When I imagine the next step this band might take in their long and winding career, the notion of returning to the vibe of the early music has already been done. It’s yielded reasonably strong material that has come to rely on outside writers since there’s only so much that Jim and Charlie feel they can do alone. Since they are already splitting the royalties with non-band members, could they do much worse than actually writing material as a fighting unit once again? Anyone who has seen them playing with Ged Grimes knows the man has it in him to pick up the bass clef from Derek Forbes and run with it. Right now, they are playing the demo [instrumental] arrangement of “White Hot Day” in concert and it sure looks like Grimes is playing a Chapman Stick. Have I ever heard this most fascinating instrument on an actual Simple Minds record? For Pete’s sake, someone let this man do what he does best in the actual studio! Jim Kerr has posted on their website that Grimes had submitted demos to the band recently and that this is being publicized suggests good potential.
Mel Gaynor is a powerhouse drummer of the Bonham school [theoretically] unleashed in a band that is nothing like Led Zeppelin. This offers a plethora of paradoxical potential and possibilities* as generated by the dissimilar characteristics that each bring to bear on the music, and yet… the current album only sounds as if actual drumming occurred on a handful of tracks. This situation should change. Elsewhere, six year veteran Sarah Brown doesn’t look to be going anywhere and she had a good foothold on the new album, but the use of samples were there could have been infinitely more vibrant live singing on the title cut could have only helped.
• Sorry! I couldn’t resist! It’s my blog and I’ll alliterate if I want to…
They have brought Catherine AD into the fold for live shows on this tour as a triple threat with guitar, vocals, and keys among her duties, but having just sampled her solo recordings on iTunes, I am not convinced that there is a place for this singer-songwriter within Simple Minds. That she saw fit to cover a Fleetwood Mac song [“Landslide”] on her “Reprise” cover album of 2012 and it was even more soporific than the original [complete with the “lullabye” Fender Rhodes electric piano patch that I hate more than any sound a keyboard can make] gives me great pause.
Prior to 15 minutes ago, I would have given her the benefit of the doubt and would have argued that integrating her into the writing process on the next album would be a good thing, but now, I think not. Mr. Kerr, if you’re reading, please let this woman go at the end of her contract. I like the idea of more yin energy in the band something fierce; the promo pic above looks extremely healthy. What I hear on her solo work [and her Dark Flowers tracks] is exactly what I don’t like or want from Simple Minds. If they want to have another female member, they should follow the example of John Foxx; the grand old man of electro who is showing them all how it’s done these days.
When Foxx formed The Maths with Benge in 2009, for live performance they added Hannah Peel and Sarafina Steer to the group to a spectacular effect. Ms. Peel was known for her music box recording and Ms. Steer was a harpist. Now that is thinking outside of the box! So when it came to integrating other performers [who happened to have an x chromosome] into the creativity of the band, Foxx has clearly outscored Simple Minds. In another significant regard, Foxx has come up trumps. Specifically, in the recording of his music. John Foxx + The Maths are known for their reliance on actual, analog synths. They use digital technology in the mixing and editing of their music, but they are playing actual instruments. This makes their music sound really strong to have that sort of power surging through their arrangements and sounds instead of anemic soft synths.
The ease of use and convenience of soft synths is an all too effortless a trap to fall into. It’s one that has managed to snare another band I love, OMD, and in their case, I think it compromises their work a bit more than it does with Simple Minds. In OMD’s case, it was the sound of what they did that was a major component of the band’s appeal for me. With Simple Minds, it was more their arrangements and playing that pulled me in. And when Simple Minds make laptop rock, at least I know it’s the furthest thing from what I dislike from them the most; bloated stadium rock! But that’s not to say that actually having the band play as a unit in the studio could not work wonders. This was their greatest strength in my eyes. This happened during the recording of “Graffiti Soul” and the vibe it gave that album stands head and shoulders above “Big Music” for my ears, though I like the material even more on the latter album. Maybe the next album will veer back in this direction again as a reaction to how the new album was made.
I think that if Simple Minds were to once again become a living, breathing band, instead of the Jim and Charlie show [plus guests] that they would be astounded at the quality and commitment of what happens when four to six integrated musicians learn to function as a single, colonial organism. With all of the touring that they do, it should be lighting creative fires if the spark is still there to the extent that an album like “Big Music” indicates. I hope that I’m not sounding churlish. What Simple Minds have achieved in the last dozen years is nothing to sneeze at. They are making strong, if not groundbreaking new albums in their mid-fifties; nothing to sneeze at. They are near the head of their class when compared to their peers who are still active. They are making subtle advancement towards artistic ideals but I’m getting older as well. I’m getting impatient with the sense that this band is still holding something back that they might be able to deliver were it not for the fact that they seem to have a bad habit of hedging their bets.
Could it be for money? I hope not. Scuttlebutt has it that Mr. Kerr is worth serious millions. Not Paul McCartney territory…but no one would complain. I’d like to think that at the end of the day it’s all about the challenge of creating something exciting for him, his band, and his audience. Could it be for fame? Pandering to get a wider audience is the error in judgement that Kerr has been honestly kicking against for a long time now, and with positive results. In a typically frank interview in The Guardian a few years back at the time of 5×5, he speaks about the tinge of regret that nags at him on this issue. The ship’s rudder is pointed in the right direction, but if the sails were trimmed correctly, the good ship Simple Minds could cover a lot of territory much more effectively.
I’d like to see more than two albums a decade from this lot. At the rate they’re going now, they have maybe two albums left in them. From 1997 to 2015, they have released eight albums: one [technically] unreleased, and two of them being covers. Meanwhile, in the same time period John Foxx has released forty two albums and EPs. I’ve left out singles and compilations. After a twelve year layoff beginning in the mid-80s, he’s returned to music more committed to his art than anyone this side of Bill Nelson! Are they all world class projects? No, but the breadth of his experimentation and collaboration all feed back into his muse and yes, at the age of 61 he began releasing what I consider to be his best work yet with a vigor that belies his current age of 67. What I wouldn’t give for just a fraction of that drive in Simple Minds.
More than anything, I would want for the band to reclaim the reckless spirit of adventure that saw them synthesizing exciting, yet disparate threads of creativity in the face of the initial public indifference that was the response to them creating their own realm early on in their career. The chemistry of the original band won’t ever be exactly as it was, but as Foxx has showed, it is theoretically possible to trump even one’s salad days late in life with the right people. I believe that Kerr and Burchill have the goods to give their all and still really impress me. Their rhythm section is undeniably excellent, and Andy Gillespie has, at 13 years, surpassed the time that Mike McNeil put into the band even though it’s only resulted in him recording three albums with Simple Minds. He seems to be more of a programmer than a player, though.
The question is: do they have the will to commit to achieving excellence again, or will they let them selves be governed by ego, fear, or money? They have tantalizingly edged closer to this goal over the recent years, which gives me hope, but time is growing shorter. Their legacy, once tarnished, has been buffed considerably in contemporary years and it represents a successful effort on their part. I think that it’s still possible that they can take their level of achievement once more into the realm of the spectacular even though the band has changed dramatically over the decades.
While the brand of Simple Minds carries on into the 21st century, in reality, it’s a bit of a con. The band, as I consider it, died at the end of the Street Fighting Years tour, and that was perhaps the kindest thing that could have happened at that point. The entity that exists now is for all intents and purposes Jim Kerr solo material, abetted by the steadfast Charlie Burchill in playing, if not always in writing. That it still offers me something that I can take with me after 34 years of fandom [marked by roughly a decade of indifference in the middle] makes for a compelling story that few bands can come close to offering me. The last dozen years of work all pass the “virgin ears” test with varying degrees of flying colors. That is to say, if any of these albums were the first I’d encountered by the group, I would make the effort to hear more. This is the coldest test of worth that I can apply, since I have many albums by this band which summarily fail this trial.
This suggests that there is still creative gasoline in the band’s tank, though it now leans on individuals outside the band for sustainment. Fortunately, their decisions with whom to collaborate with in writing have been successful, apart from early attempts with Kevin Hunter or Mark Kerr. But the writing sessions in 2009 with Iain Cook of CHVRCHES are not likely to be repeated. Those happened as Cook was still busy forming that now successful group, and I’m pretty certain that he’s not waiting around for any calls from Jim Kerr. That means that new creative DNA must be hunted down by Kerr on a regular basis. One doesn’t get the idea that Burchill has the wherewithal to do the same. So far, so good. Mr. Kerr’s taste has not betrayed him and I await their next move with interest.
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