March 1998 – album reviews – Handsome Poets’ ‘Rebirth: The Best of the Handsome Poets’ (“sharp geeky wisdom with a trace of… clear, sparkling melancholy”)

26 Mar

Handsome Poets: 'Rebirth: The Best of the Handsome Poets'

Handsome Poets: ‘Rebirth: The Best of the Handsome Poets’

A lot of successful bands are made up of people who hunger towards grabbing the whole huge meaning of things and singing it out in 4/4, but who are too stupid to manage it by thinking it out. With the physical route mapped out in their bodies and nerves, they blunder there by blunt instinct, turning their brains off and shouting their way there.

Over in the cult corner, people like Californian popheads Handsome Poets (based around British ex-pats Stephen Duffy and Dale Ward) work in a slightly different way. Again, it’s their bodies that are the idiot savant side of the partnership: sneaking away from lofty pursuits to listen to pure pop, chew up chart singles and turn out chirpy tunes. It’s just that in this case Duffy and Ward have brains which tingle with too many possibilities, too many unsureties for them ever to believe in any one big shouty meaning. And in these cases instinct isn’t completely trusted: the brains feel a need to come down from their ivory condos and do something about what instinct has created.

To get to the point… on a superficial listen, ‘Rebirth’ (a compilation of the best of Handsome Poets’ cassette albums) seems to be a late resurgence of that strain of carefully crafted, earnest MTV pop rock that flourished in the early ’80s before getting nuked by dance, pop metal, rap and cynicism. The sort of airy, medium-sized, studio-tanned songs you’d get from guilelessly musical pop musicians – tidy white-funk guitars, shiny synth riffs and clear, breezy vocals. The occasional Latin drum loop. Soft-soul saxophone solos and argumentative violins pop up on occasion. Songs display painstaking intelligence, craft, and the other double-edged nouns used as weapons by the kangaroo courts of British rock journos who’d condemn this sort of stuff to death without a second thought.

Ah, but underneath…

Those brains have been getting to grips with what the bodies have cooked up. And are settling down like a large and decorative bird on a small nest. Some of it is as earnest as it appears. Both Gotta Get Up and Hope are pure synth pop for clean people, with enough billowing to enchant and enough boy-next-door humility to avoid plummeting into New Romantic pomposity. But much of the rest of ‘Rebirth’ sounds more like what Thomas Dolby’s lab techs might pull out of their lockers and work on quietly, once the Professor had packed up and gone home for the night.

Even as they pursue the naive thrill of a good old-fashioned song, the Poets’ brains are tinkering away at the workings like a pair of compulsive mechanics. Unusual instruments are factored in (kalimba, psaltery, tuba and didgeridoo all make their presence felt amongst the sequencers and loops), as are odd contrasts (the sprightly classical strings which bookend Drumsong, the tuba oompahs and tinkly metal percussion on Waiting For The Sun). Samples expand the sounds and themes. Bits of glazed-eye plastic gospel pop up. It’s clean cut ’80s. but gingerly dipping its perfect hairstyle in ’90s water. The journey wiggles away from the freeway and explores what’s going on in more out-of-the-way streets.

Like another set of transparently faux-naifs before them – Steely Dan – Handsome Poets cast a skeptical eye on American smoothness and vitality. While they’ve little of Steely Dan’s poisonous wit (being more like a melancholy Men At Work), they’re definitely dark horses under the light’n’polite pop funkiness. Handsome Poets’ pop cocktail is a mixture of sharp geeky wisdom with a trace of the clear, sparkling melancholy that Love let flow through ‘Forever Changes’: fed through squeaky-clean electronics it might be, but it’s there.

Take Everybody Knows, which sees Duffy haunting the edges of gatherings, nursing drinks in resentful, camouflaged desperation. “Everybody loves a party, but there’s always one who never leaves. / And it’s me…” Samples of cheerful party chatter swim through the mix as he reflects “one day I have the world in my hands, then it’s a downpour of lost souls. / And I occasionally belong. / In all honesty, I wonder, how often do I tell me lies? / Why not choose exhilaration, why not choose to see the light?”

Handsome Poet’s California (never specified, but unmistakeable) is a place that still brings bemusement to these transplanted and pop-bitten Brits. So Often’s savage catalogue of rip offs and scams (musically, Danny Wilson meets Prince with a touch of Japan’s arty, pernickety precision) stalks angrily through a rogue’s gallery of lifestyle conmen: “Watch out for the buggers in designer tie dye. / Grunge hippies dressed in black, eating souls for dinner, / incense burning sharks who cannot look you in the eye.” The atmosphere’s perfect for breeding phoneys (“your faded genius, one they’ll remember when you’re dead and gone. / My tongue’s in cheek, can’t you see?”).

On the uninhibited jazzy swing of Drumsong it’s difficult to make out whether they’re embracing the instinctive rhythms and redemptive power of dance, or lampooning its nouveaux hippy pretensions. By the fifth time those sunshiny choruses swing round and a muffled, earnest voice starts mumbling about “the song of the green rainbow”, you get the impression that Duffy’s gently puncturing someone’s mystical balloon. And what about Stephen Twist, who’s opted to reinvent himself in cult land? “No salt, no sugar, no coffee, no meat, no fun / Mmm… but the garden looked so good. / Would the real Stephen Twist please stand up? / Would the old Stephen Twist please stand down?”

In amongst these sketches of the parade of folly, small and genuine human stories still run. Too Much is a straightforward boy-loses-girl-and-gripes-about-it-in-a-bar scenario, but given an Eyeless in Gaza big-pop edge by Duffy’s arch upfront singing over a bath of rapid strumming, electrowashes and cushioning voices. Undersea’s opportunistic coward – slippery and suspect, beset by drones, baby cries and mirages – swims through an ocean in his dreams, flailing at his responsibilities and searching for isolation. Prez Bill hides under the acoustic bluffness of the ’80s political tub-thumper, but curls up at the edges to reveal a sharp (and very British) distrust of campaign gladhanding (“He shakes my hand and kissed my daughter. / Grin your grin, that’s our reward. / There’s just one thing I’d like to ask you – do you know me?”) and sarcastically asks “Is he all things to all men? Well, you tell me.” Sitting By the Ocean is a lonely beach vignette: a resigned stretch of slide guitar curves like the arc of pebbles chucked into the sea, as two people (one gently accepting, one hung up on being acceptable) utterly fail to make their connection – “I said “it doesn’t matter who they are, it’s who you are that really matters.” / She said “I want to come inside.”…”

With a name like Handsome Poets, you expect a gang of mumbling poseurs concentrating on perfecting the fall of their curls and couplets, or at least cultivating some Richard Ashcroft cheekbones. You actually get a couple of very human characters who’re more likely to blow their cool with an explosive (but compassionate) snigger at the ludicrousness of it all. You’d like them.

Handsome Poets: ‘Rebirth: The Best of the Handsome Poets’
Splendid Music, SPLENDID 005
CD-only album
23rd March 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Original CD best obtained second-hand, although I’ve found quite a lot of them on Amazon.
Handsome Poets online:
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Additional notes: (2020 update) This particular Handsome Poets shouldn’t be confused with the Dutch pop band of the same name, founded in 2009. Stephen Duffy (still not to be confused with the bloke with the same name out of The Lilac Time and Duran Duran) now plays with That Man Fantastic.

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