Saturday, February 04, 2006

Jukebox Juicebox #7

Lloyd Cole & The Commotions
“Rattlesnakes (Deluxe Edition)”

A twentieth anniversary reissue for the band’s debut album, more evidence that my teenage years are rapidly retreating into the past. It’s difficult to place these songs in the glossy mid-1980s, thanks to a combination of sharp lyrics, an unusual (for a mainstream UK ‘pop’ band) predeliction for country music and deft production from Paul Hardiman. During my “headphone years”, when songs were played in a dimly lit bedroom and the narrative meant as much as the melody, “Rattlesnakes” ranked up there with The The’s “Soul Mining” and The Smiths’ “Hatful Of Hollow” and, on reflection, has stood the test of time. There’s no sense of filler, with ten songs clocking in at just over half an hour and a near flawless running order. The statement of intent is there from the outset, with “Perfect Skin”’s declaration that “I choose my friends only far too well / I’m up on the pavement / They’re all down in the cellar with their government grants and my IQ”. It was perhaps inevitable that, like The Smiths, Lloyd Cole & The Commotions would be pigeonholed as ‘student bedsit soundtrack music’, given the lyrical references to Norman Mailer, Love’s Arthur Lee and Eve Marie Saint and love songs about girls with “cheekbones like geometry” who “know how to spell ‘audaciously’”. Yet Cole’s admittedly maudlin delivery is balanced with humour and strong melodies, arguably equalling The Smiths in this respect. “Speedboat” is a great example, with it’s swampy sound underscored by the narrator’s admission that “It was just not my style to find surf in my eye / It was much more my style to get sand kicked in my eye”. Another is closing track “Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?”, where the central character, “pumped up full of vitamins”, is advised “If you really want to get straight / read Norman Mailer / or get a new tailor.” Writer Julie Burchill dismissed tham at the time as “country and western Velvet Underground”, though this is a fair – if simplistic – description. The second CD is a curiosity, containing demos, live tracks, radio sessions and B-sides from the era. The live tracks demonstrate that, as a performer, Cole sounded every bit as uncomfortable as his characters, but it’s interesting to hear an alternative take on “Charlotte Street”, with awkward, excess verses that were thankfully excised from the superior studio recording. The BBC Radio 1 sessions are enjoyable, particularly “Forest Fire” and “Speedboat”, but again do not surpass the originals. The B-sides themselves are mostly forgettable, with a few exceptions, notably “Andy’s Babies” and “Jesus Said”, though there’s no sense that the “Rattlesnakes” album would have been stronger for their inclusion. In that sense, the Deluxe Edition works well, by keeping the original album intact and separate from the generous quantity of bonus tracks. Another plus is the lavishly illustrated booklet, which features song by song commentary from the band members. There are some great quotes throughout, my favourite by keyboardist Blair Cowan, describing an encounter with goth gods The Sisters Of Mercy which recording “Charlotte Street”: “The [band] were in the same studio and on a scorching summer afternoon we played them at tennis. We were in shorts, t-shirts and trainers and they wore Cuban heels, black drain pipes, black polo necks, black everything. They beat us.”
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Blogger Atom Boy said...

Jesus, that almost freaked me out when I saw 'twentieth anniversary' edition. I'm still in age denial! Fortunately, unlike myself, this album has aged well. I still listen to it all the time and, I agree, every track on the original album justified it's inclusion. I was also drawn more to Cole's lyrics than the tunes themselves when I first heard them. In fact, I'll admit that, for a number of years, I rarely listened to 'side 2'. I guess it took a while for my musical tastes to mature so that I could fully appreciate the timeless classic that is Forest Fire. I'm glad you mentioned Hardiman's production. In this respect the album stands apart from many of it's contemporaries. Outside of the pop mainstream we were still being subjected to punk's laisser faire attitude to production. While this worked well for the garage-band ethos, so many might-have-been-great albums of the time sound like they were recorded on a four-track in their mum's basement, especially when revisited on CD. They were not the only band with witty lyrics and clever use of non-synthesised intruments but I think it's the production quality of this album which sets it apart and that's why it stands the test of time.

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