Posts Tagged ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’

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Prefab Sprout have reissued four albums on vinyl, via Sony Legacy. The ’80s sophisti-pop group was formed in 1977 by brothers Paddy and Martin McAloon, releasing their debut album “Swoon” in 1984. The Durham natives became a mainstay in UK music, going on to release a total of 13 LPs. Prefab Sprout date back to 1970s art-rock; leader Paddy McAloon was sent a rejection letter by Brian Eno’s record label in 1976. They didn’t release their debut album “Swoon” until 1984, by which time the lineup had solidified. Paddy McAloon was joined by his brother Martin on bass, Neil Conti on drums, and Wendy Smith on backing vocals.

Paddy McAloon is a great pop writer, and Prefab Sprout have released a lot of great material.There are different theories on where Prefab Sprout got their name. My favourite is a misheard lyric from Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood’s 1967 hit ‘Jackson’ (“We got married in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout”).

The four records will be reissued – “Swoon” (1984), “From Langley Park to Memphis” LP (1988), “Jordan: The Comeback” LP (1990), and compilation “Life of Surprises:The Best of Prefab Sprout”  (1992).

All of the remastering was overseen by Paddy McAloon, the groups’ songwriter. Prefab Sprout enjoyed some commercial success in the 1980s and early 1990s, but have been relegated to the status of cult band ever since. It’s a shame, as McAloon is a very talented songwriter; he’s able to integrate complex chord structures into catchy pop songs, and his lyrics are often filled with clever wordplay and his preoccupations with mortality, religion, and stardom.

Prefab Sprout Swoon

Paddy McAloon expected debut Swoon to be bigger than Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but it’s a demanding listen; songs like ‘I Never Play Basketball Now’ are packed with crazy chord sequences, delivered with a touch of post-punk rawness. Swoon is the album equivalent of an over eager puppy – its songs are stuffed with complex chord changes and time signatures, and precocious lyrics. At the same time, the production is far less elaborate than later albums, and it’s more of an indie guitar album than their later work. Swoon is a highly original record, melding various styles into one unique vision, resulting in a sophisticated sound the band could claim as its own. It has been sited as a strange fusion of Aztec Camera and Steely Dan, which makes sense, but ultimately Swoon proves too complicated for simple comparisons.

Some fans swear by Swoon as one of Prefab Sprout’s best albums, but it took me a long time to warm to it, as there’s so much happening. ‘Cue Fanfare’ is a good example of the album’s dense and skewed nature, with its references to “Playing for blood as grandmasters should,” and McAloon’s yelped falsetto and synthesizer stabs. ‘Don’t Sing’ was the single, and it’s probably the most accessible song, while under the busy arrangement, ‘Cruel’ has a torch song vibe.

Swoon is a polarising album since it’s so unique.

Prefab Sprout Steve McQueen Two Wheels Good

Steve McQueen/Two Wheels Good, 1985

Prefab Sprout streamlined their sound for their next album released in 1985 “Steve McQueen” the band prospered over the next five years. Their biggest hit was the 1988 novelty ‘The King of Rock’n’Roll’ – McAloon later told the New Musical Express that “it’s a bit like being known for Yellow Submarine rather than Hey Jude”.Prefab Sprout’s best-known album opens with a rockabilly-tinged song named for country star “Faron Young”. The song opens with the word “antiques” – apparently McAloon had written the music but was struggling for the lyrics, and asked then-drummer Michael Salmon for a random word to spark his lyric-writing process. “Antiques” leads into one of my favourite Sprout lyrics; “As obsolete as warships in the Baltic”.

Even more powerful is “Goodbye Lucille No. 1 (Johnny Johnny),” sung from the perspective of a man trying to make a close friend get over a girl who has rejected him. The words are frank and painfully realistic as McAloon doesn’t sugarcoat the dialogue. He rips into his buddy’s futile romantic fantasies and lets the hard light of reality shine upon him: “Ooh Johnny Johnny Johnny you won’t make it any better/Ooh Johnny Johnny Johnny you might well make it worse.”

Steve McQueen was re-titled Two Wheels Good for the US market after legal difficulties with McQueen’s estate; it established their career in the UK after ‘When Love Breaks Down’ became a successful single on its third release. The major change for Prefab Sprout’s sophomore effort was Thomas Dolby collaborating as their producer; Dolby had spoken favourably of ‘Don’t Sing’ from Swoon, and the band contacted him to produce their second album. Dolby chose his favourite songs out of 40-50 songs that were bought to the table by McAloon , and provided a lush production job that complements the literate lyrics – Wendy Smith’s vocals are processed in ways that sometimes make her sound like a synthesiser. The precociousness and frenzy of Swoon is toned back, and while there are still complex chord changes and lyrics on Steve McQueen, it’s a lot more accessible.

Steve McQueen has two clear halves; the first side is built around accessible and upbeat pop songs, while the second side is more esoteric. The hits on the first side include the rockabilly of ‘Faron Young’, and the perfect pop of ‘Appetite’, while the title ‘Goodbye Lucille #1’ apparently refers to the fact that McAloon had written a full album of songs with named Goodbye Lucille. There’s more clever pop like ‘Movin’ The River’ and ‘Hallelujah’ on the second side, but there’s also slowed down material like ‘Blueberry Pies’ and ‘When The Angels’.

The key figure behind Prefab Sprout between 1985 and 1990 was producer Thomas Dolby. The tech genius added a sophisticated synth sheen to McAloon’s compositions, and treated Wendy Smith’s voice to sound like another instrument. ‘Appetite’ is among my favourite from the album’s first side, the primal urge of lust presented with sophistication. Paddy McAloon claimed that he was ‘probably the best songwriter in the universe’. He wasn’t far off the mark. This album is a collection of beautiful, atmospheric, catchy, moving, thoughtful songs, treated with one of the best production efforts Thomas Dolby has ever done – and that’s quite something. Wendy Smith’s simple, soaring backing vocals and Dolby’s very personal keyboard sounds suit Neil Conti’s crisp drums, Martin Mcaloon’s deep bass and Paddy’s complex compositions perfectly. Dolby and the band struck something very special and undefinable on this album that they haven’t quite been able to recreate on their following collaborations.

Steve McQueen was re-released in 2007 with a bonus disc of eight newly recorded acoustic versions by McAloon. They’re gorgeous, and underline how strong the material on the album is.

Prefab Sprout From Langley Park to Memphis

From Langley Park to Memphis, 1988

Paddy McAloon’s always had a sentimental streak, but it’s rendered palatable by his musical and lyrical sophistication. The music video for ‘I Remember That’ situates the band in an early 20th century jazz club. The lyrics are sharp enough not to wallow in romantic nostalgia; “there’s nothing pathetic listing clothes she’d wear/If it proves that I had you, if it proves I was there.” I only had room for one pick from 1988’s From Langley Park to Memphis, but I would have liked to include McAloon’s affectionate ribbing of Bruce Springsteen on ‘Cars and Girls’.

Even though Steve McQueen had some production sheen, it was essentially still an indie guitar album. From Langley Park to Memphis takes Prefab Sprout in a more adult contemporary direction – McAloon has stated that he was writing show tunes during this period. There’s an Americana theme, with songs like ‘Hey Manhattan’, lyrics like ‘Hot Dog! Jumping Frog! Albuquerque’, and the Springsteen pastiche of ‘Cars and Girls’. Following on the success of Steve McQueen, it’s also a more high profile release, with cameos from Pete Townsend and Stevie Wonder.

There’s some strong material here, but From Langley Park to Memphis is less than the sum of its parts – the sequencing where the first side is clearly stronger than the second, the adult contemporary sheen from a variety of producers, and the novelty hit ‘King of Rock and Roll’ all detract from the album. There are at least a couple of top tier Prefab songs here – ‘I Remember That’ is a beautiful piece of gospel infused pop. While it’s hard to know if ‘Cars And Girls’ is an affectionate tribute or a gentle take-down of Springsteen, but either way it’s a strong song in its own right. There are pretty melodies like ‘Nightingales’ and ‘Nancy Let Down Your Hair For Me’, but the awkward rock of ‘Golden Calf’ hurts the momentum of the second side.

Released in the middle of their 1980s’ peak, Langley Park is a key Prefab Sprout album, but it’s not quite the towering achievement that it could have been.

Protest Songs Prefab Sprout

Protest Songs, 1989

Protest Songs was originally scheduled as a followup to Steve McQueen – it was announced for December 1985, but wasn’t in stores until 1989. It’s low-key, with an indie guitar-pop sound, but it’s a substantive entry into the band’s catalogue. I particularly enjoy the opening track, ‘The World Awake’, which presents a typically complex McAloon song in a low-key arrangement.

Protest Songs does open with some upbeat, accessible songs; the opener ‘The World Awake’ is one of my favourite Prefab Sprout songs with its bizarre backing vocals and insistent hook, while the affectionate advice of ‘Life of Surprises’ is hooky and energetic. There’s more pointed current event commentary than usual – ‘Diana’ discusses the Princess of Wales, while ‘Dublin’ concerns Irish politics – while McAloon returns to his common themes of mortality with the low key conclusion of ”Til The Cows Come Home’ and ‘Pearly Gates’.

With its low key nature, Protest Songs has aged gracefully

 

Jordan: The Comeback 1990

The sprawling Jordan: The Comeback is their masterpiece. The group lost momentum after Jordan, as record company miscommunication sabotaged the followup album, Prefab Sprout’s output slowed after this 1990’s ambitious double album Jordan: The Comeback, but there have been gems among the later releases. The double album Jordan: The Comeback allows McAloon space to explore some of his lyrical obsessions; over its running time, he examines Elvis Presley, death, and God. The wonderful crashing drums after the organ solo at the beginning of ‘Scarlet Nights’ still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up – as do Jenny Agutter’s ‘I want you’s’ on Wild Horses. Sublime, and even better now in its remastered form ‘Scarlet Nights’ is arguably the most uplifting song about dying ever recorded; “This is where you’ll wake/To find the river, Jordan, flows.” Group mastermind Paddy McAloon covers the gamut here, ranging from incisive takes on American legends (Elvis and Jesse James) to love songs both wistful We Let the Stars Go and self-assured Looking for Atlantis Jordan climaxes with One of the Broken, a singular plea for compassion in which McAloon assumes the character of none other than God.

The Ice Maiden’ was inspired from youthful memories of watching ABBA on TV, but it quickly escalates an examination into mortality. “Death is a small price for heaven” is the most memorable line. Driven by an electronic pulse, it packs a lot into a little over three minutes; Wendy Smith’s prominent vocals, a dramatic key change, and Paddy McAloon’s chunky guitar riffing. It culminates in screams before abruptly segueing to the whimsical ‘Paris Smith’.

Prefab Sprout Andromeda Heights

Andromeda Heights

Andromeda Heights is a concept album about stars, but there are plenty of love-struck lyrics as well. Drummer Neil Conti had left the band by this point, and there’s not much of a band feel to most of the tracks. Often the orchestral instruments that augment the band are more pronounced, although the orchestrations aren’t as interestingly as on McAloon’s 2003 solo album, and they’re more about adding warmth and lushness. The sentimentality that was often present on Prefab Sprout’s earlier albums is much more pronounced on Andromeda Heights.

Andromeda Heights is one of Prefab Sprout’s weaker records, but my favourite Prefab Sprout is outtake from it is ‘The End of the Affair’. It’s more sentimental and string-laden than most of Prefab Sprout’s work, but it’s a beautiful tune. Prefab Sprout have some other great b-sides too; other notable efforts include 1985’s ‘Donna Summer’ or the rocking ‘Nero the Zero’.

Prefab Sprout also have plenty of interesting non-album material which has never been collected onto CD – early singles like ‘Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)’ are well worth tracking down, ‘The End of the Affair’, originally written for Cher. Rumour has it that McAloon has albums full of unreleased material, including a concept record about Michael Jackson and an album full of songs titled ‘Goodbye Lucille’.

Prefab Sprout hadn’t released an album of new material since The Gunman and Other Stories in 2001, so 2013’s Crimson/Red is essentially a collection of the best songs McAloon had written in the previous twelve years. It’s recorded solo by Paddy McAloon in his home studio, but it’s much more professional sounding than the demos of Let’s Change The World With Music, and it’s easily Prefab Sprout’s strongest release since 1990’s Jordan: The Comeback.

Prefab Sprout CrimsonRed

Crimson/Red, 2013

The band’s latest release was Crimson/Red back in 2013, as well as a vinyl reissue of McAloon’s 2003 solo album “I Trawl the Megahertz” earlier this year. By 2013, Prefab Sprout was effectively a name for Paddy McAloon’s solo endeavours; he played all the instruments and provided all the vocals for ‘Billy’. There’s a great bass-line and his vocals have barely aged. McAloon typically uses complex chord structures, but ‘Billy’ cycles through the same five chords for its entirety. Its breezy and fun, with McAloon charmingly cycling the subject’s name between “Bill”, “William”, and “Billy”.

Paddy McAloon has grown a long white beard, but he still sounds youthful – he even makes the word “assholes” sound exquisite. 2013’s ‘The Best Jewel Thief in the World’ is impressively energetic and melodic. It’s McAloon’s best song of the 21st century, even though it’s hamstrung by a poor music video; the fan-made version (presented below) is much better.

‘The Best Jewel Thief in the World’ is an immediate winner, a hook-laden and energetic piece of pop, while the disarmingly simple ‘Billy’ is warm and immediate. There are shout-outs to fellow songwriters, with ‘The Songs of Danny Galway’ covering Jimmy Webb and ‘Mysterious’ about Bob Dylan, while ‘The Dreamer’ is straight-out beautiful. There are also some memorable lyrics like “Adolescence – what’s it like? / It’s a psychedelic motorbike / You smash it up ten times a day / Then you walk away.”

If we’re being picky, there are a few too many slow songs, but Crimson/Red is an definite comeback from Prefab Sprout and worth the attention.

The reissues are available now with a new album titled Femmes Mythologiques incoming later this year.

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