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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.

October 1996 – live reviews – The Blue Nile + Sinéad Lohan @ The Palladium, London, 8th October

10 Oct

Wait in any given place for a long time and reckon up the odds. Which are you more likely to see passing by – Bigfoot, Lord Lucan, or a member of The Blue Nile? The chances are about equal each way.

In a business that thrives and surfeits on over-exposure, The Blue Nile only sidle into view when they absolutely have to. In fourteen years of tenuous existence, this reclusive biz-shy Glaswegian trio has offered up no more than three short albums of exquisite ambient Celtic soul; stripping away the armour of the heart with cheap drum machines, breathing synths and skeletal guitars, and the scalded, mournful grace of Paul Buchanan’s desperately romantic deep-tenor voice, leaving us flat on the floor and then departing so quietly we don’t hear the door shut.

While they’ve had stiff competition from Kate Bush and Scott Walker in the stakes for lying quietly in the long grass, sometimes The Blue Nile are out of view for so long that they seem no more than the shadows of our own heartbreaks. Three phantoms whom we can fill with the overflow of our ruined, hopeless good intentions and the agonising rush of a love with nothing and nowhere to ground itself on. Every now and then, though, they surface – as they have tonight – put out a record, and those shadows take on flesh.

But first we have Sinéad Lohan; a Cork lass with beaded hair, a salving murmur of a voice, and the composure of a marble Madonna figurine. From out of nowhere to the grandiosity of the Palladium, and still she’s not batting an eyelid as she delivers her soft thrumming folky songs to a warm reception. She even invites questions, and gets them. She has that atmosphere that some quietly private people have, the stillness that invites fascination.

From up here her eyes seem sleepy, focussed inwards, and her songs are the same, ripples of feeling reflected in still pools that make you feel like a privileged eavesdropper. All of this and the quietness makes her seem like an Irish Tanita Tikaram without the air of lazy resentment. After she’s left the stage, I realise I can’t actually remember what any of the songs were about, but the impressions of the emotions involved remain etched lightly on my imagination. She’s as subtle and strong a carver as smooth river water.

After seven years out of the public eye, most bands would return to the stage in a blaze of glory. The Blue Nile don’t even turn the lights out properly first as they slope onstage like reluctant supply teachers. I mistake them for roadies until I recognise Paul Buchanan’s pained, elegant features among the men fumbling to pick up the instruments, all but flinching at the applause and the eyes trained on them. But it’s something they’ll have to deal with.

For all of their heart-stricken loneliness, The Blue Nile carry a very special feeling of empathy and homecoming around with them. Literally, in some respects: tonight’s audience ripples with the voices of Glaswegian emigres. And when one Scots voice, brought to a pitch of excitement, calls out “Glasgow Celtic!” it’s followed as fast as a counterpunch by a Rangers fan’s disgusted “fuck off!” Rather than a slit face, this results in a ripple of laughter and recognition around the auditorium. There are wry, self-conscious chuckles from the band as they finally launch into the Van Morrison-gone-synth-pop chug’n’whoop of Body and Soul.

All of this civility (and this nod to a respectable musical touchstone) prompts the question. Have The Blue Nile, for all their cult status, ended up as another branch of hoary pop tradition for the impeccably adult? Certainly they shy away from sarky pop irony, and they’ve a sheepish but determined commitment to presenting their songs unvarnished by gimmicks. Don’t even try looking for Pet Shop Boys cleverness here.

And then there’s the impeccable cleanliness of their sound – the clipped white-gold ring of it, the slow stretch of the falling-evening keyboards, even the live drums compressed to stiff Linn thuds… Or, on the other hand, the occasional hints of country in the songs from the new ‘Peace At Last’ album and how Stay’s heartbroken synth pointillism develops from a Scottish electro-pop lament to a finale with suspicious hints of rockabilly or hoedown. And, of course, there’s the way Paul’s huge voice draws from Frank Sinatra’s warm cocooning sound, rather than any from any obvious rock source.

Sinatra, though, never sounded this touched; this blown through by overpowering feelings. Even behind the theatrics of his saddest songs there was a man preening in his power; the guy who was laughing now; the honorary Mob capo whose very tone was a muscle. Behind these songs are a man who winces; who knows the scuffed concrete in the buildings he walks past will outlive him. Who’s haunted by the moments where decisions rest before they fall into becoming facts, and who’s never short of melody but is often stripped of words. And who, on this occasion, is swigging Lemsip by the gallon to beat off a vicious cold. It brings the vulnerability of The Blue Nile’s songs into sharper focus.

But then they’ve never suggested that the business of being adult is supposed to be easy, or even make much sense. ‘Peace At Last’ made that as explicit as anything ever is in the Blue Nile universe – a middle-aged album (Paul Buchanan turned forty while recording it) which showed youthful, domestic and spiritual certainties past their flush and breaking down into a unflattering mirror of doubts and shaky illusions. A new testing ground after their landscapes of young men’s fears had slipped away back into the years. While The Blue Nile don’t go so far as to drag middle-aged trappings – such as chipped crucifixes or well-dusted-yet-unloved three-piece suites – onstage with them, they wouldn’t need them. The words to these songs swim to the surface in flashes; brief snatches and sketches of anguished images that settle into the heart’s eye as if their places had been waiting for them forever.

A couple of songs from 1989’s peerlessly lovelorn ‘Hats’ album illustrate this – Over The Hillside fumbles through the burden of day-to-day failure and the pull away from home; Headlights On The Parade sees Paul lose himself in night-haunted reverie, borne on by the serpentine romantic curve of the melody over the mechanistic drumming. Tonight’s rendition of Happiness, a song already riven by doubt (“Now that I’ve found peace at last, / tell me, Jesus, / will it last?”) has to replace the soaring black gospel chorus that boosts it on record with three uneasy white men murmuring into shared mikes. You wouldn’t have thought that it could reach the same hymnal level, but it does, albeit becoming more of a private prayer.

Another ‘Hats’ classic, The Downtown Lights, has the transcending, unresolved journey-feel of a crying fit; heart-stricken keyboard swells giving way to beautifully sad reflection and back again, rising to a frantic crescendo of loss. The atmospheric abstractions of A Walk Across The Rooftops don’t give away much in the way of clues, but they do give a night-time stroll a tint of darkest foreboding.

And Family Life just overwhelms – a mid-life crisis set to song. Echoes of Tom Waits, Randy Newman and crumbling Hollywood Christmases coming together in the heartbroken drunken pleas of a man whose marriage is unravelling, whose boyhood innocence is rising to ask bewildered questions. Paul, singing like a man suddenly and shockingly shrunken, plays the role to the hilt. But there’s no storytelling, no plot; just feelings and the alcohol dissolving reasoning down to more questions and a blurred, blundering comprehension. “Say, you know, / no honeymoons, / just separate chairs in separate rooms. / Jesus, please, / make us happy sometime – / no more shout, / no more fight…” As the last scraps of piano dissolve in the hush, the frenzied applause seems to spray tears of recognition and relief.

It’s still as un-showbiz as you can get. All of these emotions are being let off on a very tight leash. The magisterial Robert Bell doesn’t crack his stern kirkman’s expression all evening, whether he’s forcing compelling crabbed funk lines out of a bass, keening his rare backing vocals into Buchanan’s mike, or crouched cross-legged onstage beating out patterns from the tiny synth in his lap. Over on stage right, P.J. Moore plays with an abstracted serenity as the Blue Nile’s bare, effective colorations flood out from his keyboards. The supplemental three on drums, guitar and synths play with their heads slightly bowed – more quiet men. So it’s the hunched, embarrassed Buchanan that’s the reluctant centre of attention; muttering wry Glasgow “let’s-get-this-over-with” asides between the songs, but singing his heart out of his chest and punching it up at the sky every time the music rises.

I guess that even with embarrassment weighing at his coat-tails, he can’t help it. There’s often a desperate strand of hope-against-hope in The Blue Nile. The near-delirious Sentimental Man ascends out of a jumble of chippy funk facets to hit gospelly heights; the intently energised strum of Tomorrow Morning rushes towards the light as if Buchanan was trying to beat the pain off by hurtling towards hope. Tinseltown in the Rain – which belts along as if it was the peak of some uncompleted Glaswegian street-opera – bursts up to a plateau of emotion, aggressive certainty struggling with a sense of doom. (“do I love you? Yes, I love you! / Will we always be happy-go- lucky?… / But it’s easy come, and it’s easy go. / All this talking – / talking is only bravado”) before exploding in a carillon of stammering, tear-jerking guitar.

And on Saturday Night you can feel the blessed surge of relief at a simple romance – “an ordinary girl” hymned with a incredulous delight, an everyday date turned into a haven from the wracked, exhausting, damn-near-religious romantic angst of the Nile songbook – turning out right for once. As the last swooning joyous chimes mount the air, I hear a ecstatic voice screaming “Yes!”. It’s my own. I can’t help it either.

Later, Bell and Moore take up positions at the synths on each side of the stage, waiting to play Easter Parade. White-clad, calmly watching each other for the cue, they have the assured and tranquil air of surgeons waiting to lay on the hands and bring out the pain. Then the song comes – plangent clutchings of piano, gushes of night-breeze synth and Buchanan singing of being alone in a rapt crowd, carried along like a solitary bubble in their exhilaration. And the empathy is summoned up and floods through us like medicine.

They can still touch the pressure points of the soul like no-one else. In another few months they’ll be hiding from us again, but that touch is going to stay with us until they feel able to venture out into the world again, blinking with trepidation at the looming feelings waiting to catch them.

The Blue Nile online:
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Sinéad Lohan online:
Facebook MySpace Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music

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