I will live the rest of my life forever ashamed that I was born in the 1980’s, generally a dreadful decade for music. It wasn’t all bad, of course, but the sheer number of musical acts buried by the reverb-and-echo orgy that dominated production values in that lost decade condemned more talented artists to oblivion. It was the decade of the superficial egomaniacal showmanship of Michael Jackson, Madonna and U2, and “rock” became something safe performed by nice guys like Huey Lewis and The News. It was so bad that we needed a band as debilitated as Nirvana to come to the rescue and reacquaint us with raw, raucous sound.
I’ve noticed with some amazement that a lot of ’80s bands are attempting comebacks, and ’80s music fans are all atwitter. Depeche Mode and Duran Duran are almost in vogue again! My worst nightmare!
Given my aversion to anything ’80s, from Ronald Reagan to The Beastie Boys, I’m rather surprised that I’m reviewing the latest from The House of Love. I loathed their 80’s music, which seemed to combine the worst of faux psychedelia and 80’s gloss. They fell apart rather quickly, re-formed in 2005 (an event to which I paid no attention whatsoever) and have now released a new studio album, She Paints Words in Red. As I never allow bias to enter into the new release sampling process, I listened to the album samples on iTunes just like I would for any other artist. I also popped into their past for a quick refresh, where I found that they had a gift for melody that I had overlooked, but the production still managed to remove any other signs of life from their music.
Much to my surprise, I rather liked what I heard from the samples. I even believe that I allowed a tiny smile to take shape on my pretty little face. “What the fuck,” I said to myself, and navigated my way to Amazon to buy the CD (for a buck less than they charge on iTunes).
Doesn’t Apple have enough cash to be able to cut us a break?
Anyway, I did my usual thing and listened to the album three times in a row. Much to my surprise and delight, She Paints Words in Red may not approach the artistic and influential power a true masterpiece but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a strong contender for my 2013 Favorite Albums list. Knock me down with a feather!
“A Baby Got Back on Its Feet” opens the album, an up-tempo song with great feel and melodic movement. Guy Chadwick may lack the depth and power of a great singer, but his timbre makes his vocals very appealing and, as he demonstrates throughout the album, he has surprising range across the octaves (with a little help from falsetto). Here his low-register vocal rides over various well-executed rhythmic shifts, and his opening lyrics grabbed me right away as an occasionally hyperactive insomniac:
And I’m rushing and I want to sleep
I think too much about the things that keep me all strung out
Lying in the night with my eyes wide open and the images screaming out
Little things often make or break a song, and I just love the way they extend the second line beyond the rhyme (sleep/keep), following the flow of the song instead of the rhyme scheme. Brilliant!
The next song, “Hemingway,” starts off in anti-Hemingway fashion with a happy-go-lucky intro totally at odds with Hemingway’s bullfighting-bullshit machismo. The pleasant melody and breezy feel are also in complete contrast to the tension of a man who, having been beaten down by life (most likely by wage slavery), takes refuge in male mythology:
Well I feel just like Hemingway
And I’ve got a gun
Gonna shoot someone just for fun
So, show me those bulls honey
‘Cause I’ve just got to run
It’s time to go to sleep
It’s time, my love, to make ends meet
‘Cause I can’t stand of another minute
Creaking with the weight of it all.
With its hummable melody, light harmony and insightful lyrics, “Hemingway” is probably my favorite song on She Paints Words in Red.
With the help of falsetto and a willingness to go beyond the obvious note choices, the band expands the melodic range on the title track, a song with equally strong vocals and guitar interplay. Flowing beautifully in 12/8 time and featuring pretty but emphatic harmony, the song oddly enough combines elements of a jig and the Beach Boys . . . but however you want to describe it, “She Paints Words in Red” works. By contrast, “PKR” is dark and mysterious, a minor key song driven by an insistent rhythm like cha-cha without the rests. The best part of this track is the bashing instrumental passage that ends the song in what I’d call “Best of the 80s” mode.
“Lost in the Blues” has more of a country waltz feel, enlivened by condensing the space between the lines in the verses to eliminate the extra measure you’d typically expect. An unusually witty love song, the occasional bits of woe-is-me humor fail to detract from the fundamental truth that nothing in life can ever replace the experience of closeness. It’s followed by “Low Black Clouds,” another minor key song with strong harmonies and a rhythm that somehow manages to combine echoes of Latin and minstrel. “Money Man” comes next, again in a minor key, but this is more of a straight mid-tempo rocker where the narrator voices the common but no longer politically correct belief that a man can buy a woman’s dependence (if not love).
“Trouble in Mind” is a lovely example of British melodic pop, with an enchanting melody and a feel of dreaminess that echoes the story of a person who has lost his or her way in life (“Looking at your life, trying to find a picture, all you get are lines”). The pounding rhythm and sudden, satisfying hooks of “Never Again” make this song an excellent candidate for a single on an album that could probably produce quite a few. A good flip side would be “Sunshine in the Rain,” a ballad in the fine tradition of Gerry Marsden complete with major seventh chords, but with more mature adult content than “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” I love the carnal simplicity of the lines, “She sees you . . . and she wants to . . . and she needs you . . . ‘cause she wants to.”
“Holy River” has great potential for a sing-along, with its almost gospel-like feel. What makes it more interesting than spending time in a pew on Sunday is a memorable guitar lick and a perfectly executed guitar solo from Terry Bickers. I’ll also mention that Pete Evans has been fabulous throughout this album on the drums, but here it’s his powerful beat that moves this number and gives it oomph. The album closes with the instantly addicting “Eye Dream,” where we return to the insomniac semi-dream state theme of the opening cut. The harmony on the monosyllables (“sweet, soft, slow” and “dream, dream, dream”) is another wonderful demonstration of how the simple touches make all the difference.
So, here I am as the last notes fade into memory, feeling that I didn’t want this album to end. This is one time when I am both thoroughly delighted and surprised to say that. These guys have come a long way in the last twenty years, and I will be forever thankful that they made that journey.