Record Review: Stephen Emmer – International Blue

L-R: Neil Crossley, Midge Ure, Glenn Gregory, Stephen Emmer, Liam MacKahey

L-R: Neil Crossley, Midge Ure, Glenn Gregory, Stephen Emmer, Liam MacKahey

I had written almost a year ago about this project, and in late December, after a few sales from the Record Cell, I was able to get an order in for the CD from Stephen Emmer’s sumptuous “International Blue” project at Pledge Music. I’ve had my copy since January, and though I’ve had much in the way of Simple Minds and the 80 or so titles from last year’s vacation purchases to listen to this year, this one has held my attention consistently with its cup brimming over with success in its ambitions. To wit: an attempt to resurrect the mythic adult pop of the late 60s [think Scott 1-4] with a handful of singer’s singers and master producer Tony Visconti in the captain’s chair.

stephen emmer - internationalblueCDA

Electric Fairytale Recordings | US | CD | 2014

Stephen Emmer: International Blue [2014]

  1. Let The Silence Hold You
Taking Back My Time
  3. Blown Away
Sleep For England
Song For A Deserted Wife
  7. Seachange
Break In The Weather
Mama’s Mad
In The Mirror Reflected
  11. Blown Away [instrumental]
  12. In The Mirror Reflected [instrumental]
  13. Untouchable [live]
  14. Sleep For England [featuring Julian Lennon]

In a matter of speaking, this album succeeds with flying colors, as long as those colors are the Reflex Blue of the album’s minimal cover art. The whole project, though co-written by Emmer with each of his singers, is positively steeped in an adult melancholy that once flowed from the pens of Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb during their heydays. This is not the work of boys. This is a manly expression of sentiments that has been given a rich canvas of cinematic symphonic invention with which to absorb its dark, rich emotional hues. Glenn Gregory contributed four songs and while “Let The Silence Hold You” shows the singer adopting a variation on the Anthony Newley approach that informed much of the Bowie canon, the previously embedded “Untouchable” is the masterwork here, with Gregory in full baritone crooner mode to stunning effect. The instrumentation offered by Emmer is of the no expense spared variety, with the sort of strings, brass, and full acoustic ornamentation that was once commonplace in studios like Abbey Road, where Visconti plied his trade for this project. The one track that has concessions to modernity would be Gregory’s “Break In The Weather” where the trip-hop inspired middle eight is conspicuous in its presence. Elsewhere, slight filigree of synth glitch noise at the near-subliminal level eddy and flow throughout the project to lend a subtle reminder that it is indeed a product of the 21st century.

The presence of Midge Ure on one track “Taking Back My Time” was a rare example of Ure giving into his MOR tendencies that worked because of the care and attention that Emmer brought to the arrangement. This let Ure free to concentrate on his lyrics and singing performance, while Visconti took the music to another level. The result was a bittersweet breakup ballad that was a sterling example of the MOR songform that manages to soar where Ure’s own forays into the form [see “If I Was”] were dead in the water.

While Gregory and Ure were the known quantities here, I had not previously heard the other two vocalists in the project. Liam MacKahey was a fresh voice from Cousteau, a band that I had not even heard of until this album. MacKahey’s first cut here, “Blown Away” certainly lived up to its name! Now this is the powerful baritone crooning that can slay at 200 yards! Scott Walker to the white courtesy phone. When Vanessa Contenay appeared to give a sprechtgesang twist to the songs dramatic bridge, spoken in French, the ghost of Serge Gainsbourg was surely nodding in approval at the results. Listen for yourself, below.

By the time that track had played, I was in orbit. Then came another singer I had not heard before, and when I heard Neil Crossley [Furlined] sing “Sleep For England,” I was slack-jawed at the gorgeous results. At first the barely there string section channeled the intro to “The Electrician” and that alone was enough to set the short hairs on end. Then the piano of Emmer and crooning of Crossley began and they caress the song so tenderly that it would surely melt the heart of a Cossack! I can not get this song out of my mind for days on end after hearing it! Listen below… if you dare.

When songs of this caliber drop, the bar gets raised to cloud level. That Gregory can follow a song like “Sleep For England” is down to the fact that his song “Untouchable” is also at a Master’s level of accomplishment. That it functions as a subtle tribute to their friend Billy MacKenzie only makes it that much more poignant. Both Gregory and Emmer, who worked with the mercurial Scot genius on his song “Wish On” in 1983 have legitimate ties to MacKenzie, who, were he still with us, would have definitely been featured on this album.

Side two ebbs somewhat in the intensity of the overall vibe, but Crossley’s “Sea Change” was a dramatic march that crossbred the sturm und drang of Roxy Music’s “Bitter Sweet” with the middle eight giving in to the piano hook from [gasp] Elton John’s “Benny + The Jets” most effortlessly. MacKahey’s two numbers show a willingness to divert the conventional romantic theme of “Blown Away” to encompass the reach that Scott Walker brought to his songwriting of the late 60s. The kitchen sink melodrama of “Song For A Deserted Wife,”would be a fit for the pen of Marc Almond and “Mama’s Mad” was a minimal eco-ballad, the likes of which I’d never heard before.

The album closes with Glenn Gregory’s “In The Mirror Reflected,” which turned out to be a song with a fantastic re-write of the “To Sir With Love” melodic chorus hook from Emmer with much better lyrics from Gregory. I’d swear that’s his pal Midge Ure on the breathy backing vocals there. Strangely enough, Midge’s own version of “To Sir With Love,” from his cover album “Ten,” came out several years ago, so I can see the pull there for him. The DL and LP have a requisite ten tracks that hold together well and definitely don’t overstay their welcome, but the CD  has four extra songs, with two instrumental versions and a live take of “Untouchable” with Glenn Gregory and Heaven 17’s keyboardist Berenice Scott holding down the piano. The final bonus track was the alternate Christmas charity single version of “Sleep For England” with… Julian Lennon singing the slightly rearranged song. I’d not heard the gent since his debut album, but he acquits himself well, even with a children’s choir singing backing vocals. It’s a bit more treacly, but the power of the song is hardly diminished for it. It still manages to tingle the spine, even twice on the same album.

The album begs for more in this vein as long as Emmer can round up a suitable posse of singers who bring their magic to his show. That Neil Crossley vocally resembles no one more than Edwyn Collins suggests that he of the analog fetish would probably bring a lot to any collaboration with Emmer and being recorded at Abbey Road studios by Tony Visconti would probably thrill Collins as much as my ears. To that end, I recommend buying a copy of this album so that we can have a steady flow of the sort of adult pop that few, other than Swing Out Sister make any more in this fast paced, thrill-a-minute world. The languid, contemplative nature of this album is a balm to my ears that keeps me coming back for more. The Bandcamp page where all of this and more is available can be found here. There is a DL, CD, blue vinyl LP, and a deluxe DL with the entire album in instrumental versions as well in case you would want to sing along.

– 30 –

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14 Responses to Record Review: Stephen Emmer – International Blue

  1. Tim says:

    You missed the Cousteau boat?

    (Rocks in denial, chewing my hair).

    You really need to acquire the debut album ASAP. The follow up isn’t bad, quite a grower, however ultimately being in the unenviable position of how do follow up an album of the quality of say, “The Lexicon of Love.”?


  2. Echorich says:

    International Blue is by far and away the best release of 2014. So far removed from the rest of my listening experience for the year that I left it out of my annual year end tally and gave it its own place above the list.
    Emmer put together an absolutely magical group of singers, musicians and productions. Tony Visconti, already riding high off of Bowie’s The Next Day in 2013, threw everything he is so great at into this album’s production.
    Untouchable is a modern classic. It moves you, it sticks with you. Glenn Gregory is fully committed and just shines. Gregory gets things off to a wondeful start as well with Let The SIlence Hold You. It sets the tone and whets your aural appetite for what follows.
    Seachange is filimic in its scope and simply satisfying. Eon Productions you should be listening to Neil Crossley – HE is the sound you need for the next Bond theme. In fact, bring Stephen Emmer along too, he’s got what you need. On Sleep For England, Crossley reaches for the heart and wraps his vocals around it.
    Taking Back My Time shows me that Midge Ure can still make respectable music. If he would just take more time to consider his options and decision before going into the studio, maybe he could find the magic again. Maybe he needs a strong presence to narrow his focus.
    For the past 15 years or so, Liam McKahey has been a voice that I have come to put among my favorites. He has a gentle strength that exists on the edge of music. Your Scott Walker/Gainsbourg comparisons, Monk, were not lost on these ears either. Blown Away is simply gorgeous. Mama’s Mad is another track that I feel Emmer envisioned for the late great MacKenzie and McKahey seems to channel some of that late great singer’s energy and focus. And as for Song For A Deserted Wife, I would love to hear Bowie tackle this song – I bet that Visconti could hear that as well.
    There’s a simple beauty to the closing track In The Mirror Reflected that brings the entire album full circle. Programming an album is so essential when you are working with such strong songs. The song is quietly defiant, lyrically not ready to give up, and just positive enough to keep the album from drowning in the emotions it stirs.
    You just leave this album knowing it was a labor of love for all those involved. It’s a very special point in time, a modern classic that too few people will get to experience, but will enrich anyone who does.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Good call on the potential Bowie cover! I simply adore the lyric “Forked parochial tongues, spitting malcontent!” What consonants! I can certainly imagine The Dame wrapping his tonsils around that one.


  3. Tim says:

    Thanks for writing about this one as it was not on my radar at all.
    I’m looking at a MP3 download of the album right now over at Amazon that has more tracks than what you have above. Just thought I would mention it in case anyone is interested.


  4. I’ve come to this record (which I still do not own as of yet) very backwardly, as someone sent me the live Glenn Gregory “Untouchable” first, and then I listened to the iTunes samples and quickly put it on my list of “should buy when one has some spare cash.” Listening to Liam McKahey’s effortless take on Colin Verncombe’s gig mashed up with a series of would-be Bond themes … just WOW.


  5. MrFab says:

    Yo Monk, just read your mention of this on the Trouser Press board, went to look it up, and the Googles sent me here. Does look quite splendiferous. Thanks for the tip. And yep, Cousteau were cool.


  6. Tim says:

    Cousteau is back!
    They have a new album and single under the name Cousteaux. I found it last week via a comment on the Richard Hawley forum and snapped both up. I haven’t had time to give either a proper listen but I have the week off so I plan on immersing in these right soon.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – This is what it’s like to be old. “I haven’t had time to give either a proper listen.” More true than you would know! That’s why I am trying to curtail the amount of music I am purchasing; though I’ve done a terrible job of it this year.


      • Tim says:

        I’m still working on the great re-organization of the music drive. Probably 90% done, the hardest part is the acts where I have a ton of demos, mixes, fan mixes, etc to sort out. New music purchases for me are becoming fewer and fewer, although this year I have binged a lot on deluxe sets hat are robust without having a ton of frou frou (badges pins t shirts, posters that sort of thing – I just want the music and good liner notes).


  7. Tim says:

    Holy cow! I found more Cousteau alumni stuff and it’s older. Alessandro Magnanini – Sometime Still I Do. I just bought it because ANYTHING Cousteau related is automatic purchase.
    There’s a lady on this named Jenny B who is doing a HELLUVA job channeling Shirley Bassey and this album is off to a rollicking start with a real cinematic sound sort of like the bastard love child of John Barry and Burt Bacharach and all I can say is if it is like this for the next 11 tracks straight this will be my playlist for a few weeks to come.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – Well… we’re on pins and needles! Tell us!


      • Tim says:

        The album is quite good. Jenny B is on three tracks and clearly is a devotee of Shirley Bassey. The McKahey tracks are jazzier than his Cousteau work. I solidly like the album, if one was making a mixtape it would play well with the already mentioned influences and alumni, Pauline London, Filth & Dreams era Swing Out Sister, Sergio Mendes, Sakamoto’s Brazilian albums, Chris Botti.


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