[continued from last post]
“Side One” ended with “Big Town,” a mewling diatribe against the music industry… at least according to the official notes on OMD’s current discography. It failed to make to much of an impact on my ears, but the quiet, almost not even there, number was the ideal song to put at the end of an album side. Kids today may now be shocked, but due to the physical limitations of pressing a 20-22 minute spiral analog waveform into vinyl, the louder, more dynamic songs had better fidelity at the beginning of a side, with the quieter tracks ending out the sides, where the dynamic range of an LP was decreasing in vibrancy the closer the needle got to the center.
Similarly, “hit singles” were usually placed at the beginning of side two to make an impression on the listener half way through the album and to take advantage of the better sound, since singles were normally the more dynamic tracks on an album. For only the second time ever, OMD did this on “Sugar Tax.” “Joan Of Arc” was the only other time a single was in this album position for the band. Unlike, that song, “Call My Name” was another of OMD of OMD’s singles that rose as high as #50 in the charts. It was a poppy house song that sounded to me like McCluskey had liked Mel + Kim’s “Showing Out [Get Fresh For The Weekend]” and wondered how he could water that sauce down for his own tepid use. When I hear the backing track in the intro, I actually sing “Showing Out” to it for sardonic laughs. The beatbox programming is remarkably similar. At the end of the day, if I want to hear garage pop house I will definitely put on “FLM” instead of “Sugar Tax!”
Since the last album had an instrumental with vocal samples, the though occurred to try it again. “Apollo XI” sampled coverage of the moon landing; a pretty OMD conceit. Too bad the backing track was completely faceless. It could have been Howard Jones! Also minus points [on style] for having Richard Nixon samples on an OMD record. As if Nixon had anything to do with the space program he inherited.
“Walking On Air” sounded to me like another re-write. This time of The Associates sumptuous “Breakfast.” Unfortunately, McCluskey was no Billy MacKenzie. His vocal performance completely lacked both the gravitas of MacKenzie’s stellar voice, but also the intrigue of that tune’s lyrics. Instead, it was another McCluskey stab at a failed love affair song, and he already had too many of those for my tastes. Andy managed to fit in the side’s best number at this point, thankfully. “Walk Tall” is another subtle, mid-tempo ballad but it holds together with integrity compared to the material around it. The chorus title, intoned deeply by McCluskey as a female soprano sings it in unison, as light as air, along with him is the album’s one magical moment. It’s hardly an OMD firecracker of a song but I’ll take what I can get by this point.
Another curveball came in the form of OMD’s third cover tune. This time as obvious as the previous two were esoteric. “Neon Lights” was always a favorite Kraftwerk tune and the cover here was distinct by having a female vocalist, Christine Mellor [who was most likely the soprano on “Walk Tall,” from the sound of it]. To their credit, they managed to edit the song down to a manageable 4:00 and more impressively, they added a wonderful second verse to the tune which I thought was an excellent, romantic addition to the already beautiful number. Then they added that so-damned-obvious-in-1991 shuffle beat from hell to it! They came so close to making this the highlight of the album but they had to take the most overused beat of its time and stick the knife in this cover. Gaaaah!
Adding insult to injury, the album closed with a piece of overly melodramatic kitsch called “All That Glitters.” The choral patches just served to remind me of far better times in the OMD back catalog. I’m sure if you took a record of this back in a time machine to 1977 and played the song for McCluskey he would have committed hari-kari right then and there! The middle eight is particularly galling as McCluskey overemoted:
“I would die here next to you
I will make your dreams come true
There’s so much I had to say
I got lost along the way” – “All That Glitters”
Yeah, someone had gotten lost along the way!
I have to admit that I was very happy to have OMD back in the diminished music world of 1991. I was looking at all of my favorite bands either running on empty or having already thrown in the towel. OMD had been a seriously core band for me. For the first two years, I listened to “Sugar Tax” with little complaint. I bought all of the CD singles in each of their editions. I told friends that “OMD was back” but that was obviously not the case. Andy McCluskey was back in what amounted to a solo project trading on the OMD name.
If OMD had been trying to “crack America” from 1984-1988 [and they ultimately succeeded in that], at least there was some sense of the fact that yes, it was OMD watering itself down, but trying to maintain some sense of their essence and artistic point of view while compromising. In contrast, ”Sugar Tax” had almost no OMD traits, either sonically or thematically. Two cuts here seemed like OMD had some connection; “Pandora’s Box” and “Apollo XI.” The rest was pop music of the day; a little house music, overwrought singing, and a crushing lack of dynamics on a dozen songs that were, for the most part, as dull as yesterday’s dishwater.
Earlier I invoked “Mel + Kim.” Hardly technopop, but the PWL empire was built on machines co-opted from the New Wave geeks who blazed the trails. By 1991, basically all pop music that was not guitar rock was constructed with the machines that OMD now used. The difference between OMD and Mel + Kim came down to simply attitude. And as evidenced by these songs, there was not much of a contrast. Some cowritten with Stuart Kershaw and Lloyd Massett of Raw Unltd., a house act signed to Virgin subsidiary 10 Records and connected to Hambi Haralambous’ Pink Museum studios in Liverpool, where some of this album was recorded. Raw Unltd. were already competing with PWL in the same arena, so the aesthetic distance from OMD to Mel + Kim grew perilously close with this album. This was a losing proposition as an OMD fan of long standing.
The winner in this scenario was Andy McCluskey, more than his old fans. “Sugar Tax” sold more than respectably well. It sold exceptionally well. And since OMD was in the black, McCluskey [now solely the owner of the OMD brand] probably got very comfortable for the first time in his life. Its three million in sales by 2007 matched the glory days of “Architecture + Morality,” at least over time. The success of “Sugar Tax” served to show how the pop environment had decayed precipitously over that decade as well. OMD records, for better or for worse, were now simply parcel of what ever the UK pop scene was doing. No longer could they be seen as daring outliers who crossed over into pop as if by some cosmic mistake.