British pop stuff, mostly. . .
(but not "britpop" **shudder**)
Roachford — self-titled (1988)
Kind of an overproduced British soul-rock thing. I picked it up because it was name checked as a similarity to Terence Trent D'arby's early work. It's like that stuff, but a little less organic and more dated-sounding. The songs are a bit cheesy too. I don't hate it though, because it is a pretty convincing meshing of styles. Of all things, it reminds me a bit of the Style Council at times. I really do like the song 'No Way' as well. But overall, yeah, it's just ok. Glad I only spent 98¢ on it on Half.com.
Terence Trent D'arby — Neither Fish nor Flesh (1989)
Fuck the hate, this album is serious bidness. It's more organic, funkier and the songs are just all around better than The Hardline. Why could anyone deem this clearly superior product subpar? Because you're an asshole that got mad at him for challenging the Beatles. That's why. I think it's time we just address this right now: Good ol' merckah didn't take too kindly to that shit and it was high time for a backlash when he released an even better album in its wake. It's like what Prince was trying to do at the time, but better. 'Attracted to You' is about as close to James Brown as the 80's ever got, while 'Roly Poly' nearly outdoes Prince at his own game and 'To Know Someone Deeply Is To Know Someone Softly' makes a case for the tag of "Neo-Soul" being pure bullshit the entire time. I mean, seriously guys (who am I talking to?). This album kicks butts and takes names like it's been advertising that it's going to do such a thing for at least six months previous. Call him pretentious if you will, but definitely don't write him off because of it. Because this album will make a fool of you. I really like the dichotomy at play throughout the album that pursuing a relationship in a world so torn seems rather ridiculous, and yet it's still something most of us seek. A fantastically underrated album and definitely a candidate for lost classic status. Very easy to hear this album's influence on Maxwell as well (one of current favorites, to be sure). Love it.
Terence Trent D'arby — Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'arby (1987)
This album has good songs, it just takes forever to get to the point with them. The very first song ('If You All Get to Heaven') is case in point. It takes a full minute for the darn thing to actually get to the tune! Not that I don't like a good build up, but the way it's done on this album feels contrived. And the formula is unfortunately repeated a few times. Of course, 'Wishing Well' is the big hit and it's definitely in the vein of those classic giddy, well-intentioned and resonating, but ultimately meaningless, catchy as heck 80's pop tunes (see also: 'Just Like Heaven,' 'Melt With You' and so on). The album mostly sounds like a more euro-centric Prince of the time (how much does 'Let's Go Forward' remind you of Lovesexy, for instance?). I do like it quite a bit, just not as much as his follow up album. To close with a classic modernization of 'Who's Lovin' You' is effective, I must admit. Still, there's a lot of dated sounds here. But that the album still stands up as unique statement and, considering when it was released, that says something indeed.
Shelleyan Orphan — Century Flower (1989)
Kind of Bowie meets Fairport Covention at a Fleetwood Mac show in 1978. It's got those big swooping choruses and riffy moments, but mostly played on acoustic instruments and a mesmerizing female vocalist in Caroline Crawley (she's actually a bit reminiscent of Harriet Wheeler). The first three tracks on this thing blew me away. One of the best (and most convincing) integrations of violin into a pop/rock context I've ever heard, honestly (seriously, check out 'Tar Baby'). The best thing about this album is its restraint. You feel like the choruses, though already very captivating, should be all noisy and relentless. But they're not. They're just there: lovely and reserved. Pure class. It is unfortunately a case where the band toploaded the album with its best material, as nothing else really recaptures the awesomeness of those opening three tracks. But it is a good album. Definitely.
Shelleyan Orphan — Humroot (1992)
A helping hand from Boris Williams and Porl Thompson (who were both, at the time, of the Cure) really helps the duo flesh out their songs and the potential really sounds fulfilled here. A wonderful little carefree jangler like 'Burst' seemed impossible on Century Flower, but it sounds totally natural here. The big one here is the incredible ballad 'Sick.' A meditation on the intense inner feelings experienced whilst in love, its sparse vibrato jangle and leisurely pace feels like a dreamy sea of realization amidst a galaxy of insecurity. The rest of the album retains the mild folk-rock elements from before, but it's just better executed here. Not a bad one in the bunch. Excellent stuff.
Seal — self-titled (1991)
I avoided it for so long because I remember 'Crazy' being on the damn radio everyone hour, on the hour when I was ten (or so it felt like). Do love his voice. Rough most of the time, smooth when it needs to be. The acid-house opener 'The Beginning' wins points with me because it's a song about music. I just like when music celebrates itself. Like, yeah, your broken heart is awesome, tell me about it and I'll listen. But what do I really want to hear about? How awesome music is! I mean, who can disagree with that? Assholes, that's who (apologies to deaf people everywhere!). It's big budget pop music. I like that some of the songs have mini-movements in them (take the acoustic first half of 'Deep Water' contrasting with the fully produced second half, for instance — that works really well). Enough time has passed for me to hear 'Crazy' now and appreciate it as just a really god pop song. There is a bit of U2-itis to the whole thing where the music seems to have this sense of self-importance that threatens to drown out the appealing tunes with a really "poignant" "message" that ends up being about nothing. But, at this point, that doesn't happen. The closer 'Violet' is just plain excellent. An eight minute meditation on the confused realization that it's time to move on from a failed relationship. It's the one track where the message is spot on and he totally nails it. The musical backing is nearly ambient in its scope, but with an added backbeat. It almost seems like the whole album builds musically to this track, as it literally saves the best for last. And it really makes you appreciate the production of the entire album. Sure, it's big budget Trevor Horn production, but I dig his work with the Pet Shop Boys from the same era for similar reasons, so I took to this pretty well. Bottom line: it's just good pop music, with a flair for the dramatic side of things. I mean, I can't imagine anything half as artsy (or emotionally affective) coming from a contemporary pop musician, can you?