Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 69]

simple-minds---big-music-2Simple Minds | Big Music – 3.5

[continued from previous post]

For the sake of argument, let me state that the second disc in the deluxe edition of “Big Music” ended up having no bearing on the rating that I gave the album. The single disc version would be ranked the same, but it’s not that there wasn’t worthy material on the second disc. Far from it! It’s just the fact that the two sterling songs were surrounded by middling to fair material. In the sense that there are no longer any B-sides to be had out in the wild, the appending of outtakes to a deluxe version of a disc for a few dollars more can be seen as a nod in the direction of the functions that singles used to fulfill in the Old World. In one respect, this paradigm is preferable, since the 2xCD edition cost only another $10 or so for six more tracks… on a CD. Even in the Old World, import singles would have put at least a $30-60 dent in my wallet to get that much extra music.

The rehabilitation of “Our Secrets Are The Same” continued apace here with the re-commitment of Kevin Hunter’s “Swimming Towards The Sun” as track that just didn’t fit the flow of the album proper. The new version has the sheen of “Big Music” overall with a typically fussy production that threatens to teeter across the line into overwork, but overall, represents a big step forward for this song. The original was tolerable as a piece of writing, but hampered by the performance and recording of it back in 1999. Jim Kerr, as usual, made some lyrical changes in a cover of a song he didn’t write, but these were also improvements. The heroin references of the original were replaced with a less harsh couplet in the song’s opening.

“The neon lights are burning bright
Darkness fades into the night
I’m swimming towards the sun” – Swimming Towards The Sun [2]

Not bad. The atmosphere was still thick and dark but not squalid, and Jim Kerr’s vocal performance didn’t sound so smacked out. He comes close to slurring his delivery on the original in a most fraudulent fashion. But the next track, “Bittersweet” – a Kerr/Burchill number, was even better. Like almost everything here, there were noise and texture loops aplenty filling the sound out and the motorik drum/rhythm box loops work well against the languid guitar licks that Charlie Burchill contributes to the mix. This could have been on the album instead of the title track and I’d have called it a winning move.

“Liason” makes one wonder what they were smoking at Simple Minds central when they relegated this track to the deluxe version. This was one of the finest tracks that Kerr and Burchill had written in ages! This was one of two pieces from the Steve Hillage sessions of 2010 that managed to survive the stately four year cooking process of “Big Music” and Hillage was credited here for additional programming, thought the production was by Wright + Goldberg.

This track featured an impressive chorused synth hook that wouldn’t quit juxtaposed against Burchill’s atypically clean guitar lines that evoked the American West. The minor key melody of this one draws the listener in as if to say “it’s 1981 all over again… and The Breakfast Club never happened.” This track did sport one element that always stuck out like a sore thumb to my ear. An oscillating synth loop that figures throughout the song seemed out of place in a song this strong. More than anything, it called attention to the heavy reliance of the album on samples and loops. I know that they go down that road. They do it better than their peers, if you ask me, and it’s preferable to the bland rock bereft of such that they proffered in the last half of the 80s, but it did sound cheap. Especially in a song of this quality. As much as I thought of “Blindfolded,” I liked this one even more.

In the Simple Minds fan community, there are many points that are groused about regularly, but none as vigorously as that band’s contemporary penchant for cover tunes! This is seen as a crippling weakness by many, and I can’t say that I couldn’t join that chorus myself. When the track listing was revealed for this album, no track attracted as much negative attention as did the mention of The Doors chestnut “Riders On The Storm.” I was certainly not looking forward to it. The song was one I liked in my childhood when it scaled the Top 40 charts in 1972, but by a decade later I went off The Doors in a big way. My beef was with the singer. After reading excerpts from the Danny Sugarman book I realized that Jim Morrison was a creep and no amount of Ray Manzarek keyboards could overcome that stigma now cast on the group.

With that caveat explained, I have to say that while I would prefer a universe where Simple Minds would never think of covering The Doors, the results here were less painful than they could have been. Jim Kerr has spoken of performing at a concert a few years back, where he pulled the phrase “Riders In The Storm” into the freestyling flow of his singing and he noted that the crowd lost it, so he filed that away as a future action item. After all, one has to do anything to satisfy a paying audience, right?

To his benefit, and ours as well, Kerr described this take on the hoary Rock Classic as the band’s “Frankie Goes To Hollywood” take on the song, and I have to say that he’s spot on in his assessment. It really does have that sort of feel, and goodness knows it played out so much better than FGTH’s actual cover of “Roadhouse Blues,” another “L.A. Woman” track that’s 43 years old. Only in the keyboard’s reliance on reverbed Fender Rhodes patches straight out of the original was this version anything but more sleeker and energetic. Best of all, they whittled the track down to a svelte 3:46! That’s almost a minute shorter than the 7″ edit of the original! It’s over before boredom threatens to turn over into hostility.

Then, another cover popped up in the program. This time it was another stab at Patti Smith’s venerable “Dancing Barefoot,” which had figured previously on 2001’s “Neon Lights” cover album. It had even been released as a single, but the difference this time was huge. For a start, Jim Kerr did not sing the song. Instead, backing vocalist Sarah Brown took the mic. For a start, it always boggled my mind at how many men wanted to cover this song, which is steeped in Yin as much as anything in my Record Cell. Never the less, U2, The Mission, Xymox, and Simple minds have all taken their shot at it. The results were listenable, but one was always asking “why did they bother” afterward.

Ms. Brown did a good job at singing this in a unique and enjoyable fashion. She is an attractive singer who has the taste and ability to make this song her own, and therein lay the crux of the problem. Specifically; one could play this for a Simple Minds fan who did not know about it, and there is almost no chance that even a hardcore fan could identify it as a Simple Minds track without Kerr singing. It reveals the distance that the band have moved from having an identifiable “sound” that comes from being an integrated and self-contained to being products of production instead of a band. More on this later.

Finally, as of to underscore the importance of production and arrangement in the struggle to make albums, the second disc closes with an alternate take of “Blindfolded [reprise].” It’s not so much a reprise as it was a dramatically different take of the incredible song that had opened disc one. One which sounded drab and uninteresting. Oh, it still featured acoustic guitar prominently against synths, but the clunky percussion loops and twee synth patches that drive this mule train over rocky terrain were a far cry from the sleek sounds from the autobahn to be found on version prime. As if to show that as much as “Liason” was a triumph from the Hillage sessions, this track was here to show otherwise. Wright + Goldberg immeasurably burnished the song in its later incarnation, showing that the song is not everything. Just the seed of a record.

Next: …Looking Back At “Big Music” after Six Months

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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6 Responses to Rock G.P.A.: Simple Minds [part 69]

  1. zoo says:

    I haven’t heard the bonus CD, but I did find “Liason” and “Bittersweet” on YouTube. They could have swapped out “Let The Day Begin” and “Blood Diamonds” and it would have been a stronger album, IMO. “Liason” is especially impressive, and I’m as perplexed as you that it didn’t make the album proper.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      zoo – All the more puzzling since they are playing it as the first song on their encore on their UK tour right now! It was a huge wasted opportunity not having it on the basic album.

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      • Echorich says:

        I hope there isn’t a future revisionism that finds Liaison and Bittersweet remade/remodeled and on another release. Live, SM should take advantage of the beauty that is the John Foxx + The Maths’ remix/remodel of Blood Diamonds. It would be risky and terrifyingly beautiful to translate it live.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Echorich – Then again, with the band encompassing “electroset” material in their sets, like the synth-heavy instro demo arrangement of “Speed Your Love To Me” [as seen/heard on “Celebrate: Live At The SSE Hydro”] this is hardly unlikely! Even now, their UK tour features the synth arrangement of the “White Hot Day” demo version with Ged Grimes nailing it on Chapman Stick! Be careful for what you ask for… you just might get it!

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  2. Echorich says:

    Yes, Swimming Towards The Sun is certainly rehab’d here, but it’s now possibly the most (only) Goth track Simple Minds has ever made.
    Bittersweet is not miles away from Swimming, but more successful in portraying atmosphere.
    Liaison is the Deluxe Edition’s gem! It’s confident and, dare I say, youthful. I have to agree Monk, here we have a superior moment in the SM catalogue! None of Simple Minds’ contemporaries, my favorite Echo And The Bunnymen included, have written a track this strong in 20 years. It makes me wonder how much more adventurous some of the other Hillage may have been.
    Riders On The Storm is given a Simple Minds musical signature, but it’s not track that take the band anywhere, or that the band can really take anywhere.
    Dancing Barefoot has an interesting, minimal, tribal, house feel to it. Sarah Brown ups the darkness with a lot of confidence, but in the end it just seems like a way to show that Brown is an integral component of “the band.”
    Blindfolded (reprise) twists the motorik goodness of the primary version, but I don’t dislike the kitchen sink production values here. If Spirited Away is the real final track of Big Music, this is a worthy end to the second/deluxe disc.
    I agree in the end. Big Music is a 3.5 – flawed beauty, grace and power.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – “Dancing Barefoot,” now that I think of it, had more than a whiff of “Human Behavior” to it, didn’t it? BM could have been better, but flawed as it was, I still find it a really solid album. More on the details later.

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