REDUX: Record Review: Stephen Emmer – International Blue

June 2, 2015

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
  2. Taking Back My Time
  3. Blown Away
  4. Sleep For England
  5. Untouchable
  6. Song For A Deserted Wife
  7. Seachange
  8. Break In The Weather
  9. Mama’s Mad
  10. 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.

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3 Responses to REDUX: Record Review: Stephen Emmer – International Blue

  1. Tim says:

    I am a bit sad to see this re-post have no commentary. I am eternally grateful for the original post as I was unaware of the project and this has grown to be one of my favorite albums of recent years.

    You and I arrive to this party for different reasons, you’re here for the Heaven 17 and Midge Ure dimensions of the project, I’m here for the Liam McKahey and this project provided some really nice tracks to my all things Cousteau related collection. One really can’t go wrong with either of the original Cousteau albums, the subsequent projects can be hit and miss.

    An album that I’ve really fallen in love with and have listened to probably more than anything else in the last year is Alessandro Magnanini’s “Someway Still I Do,” sort of Italian easy listening with guest vocals by Mr. McKahey and a woman by the name of Jenny B who clearly worships at the shrine of Shirley Bassey. If you’re looking to itch that adult pop scratch that you mention you should head straight to this one (and that Costello album from last year October, easily his best work in years).


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – Then thank goodness you broke the silence! “International Blue” was a top quality album. Come for the Ure and Gregory! Stay for the MacKahey and Crossley!!


      • Tim says:

        This album inspired me to look for McKahey collaborations, of which I’ve found quite a few,most of which are quite good. Cousteau made two albums, a 10/10 and a 7/10 and then imploded and I just figured he did his thing and did it well and was doing something else.


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