Associates “Sulk” Ultrabox Aims For Excess…As Ever [part 3]

Smash Hits ad for “Sulk” courtesy of Lansure’s Musical Paraphernalia

[…continued from last post]

Following the pensive “Skipping,” the album got a jolt of the closest it came to Rock energy with “It’s Better This Way.” Rankine’s anxious, ominous guitar chords proffered a cinematic foreshadowing of emotional dread in the intro. Michael Dempsey’s bass lines coiled and flexed like an anaconda while Billy’s voice, swathed in clouds of reverb, delivered the most direct and clear-eyed lyric on the album. While the maddeningly oblique imagery of the other songs sucked one in with their mystery, this was first and foremost, an embittered breakup song bristling with the nervous energy of romantic fissure.

Love, love, love on the rocks

Now crumbles like chalk

Your friends were once mine

Now they no longer talk

They all say hello

But can’t wait to go

We must try to run – we can no longer [walk, walk walk…]

It’s Better This Way
associates party fears two

The angelic chorus harmonizing in the intro of the band’s breakthrough single, “Party Fears Two,” descended upon us as if cast from Heaven and fluttering to the earth below. Almost cloying chiming synths, batty with reverb threatened to overwhelm the listener with as much sugar as with an almost blinding effervescence. Then the
melodic hook first appeared. This was 20 seconds of melody that the band plucked out of thin air in the time it took to play it some years earlier and noted its potency; filing it away for the commercial coup de grace they would one day need. And after signing to WEA, that day was now, in 1982. Rankine began playing it on treated piano, achieving an almost proud dignity amid what would be the panicked emotional state of the song.

Throughout the song, Billy used vibrato like a cudgel; leaping like a gazelle as he delivered the lyrical hook of “awake me.” There’s few other song lyrics that crackle with anywhere near that same brand of electrical potency as those two words delivery captured all of the defiant power that MacKenzie could bring to them here. While Rankine delivered that piano hook like he was channeling Liberace at his most florid, Billy’s voice trailed up into the skies like an emotionally bruised Caruso at the end of the third verse as he delivered his wordless choral performance from on high. Surveying the wrecked emotional landscape ad the song climaxed with that piano riff playing a duet of cat-and-mouse with MacKenzie’s vocalizing. Giving us a coda afterward where Billy sounding fully spent repeated the first verse once more with barely enough energy remain standing, much less soaring as he had earlier. The sound of a cup being smashed in the distance taunting our ears.

The hissing hi-hat in the intro to “Club Country” sounds like a snake issuing a warning as the synth stabs [PPG Wave computer?] drenched in reverb underline the level of threat. Then the drums began and the bitter, pungent excoriation of the New Romantic scene was underway. The band had experienced the Blitz Club and had found the cliquish exclusivity wanting. The irony was that this was the primary dance track on an album, that by and large, was too weird for club play.

associates club country cover art

Producer Mike Hedges tightened the sound using studio technique. The band played the guitar and bass at half the tempo of the song, pitched down an octave, recorded at 15 inches per second. When played back at 30 i.p.s. the desired pitch was achieved but the impression of the playing became “ultra-tight” in Rankine’s words. The single hit the UK Top 20, so it apparently worked. The song’s roiling energy keeps absolutely moving until the middle eight where Billy’s vocal, a mixture of smoothly crooned verses and shrieked choruses dropped out to let bassist Dempsey solo for several bars while what sounded like cats in heat were howling in the background distance. Returning back to the theme until the cold ending that gave Billy the final abrupt word.

After a typically astringent program of Associates songs, the final track on the album attempted to be a balm for the ears with none of the lurching drama and paradox that was the group’s stock in trade. “Nothinginsomethingparticular” was a jaunty if not actually bouncy bit of whipped cream and candyfloss pop that seemed to have beamed in from another galaxy than the one Associates had come from. One where everything was marvelous and effortless. The rhythm section stayed in pocket with a bouncy Motown vibe while the airy synth strings floated heavenward while the lead synths made violin-like stabs to provide the only drama in this brightly lit scenario. After 2:20 the drums, and synth strings dropped out, leaving the bass and lead synth a clumsy landing at best as the song suddenly disappeared.

“Sulk” was a journey that began with the urgency of “Arrogance Gave Him Up” and sprawled allover the musical map; making up a spiky cocktail of elegance, chaos, and the sort of appealing shrill hysteria that only this band were able to attractively deliver moderated with a few of the band’s largest concessions to the Pop world with the ebullient “Party Fears Two” and “Nothinginsomethingparticular” which were virgin territory for the Art Rockers.

That it managed to arrive during the brief but exciting vogue for “New Pop” in the UK was probably down to incredibly fortuitous timing that saw the band connecting hugely as the trend bubble expanded and burst; leaving much less interesting blue-eyed Soul poised to swoop in and dominate the marketplace as the Thatcher Years strapped in and knuckled down. Bringing musical conservatism to the forefront of things as the mainstream began to revert back to earlier pop paradigms. But not before we have another three discs to wade through; sifting for more of Associates gold dust in the slurry of increasingly mediocre music as 1982 became 1983…and worse.

Next: …Foundational Work

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
This entry was posted in BSOG, Core Collection, New Romantic, Record Review, Scots Rock and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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