Associates “Sulk” Ultrabox Aims For Excess…As Ever [part 2]

alan rankine + billy mackenzie + guitars
Alan Rankine + Billy MacKenzie with guitars

[…continued from last post]

The wizened chestnut “Gloomy Sunday” was perhaps the outlier to the band’s early days as a cabaret act who played working man’s clubs. The appearance of the Hungarian standard from the Thirties would be the only cover on this version of” Sulk.” Billy’s crooning was at his most mellifluous and non-threatening here. The arrangement played like a slower tempo variation on what the band would bring to their “Love Hangover” B-side, which was appended to the North American edition of the album instead of the unsettling “Bap De La Bap” or “Nude Spoons” in an effort to assuage American sensibilities.

Billy probably came to this song via Billie Holiday’s version of it, but the end results couldn’t help but make me think that in 1982, especially, David Bowie might have heard this version and wondered bitterly why he had not gotten here first. The song remained a breather for the sake of pacing in an intense “side one” of an album.

Following an uncharacteristically twangy guitar figure repeating for a bar before the enervated stomp of “Nude Spoons” finished the side in a flurry of hysterical emoting by MacKenzie over the breakneck pace of the backing track. Marking this song as only being a slightly more controlled relative of the even more unhinged “Kitchen Person” from the previous year’s “Fourth Drawer Down.” That’s didn’t stop the lyrics from being just as impenetrable as ever on this outing.

I’m glad I had this vital heart attack

It clears psoriasis

I’m glad I had this vital heart attack

It makes me want to…

Wrote a note and dug it underground

I dug it underground

I found a tool to scrape away the soil

I found a wooden soil

It lies there canistered for future reference

It lies there canistered

It lies there canistered for future reference

It lies there canistered with nude spoons Euphoria

Nude Spoons

The contrasting BVs from MacKenzie had his lilting, harmonized expression vocals floating above the frenzied turmoil in the foundation of this chaotic number for maximum contrast. John Murphy’s high velocity drumming was punctuated by skittering fills as the song careened around hairpin curves on its downhill run. Rankine’s guitar provided a howl to compete with MacKenzie’s occasionally shrill vocals that threatened to break free entirely of the song in their expansive push. After the middle eight piano added coiled tension for the song’s climax. With the last word, surprisingly, coming down to a sweep of accordion. Was it buried in the song all along?

After the album’s peak of frenzy, it remained for the album to explore less unsettling climes for a while. “Skipping” was monster of a melancholy melody heralded by MacKenzie’s “doot doot” BVs getting doubled with a fat dose of delay. Then the acoustic guitars began strumming to let the rhythm section, in particular, Michael Dempsey’s athletic bass lines, get the spotlight this time as Rankine added elegant and reserved washes of string synths. Pointing towards the band’s love and respect for John Barry with an elegant, cinematic sound that was 180 degrees apart from some of the simply berserk music we’d already gotten a taste of.

While the music bed for “Skipping” was superb, the real pull here was MacKenzie’s vocals. Steeped in his obvious admiration for the Jazz phrasing of Sarah Vaughan replete with his most expressive vibrato as he swooped nimbly up and down of the scales of the song. Rendering the tune with a sensuality of performance in the verses which was still completely unafraid to veer far off course for the song’s choruses. Where MacKenzie matched the sheer lyrical dissonance of Ultravox!’s “delightfully unpleasant” [from “Wide Boys”] with the equally daft “marvelously lousy.” While producer Mike Hedges’ vocoder this time doubled his vocal in a ghostly slurred echo.

For years I’ve heard Billy’s vocalization described as impersonating Humphrey Bogart, or maybe Sean Connery [my personal vote] as he lisped the “marvelously lousy” lyric in the second chorus. Alan Rankine spilled the beans in the liner notes painting all of the theories I’d heard as wrong. As it turned out Billy’s vocal inspiration was someone from a very different film…John Hurt as John Merrick, the Elephant Man! The band’s fearless ability to merge elegance and beauty with the grotesque rendered their art compulsively compelling to these ears. “Skipping” in particular, has had its meat hooks deeply into my brain for the last several days with no signs of ebbing yet.

Next: …The Big Showbiz Finish

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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