Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Simple Minds: An Appreciation, Part The First

Simple Minds released a new album a few months ago that's seen them getting their best press in a long while. Should I care?

Jim Kerr and the boys were the absolute bees' knees for me when I was 15 or 16 (do the math). Teenage musical experiences, like their sexual counterparts, are as you know particularly vivid, and occasionally damaging. It's inevitable. Still, I have to fight the urge to throw punches whenever I hear boomers waffle on about El Beatellos and W-stock and all of those World-Changing Events, but every generation's the same really, if perhaps not so earnest in their retrospective utopian reveries. I loved Simple Minds and then I lost them, and, as my tastes moved away from their particular brand of musical austerity, I haven't really analyzed their ouevre in any substantial adult way since. Here goes nothing...

Simple Minds' 8 (or 7, depending on how you look at it) album releases between '79 and '85--you remember back in the day when bands didn't put out an album every three years?--showed remarkable development, to say the least. They started out as the scrag-end of a punk band with a Roxy Music fetish, went all experimental-like, then a bit spacey, and eventually turned out stadium rockers. It's hard to describe their sound simply, but minimalist would be the most appropriate word to use, although they never wore any aesthetic as a straight-jacket...except when they occasionally did.

Listening to the earlier albums now, I'm rediscovering how fascinating the band dynamic is. Repetitive bass and drum patterns are usually the foundation of the songs, but it's the interaction between guitarist Charlie Burchill and keyboardist Mick MacNeil that really makes things interesting. I don't know if there's ever been a rock guitarist less burdened by ego than Burchill, and he's a guy who's certainly never gotten the kudos he's due for his very non-traditional interpretation of the role of the instrument. MacNeil's keyboards provide the bulk of the sound and melody, but neither player is dominant and the sounds are so interwoven that it's often hard to pick out who played what, particularly on Empires And Dance and Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call. Crooner Jim Kerr makes his bread-and-butter on that space between the minor and major third, with a tremulous voice that obviously brings Brian Ferry to mind, although paired with mostly non-narrative lyrics that provide a degree of abstraction.

If I'd have heard Life In A Day upon its release, I don't think I would have been waiting with bated breath for album number two. Listening to it now, I realize it hasn't aged all that badly, actually, it's just that it doesn't sound much like the Simple Minds that people know (exhibit A: "Chelsea Girl"). It's got some spirit and charm, if a fair amount of duff songwriting and a youthful desire to fill up every available square inch of sonic space. It's the most obviously Roxy Music-inspired, with a fair whack of piano, but you can hear bits of early Ultravox as well as fellow countrymen The Skids, especially in the guitar playing in songs like "Sad Affair." The playing is tight and John Leckie's production is appropriately unadorned. The best songs are the title track, "Someone" and "Wasteland". And okay, I like "Chelsea Girl" too, if only for its kitsch value. 'Nuff said about that.

The great leap forward came with Real To Real Cacophony, also produced by Leckie, which was released just over six months after the debut. The album outer- and inner-sleeve layout screams out: minimalist, experimental, studio, modern. It's amazing how well this, The Minds' most unsettling and diverse album has held up over the years, and right now it's probably the one I'm most likely to pull out for a listen. There's still some high-tension new-wavery about the band here, noticeable on more conventional fare like "Calling Your Name," which is a better-realized and tempered version of the kind of thing that appeared on Life, but the album's principal influences are more electronic and experimental, which oddly enough results in a much tougher sounding record. The keyboards really cover the gamut, from the orchestral to the machine-age; the instrumental "Film Theme" is very early Human League, while the aforementioned "Calling Your Name" utilizes god knows how many different types of sounds and attacks. Brian McGee's drums are mostly processed, with a lot of different sounds and the first appearance of the unsnared snare. The guitar still lets rip in songs like the kick-ass "Premonition," but can also act as colour and texture in the more keyboard-heavy stuff.

Did I mention the material's diverse? Side one alone is a real trip, man, opening with the jerky yet spaced-out Euro-organ-pop of "Real To Real" and ending with "Cacophony" and "Veldt," the first two examples of the Simple Minds instrumental, which illustrate the group's moving away from traditional song form. "Changeling" is a brilliant, blistering bass hook-based pop song, one of their best. "Citizen" and "Factory" aren't too shabby, either. Perhaps Real To Real doesn't go out quite as boldly as it came in, but that's a minor quibble.

More to follow...