Monday, April 28, 2008

Howard Devoto's "Jerky Versions of the Dream": Music Review

Although the previous three [Amazon US, where this was posted today] reviewers rate this five stars, and at the time of its original release I admired certain songs on this very well-produced LP greatly, it's a notch below the heights of "Correct Use of Soap," or "Real Life" by Devoto's earlier group, Magazine. I'd rank it better than their last LP, the weary (even by their moody standards) "Magic, Murder & the Weather" (which ironically gave them their biggest hit) and more the equivalent of the group's second LP, the troubled "Secondhand Daylight," which disappointed at the time of its release some fans for its keyboard-heavy atmospherics.

I suppose, as a Buzzcocks fan (I love "Spiral Scratch"!), and an admirer of the instrumental prowess of Magazine bassist Barry Adamson and guitarist John McGeoch especially, that I favor therefore the more aggressive tracks on "Jerky Versions" over the synth-pop that to my ears even at the time appeared to link the LP too much to its time, rather than ahead of it obliquely. As a pioneer of the post-punk movement, Devoto and his mates bailed from punk early on but kept its edge even as they layered its menace within more erudite, less insistent, and very nuanced sound experiments. Like Wire, they made their best music when challenging the norms of both art-rock musos and the new-wave conformists. They also knew, as Devoto titled their debut "Shot by Both Sides," that this doomed them (like Wire) to follow their own muse outside of the mainstream or the current fad.

That's why, on "Jerky Versions," Devoto's solo debut can only go so much further than he'd already gone with his two bands. He sustains his pace on the best songs rather than sprinting into a new rhythm. My favorites remain, a quarter-century after I first heard them, thus the top-five of the original ten tunes: "Cold Imagination" for its anthemic dirge combination; "Rainy Season" for its lulling embrace of an accessible pop approach; "I Admire You" for the wonderful backing vocals of this album's overlooked enhancement, Laura Teresa (I wonder who she is and what else she did?); "Way Out of Shape" for its sharpened, metallic guitar recalling Magazine's best; "Taking Over Heaven" for its elliptical perk-up halfway through, again thanks to honed guitar and thickened bass.

The other songs seem to wander along. They seem more of their time, as they did when they were made, at least to my ears. "Some Will Pay" stalls in Bowie self-aggrandizing poses of an overwrought vocal; "Waiting for a Train" has that la-di-da music hall tossed-off delivery that I admit always irritates me; "Out of Shape With Me" fits its title-- a good bassline but dragging vocals; "Seeing Is Believing" also seems as clichéd as its title, as it merely meanders. "Topless" is a deal-breaker, neither outstanding nor mediocre, and it's made more into a synth-pop artifact in its alternate version here, for better or worse depending on your tastes.

The other remixes and alternate versions: "Rainy" gets mixed much faster; "Rainforest" draws it out into a instrumentally-dominant long song for the dance floor of a sullen nightclub; "Cold" for #13 has a chugging guitar I like and a bit more depth; "Cold" as #14 increases the treble and sounds like its compressed, if more "live"; and finally, "Some" redeems itself a bit with slightly less mannered vocals.

Devoto, as if you are reading this probably you know, has a dry, droll, and rather lazy way of getting his lyrics across. This can work against the grain of the tune or be buried within it, as he slurs or simpers. He's an actor, and he plays a role in his literate, theatrical songs.

He can be compared to Bryan Ferry in and after Roxy Music in exactly the same method acting. As I have explained, the textures here of the better songs manage to ignite such a singer's own tensions. When the songs sound too complacent, too plugged into the stances of Devoto's electronic and angular 1983-4 era, he too trudges through them with more than a little ennui. It's his determined style, yet as with Magazine's five albums, I like it when he picks up the pace and sidles rather than saunters. When he slows down, the energy dissolves. While he may have sought this very effect, hearing the remasters in retrospect, the drive of his music leaves me more satisfied when he speeds along recklessly rather than when he turns off the ignition and coasts along in the fog.

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