Monday, August 1, 2005

Records In Review: New Musik--From A To B

Any album that's been making semi-regular trips to your turntable over the course of 20-odd years must be doing something right. Probably several things.

New Musik was/is the creation of Tony Mansfield, a former member of The Nick Straker Band, of which I know very little. From A To B was the first and best received of their three albums from the early '80s, and was certainly their most commercially successful...all things being relative. Their second album, Anywhere, did non-boffo box office and thus the follow up Warp did not get a North American release. Tony immersed himself in the world of pop production, and despite occasional threatenings, never released another NM album, and he must be getting on a bit now.

Call this music electropop, before that term became more narrowly applied to all-synth and Linn drum machine bands. The instrumentation on this album is the band's most traditional: drums, bass, mostly acoustic guitar and a heavy dose of synth, which splashes charm and atmosphere against the generally motoric rhythm section. The electronics on this album have aged very well, probably because they were off in a little world of their own, not really worrying about the fashions of the time. Mansfield, who plays guitar and keys, has an almost impossibly nasal voice that summons up associations with children's songs. A few people I know have not reacted well to what they perceived as the asexuality of the vocalist, so cock-rockers, keep back!

I've never felt an A-side or B-side with this record; both on their own have a sense of completion. "Straight Lines"--which opens with the most realistic imitation of my parents' front doorbell ever recorded--has some of the most traditionally rockist elements on the record, with an electric twang guitar hook and buzzsaw bass synth, but has a nice propulsion to it as well. "Sanctuary" is built around a Supertramp-like plinky-plink piano line and builds up great momentum with the help of the electronics. "A Map Of You" is a personal favourite that uses a four-on-six beat acoustic guitar rhythm beautifully against a mixture of chilly synth strings and the band's trademark warm bell sounds. "Science" is the most sequenced song on the album, and should have you jumping up and down in your sitting room, if you have any kind of pulse at all. "On Islands" closes out side "From A," and is the album's only real misfire, with a langorous jingle-jangle acoustic guitar rhythm that sounds unpleasantly and uncharacteristically anthemic. The song fades out with spoken word by Mansfield's young son. Charming, but twee.

Side "To B" opens with NM's most radio-rotated (in North America) song, "This World of Water," of which I'll only say, once again: if you ain't likin', you ain't breathin'. "Living By Numbers" was a reasonably successful single in the UK, and hints at the more minimalist lyrical content that would appear on Anywhere. Beginning with a spacious pure-pop acoustic guitar hook and ending with those lovely ringing bells. Great stuff. "Dead Fish (Don't Swim Home)" feels a bit like bits stuck together, opening as it does with an extended electronic reverie that's brutally interrupted by pounding 4/4 drums and bass, which in turn gives way to a very naive sing-song chorus melody. "Adventures" mirrors the track "Science" on the other side, and is the album's big toe-tapper, making good use of backwards piano in the chorus. "The Safe Side" closes "To B" with charming innocence, sounding like it could be the theme song for a children's show. I'm not complaining, and neither should you be.

Mansfield's lyrics have always been a weird counterpoint to his own delivery and the band's innocent sound. Mucho alienation and distance, although From A To B is positively upbeat compared to the follow up, Anywhere. From "A Map Of You: "Decide where you're coming from/Make your way, passing by/can't you see/don't you know/you--are--here." Add a touch of panic from "The Safe Side:" "I feel the walls are closing in around/I'm in the air, I'm falling to the ground/so tell me how does it feel to be on the safe side?" Cheer up, it might never happen!

New Musik are one of the few bands that I'm happy and willing to proselytize for, as they've always needed it. Almost everyone I've played this album for liked it or loved it. I've been waiting for the major critical/cultural reinterpretation to happen(!), but it never seemed to get going, despite the recent interest shown in bands like The Human League (early stuff) and now, in a big way, Gang of Four. Well, maybe Franz Ferdinand's next album will sample "Adventures" or something. Here's hoping!

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