Album review by Eric Sandberg
In the late 70s and early 80s I worked, off and on, at my friend Harold's Radio Shack franchise which doubled as the only record store on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a business which operates to this very day, boasting an inventory that rivals any hip music store found in the Research Triangle.
I eventually settled in Greenville, NC after graduating from East Carolina University where I served as the first music director for the campus FM station WZMB. A radio promo 45 of Echo & The Bunnymen's "The Cutter" was in heavy rotation at the station during my tenure. "The Cutter" is a powerful and menacing slab of modern rock that belies the tuneful romanticism that pervades most of their work.
In 1985, during a visit to my parents on the coast, I stopped by Harold's store and continued to act as if I owned the place by grabbing the special order file to see what people were requesting.
The card file was stuffed with requests, all filled out by the same person and served as a virtual Eno discography. This person had become obsessed with Brian Eno and had special ordered his early solo albums, his two albums with Roxy Music, even Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, which purports to have received "Enossification" on at least one track.
Included in the orders were four albums by "Eno & The Bunnymen". I pointed out the customer's error to Harold who was worried he might get stuck with them. All four albums arrived during my stay and were interesting in that all the covers depicted the four members trudging through different exotic outdoor settings. The band looked like explorers who always stopped at the hairdressers before embarking on their treks.
As intriguing as the album covers were, I couldn't afford to take them off of Harold's hands. By 1987, I had moved to a suburb of Los Angeles and was working at the Music Plus (Believe In Us) in Monterey Park. The best and worst thing about working at Music Plus was the in-store playlist. When Echo & The Bunnymen's self-titled CD was released, I pleaded with the store manager to let me open a copy to play in the store.
Largely because my cash drawer always balanced to the penny, he relented and whenever I was allowed to pry Appetite For Destruction out of the CD player I would get to listen to the album while enduring the jeers of my Hessian co-workers. That album yielded two of E&TB's best known radio hits "Lips Like Sugar" and the Doors inspired "Bedbugs And Ballyhoo," a song that brilliantly uses words as a musical instrument.
The success of that album led front man Ian McCulloch to pack up his colossal ego and do a "Ferry," issuing two solo albums before reuniting with E&TB guitarist Will Sergeant under the name Electrafixion. After this move failed to inflate their bank balances McCulloch and Sergeant reunited with founding bassist Les Pattinson and resumed work as Echo & The Bunnymen (drummer Pete DeFreitas passed away in 1989).
The band released six further albums of new material to varying degrees of commercial and critical success, all the way up to 2014, a period in which, I'm sad to say, they lost my full attention.
My interest in the band was rekindled by my beloved daughter, a pop punk devotee, who asked me about them. I bought her a copy of the 1987 album but ended up stealing it back from her and set about scouring record stores for their back catalog.
The title of their new album The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon neatly sums up the pervasive romantic themes of their past work and, in fact, contains new recordings of arguably the finest fifteen numbers from their catalog. When I read that this new album was to be all re-recordings of past songs, I dismissed it out of hand as a lazy money grab.
But while digging through the bins on a new release Friday at Rhino Records in Claremont, CA, I got to hear the record, which apparently made their in-store playlist, and it was just too magnificent to ignore. To hear these fifteen songs, including such classics as "The Killing Moon," "The Somnambulist," "Ocean Rain" "Seven Seas" and "Stars Are Stars," (beginning to glom the origins of the album title?) all arranged and performed in a modern studio setting is revelatory.
The songs are not sequenced chronologically, they are sequenced for flow,
like any album of new material would be. As a result, it sounds less like a re-recorded hits package and more like a brilliant debut album. Ian McCulloch's voice has settled, with age, cigarettes and drink, into a deep, rumbling growl which adds a new gravitas to some of the earlier songs. His voice always had character but now he's in Richard Burton territory.
The arrangements generally stay true the originals but are more lush and weighty. As a long time casual fan I am hearing many of the songs on this record as the definitive versions.
One interesting side note: during the new version of "Bedbugs And Ballyhoo" McCulloch inexplicably shouts "Skiddlybop, skiddlybop!" Inexplicable perhaps, if you haven't already worn out your copy of last year's eponymous solo album by Robyn Hitchcock in which he shouts those very same words in reference to our "feline overlords."
Coincidence? I prefer to think no
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.