[…continued from last post]
Before I got this album, there were only two songs I’d ever heard from the pen of Robert “Bluebell” Hodgens: “Cath” by The Bluebells, and “Young At Heart” by Bananarama. Good songs, but nothing extraordinary by my reckoning. I have to say I’d rank “Beautiful Thing” as written here with Ms. Grogan at the “extraordinary” end of the spectrum. She’s gone on record as calling the album title a reference to her penchant for tears with little provocation. Though the album had a title track up front, this was the song that dealt, wonderfully, with her predilection for tearing up whether happy or sad over a delightful dollop of Indiepop backing from producer Hodgens.
Not only did this song proffer a very personal, yet unique point of view, the music bed was somewhere where I’d like to hear Ms. Grogan explore for a full album. Hearing it sounded so self-assured and straightforward; like having a conversation with a friend eager to help you understand them better.
Which is not to say that I was ready to forego the more style-driven tracks on offer here as “Changing My Luck” immediately showed! The glockenspiel keyboard hook that opened the song was a close cousin to the one on Shuggie Otis’ incredible “Strawberry Letter 23” so that will always get my rapt attention! Then the rhythm track confirmed that we were boarding the DiscoFunk train for the next four minutes. The shoutout to “Are Friend’s Electric” in the first verse was another “I have to back that up – did I hear what I think I did?” moment! I never would have imagined Glare Grogan moving in a Chic direction, but I’m here to tell you that it’s a… beautiful thing. Capitulate and join us on the dance floor. And we can only hope that there’s a 6:30 12″ mix of this track somewhere.
It’s an eerie thing. This album was so distinctive and memorable on first listen that each subsequent time I listen to “Mascara Streakz” I reach “Last Of Love” and think to myself, “wait, have I heard this track before?” It’s not a poor track, but it fails to differentiate its downtempo Disco self from the other eleven tracks here. Unlike the next song, “Double Reflection.” It was an uptempo [and expert] pastiche of New Order that featured heavy helpings of “Blue Monday” and “Bizarre Love Triangle” DNA. With Clare capably playing a spitfire role here.
“The Flame” was a mid tempo groover that almost courted irrelevance, but Lironi pulled the track out of the frying pan with his tasty sustained late 70s guitar solo quite admirably. Then the final track was upon us and “Sleep” was the most pensive downtempo album closer ever from Altered Images. The melodramatic strings were the only balm to assuage the death march tempo and air of fatalism that hung over this song like a pall of smoke.
This album was an immediate win with my ears by offering a sound that took the directions the band were interested in exploring on the last album and bringing them decades through time to reside in the now. The writing team wrote what is now my favorite Altered Images album and that’s not always likely. Especially 39 years later. But I have to say that there’s a lot of life that happened during that time and a huge gulf between a 21 year old Clare Grogan still experimenting with the trappings of adulthood and her current 60 year old self.
And given the clumsy mistakes of the mid 80s that have trickled out, I’m happy that she’s only gotten back to writing and recording on her own terms as the music is all the better for it. Her singing has matured to be a far cry from the childlike cadences that colored “Happy Birthday” and “Pinky Blue.” Her singing here was more assured and intimate than the Broadway chops she was trying out on “Bite” as well. Which certainly fit the material well.
I had thought about doing a Rock G.P.A. for this band for many years but three albums was a bare minimum I didn’t cross until that third Slow Children album happened and with that Rubicon crossed, I had to do it after album number four from Altered Images. The joy of Altered Images was that there have been no catastrophic albums, while only this album could be said to move reliably towards greatness for me. Making their curve on the Rock G.P.A. graph lfar ess “dramatic” than let’s say…Duran Duran’s!
ROCK G.P.A.: 2.875
The band netted a very respectable 2.875/4.0 ranking. And Clare has revealed that her deal with Cooking Vinyl is for two albums. “Mascara Streakz” reached number 28 on the UK LP charts, but fared better yet on the Physical [#4] and Independent [#2] charts so here’s hoping that the option for album number two can see some further growth as Altered Images are getting a strong second wind in their glory years.
Bonus Round: Clara Libre EP
Altered Images: Clara Libre EP – UK – CD 
- Happy Birthday
- Don’t Talk to Me About Love
- See Those Eyes
- I Could Be Happy
The pre-release bundle came with a CD-5 EP of new versions of Altered Images’ four biggest hits and I had no idea what to expect up front as little was said about them. Imagine my surprise when I heard that as the cover and title, foretold, these were Cubanesque arrangements heavy on the percussion and acoustic instruments. With husband Stephen Lironi playing and programming everything. But not shockingly, the marimbas were always there in “Happy Birthday” so maybe this was a latent thing?
Especially after hearing that the restaurants that Lironi maintains in London are geared toward tapas and Spanish seafood dishes it must have been all but preordained. The cover sports Clare dancing on the bar in her stocking feet. Still, this was closer to Sr. Coconut than Buena Vista Social Club [both in the Record Cell] with the heavy reliance on machine here. But I was a sucker for the laid back Samba vibe that “Don’t Talk To Me About Love” had been given. Amazingly, Clare’s phrasing was not all that different from the 1983 version.
“See Those Eyes” was heavy on the scratcher and cowbell [!] and still held a firm grip on my heart as it always had. Though the tempo was [note: yours truly is having a massive hit of Deja Vu as I listen to this EP while seeing the cover on my computer screen…] far more languorous than the classic single version. I did enjoy hearing Clare caress the song more tenderly this time; drawing out her closing for the song to at least twice its usual length.
The one here that was less compelling was “I Could Be Happy,” which seemed to need the faster tempo to stay aloft as a song. Before my copy had arrived in the mail, commenter schwenko had told me that he was definitely now down with these “lounge versions” as he deemed them. Even going as far as citing Bill Murray covering “Star Wars Theme” with his memorable “Nick Rails” lyrics changes. This had me braced for something maybe more extreme to my ears than what’s on offer here.
It’s a lark that more or less works on its own terms but the reliance here on MIDI brass and programmed percussion meant that it could only be a low budget weekender; not a full vacation in the Tropics. If the Latin groove calls to you, there is still one bundle available with this CD EP in the Altered Images webstore. The signed CD, Red LP, and CD EP for a tidy $38. The going rate for strictly colored vinyl in the current market, so if you’re in for some Scot thrift, then hit that button. At the very least your dream home needs the latest Altered Images album.
Surely an obvious Anglophile such as yourself must have been familiar with The Bluebells’ version of Young At Heart, a UK number one in 1993 after it was used in a TV advert for Volkswagen?
Steve Gedge – Oh, I was only an Anglophile for about a six year span [1978-1984] and I’ve been totally lapsed since then! I’ve ignored the contemporaneous British music scene for at least 33 years now! I only know the Bananarama version. Any UK music scene elements I’ve liked since 1990 have been scattershot at best and I’ve ignored the whole of it. Preferring my historical focus.
And let’s not forget Young at Heart was originally released as a single in 1984.