they could have slathered over this number allows this excellent track, wisely picked to the the album’s lead single, room to breathe. This allows Kerr’s voice and lyrics [the title came from something his dying mother said to him in her final days] plenty of space to occupy with little in the way of vocal production to distract from the emotional core of the song. The synth bass was also kept in the background at a modest level; a reminder that not everything on this album needed to be “big music”

* Hmm – That sounds like a John Foxx lyric!

Speaking of which, the title track was mooted early on to be the leadoff single instead of “Honest Town.” This was rectified before it happened since “Big Music” is the most turgid thing here by a long shot. The intro was deceptively subtle until the gated drums began stomping all over it. The addition of Sarah Brown samples manipulated in a DAW only added to the overbearing synthetic feel of this track. More than anything here, it is a product of the computer era of production that Simple Minds have embraced over the last twenty years. I was shocked that Wright + Goldberg produced this coming right off of their wonderfully subdued “Honest Town.” The groove is all dry, methodical and overblown, but the lyrical theme of the song doesn’t help any either, being a leftover retread of the far more exciting “Night Music” from “Good News From The Next World.” Whereas “Night Music” is a spectacular musing on the mystery and power of music, this just sits there like a lead lump; bellowing in your ear like an obnoxious drunkard.

“Give me the tunes the ones that the brass play
Bring up the bass that makes the fantasy” – Big Music

That is the biggest howler of a lyric that Jim Kerr has committed to disc in decades. It doesn’t help that he twists the pronunciation of “fantasy” to something like “fant-ay-zee” to attempt making it rhyme with “play.” It’s as awkward a couplet as I’ve ever heard, and invoking the horror of “Haysi Fantayzee” was a huge misstep. Even if it did rhyme [and it doesn’t] it’s a far cry from his heyday. Forget his heyday! It’s absolutely a far cry from the caliber of just the first three songs already heard from this disc, which were all exemplary late period Simple Minds material.

Their muse got back on track with the poppiest number on this album, the bubbly “Human.” Kerr stated that when Charlie Burchill brought the melody, already named, to him, he carefully pondered whether the world needed another song named “Human,” but he cracked the case admirably. It’s more than enough to suppress painful memories of The Human League’s greatest folly. I appreciate the light touch that this song adds to the flow of the album. At this point, I realized that this was to be a Simple Minds album in the mold of “Cry,” whose eclecticism really won me over in 2002. This track was so steeped in pop, that Kerr dared to sing “la-las” in the song’s outro, but the evocation of DYFAM was honorable enough for me. It’s a much fresher tune.

Then, a familiar song appeared in the album’s flow. “Blood Diamonds” was released the year prior on the “Celebrate” compilation as a new track, but it also appeared here as well, albeit in a different mix. The tune had been given another injection of fizzy pop DNA by producers Wright + Goldberg. The song was definitely a great number in any case, as Kerr had revealed that the song; penned with Iain Cook of CHVRCHES and pegged for the stillborn Lostboy 2 project, before Charlie and Steve Osborne thought that it was ripe for “Big Music.”

The heavily chorused and reverbed synth hooks are as light as air, and the envelope on Kerr’s vocals adds a bit of distance, but the strength of the tune is definitely in his crooning vocals and the lyrics, which surprised me since with a title like that, I expected a heavy handed protest number at worst. What was delivered was, as Kerr put it to Martin Hanlin, was the band’s attempt at a Bowie-Does-Walker vibe, though it’s a bit more effervescent than that in terms of overall production. Kerr’s vocals do hit the mark rather well, though. I still need to hear the 2013 version of this number, since I have yet to buy my copy of the 3xCD version of “Celebrate.”

Next: …Third Time Lucky

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2 Responses to Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 67]

  1. ianbalentine says:

    Glad someone else thinks the title track should have been taken outside and shot. “Turgid” is exactly the right word to describe it. I agree with the rest of your assessment as well, quite a great album, best in years from SM, and an album I’m still discovering. The shot you show of the cover is of the “Deluxe” box version, isn’t it? I hope you’re going to tell us that it didn’t add much, because I had both the standard and the deluxe in my hands on the day of release and decided to go with the standard. I think I’m going to regret that one, just as I did for OMD’s newest when it was released.

    Oh, and as a side note, I really rate Head Music as well, although I fear we are in the minority. I do like Coming Up better, but it’s close! If you don’t have it you should seek out the 2 cd/1DVD version of HM, it’s quite complete, and includes lots of goodies from that era of Suede. Cheers!

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  2. Echorich says:

    On their two previous studio albums, SM front loaded the most ambitious and the most mass appealing tracks to get things going. That they had a depth of riches to expand that two 3 tracks on Big Music says a great deal about this album.
    Blindfolded is an instantly classic Simple Minds song that sits easily on any retrospective compilation playlist I can imagine. It trades in their classic musical forward motion, allowing the track to soar. Here it’s a bullet train hurtling through urban jungles and far flung pastures, but the fell is familiar and satisfying beyond belief.
    Midnight Walking ventures into that classic upfront rhythm section with synths and guitar stabs and shards bouncing off it like so many sparks of brilliance. Kerr doesn’t attempt to outmuscle the rhythm section and thus succeeds in making his vocals an integral texture of the song. When Burchill finally pulls up to the front of the rhythmic train and unleashes his guitar it makes for an exciting, almost chaotic coda to bring the song to an end.
    Honest Town is the Modern Simple Minds at its finest. Kerr sings with a mature level of sincerity which has replaced some of the youthful wonder of the past. Musically the song takes a number of cues from NDG and SITR era Simple Minds, that provides the songs power and mystery.
    Then there’s Big Music. I think I can see what they were going for here, but it’s just an unsuccessful song. The production is was really lets the track down. There’s a “kitchen sink” approach to the sound which ends up making it messy – may I say “grungy” safely now? It’s interesting that instead of it being a drawn out affair, I find that it seems to end quickly enough that I don’t dwell on the track.
    Oddly, Human, which follows, is a much “bigger” sounding song. This is Simple Minds in Pop Anthem mode. The bass is thrown out front once again to play with the guitar and synth. The anchoring is left to Mel Gibson’s drums which get their fare due towards the end.
    Now we come to the first of my real complaints with Big Music. Blood Diamonds is possibly one of Simple Minds’ most beautiful love songs – a genre they have never been know for but can really do magic with. Here, a decision was made to remake and “expand” on the version released on the Celebrate compilation. But this expanded production gets in the way of the song. The bass and drums are muddy and some of the new synth fills are just unremarkable. I can’t be completely sure, but I think even Kerr’s vocals are re-recorded and somewhat less subtle. It is still a wonderful, wonderful song, but it’s lost some of its impact on this album version for me.

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