Tuesday, July 14, 2009

back to Black

In my teens, I used to frequent the import record shops that dotted Greenwich Village. It was still an area of NYC that was home to artists, actors, designers and all manner of creative types before it gave way to the gentrification of the mid-90s and with it, Starbucks and baby strollers.

Every Saturday, the new imports would arrive. I'd hang out for hours soaking in the new sounds from across the Atlantic. I remember one weekend in particular in 1984, in the middle of picking up the latest UK chart entries, a magnificent record came barreling through the speakers. It was moody with a chiming piano throughout and an urgent, booming male vocal that was both confident and romantic, cautionary and carefree. Parts of it reminded me of both ABC and The Associates. Although, in retrospect, it doesn't sound like either of them.

The single, housed in a simple sleeve featuring a photo of a half full vase and a yellow flower having fallen off its stem against a background of a black curtain, immediately caught my attention. I bought it on the spot. "Hey Presto" became my introduction to Black. And then...nothing.

In the days before the internet, it was easy for acts to release stuff and never reach people's ears outside the UK. At the time, Black never featured in "Smash Hits". Not a note was written in "Billboard". Nothing. One single and then silence. It was like I stumbled across this marvelous record by accident.

That was until 1987 when I perused the weekly, UK singles chart and saw "The Sweetest Smile" making its way through the wave of Stock Aitken Waterman productions that occupied numerous positions in the top 75. Surely this had to be the same Black from a few years back. Indeed it was. 

Without even hearing a note of it, I asked the owner of my favorite record shop to order the single for me. It arrived the following weekend and I was enraptured all over again. The single eventually peaked at #8 on the UK singles chart.

"Wonderful Life", Black's signature song, was released shortly afterward and it, too, peaked at #8. But it became a classic, a touchstone. It's one of those songs every artist hopes to have in their career and then has the unenviable task of trying to work beyond its mark. The single set up the album, also called "Wonderful Life", to be one of the most essential releases of 1987.

For some unknown reason, the US record company had the brilliant idea of adding a sax to "Wonderful Life". Perhaps they thought it made Black sound more like Breathe. Unfortunately, the single didn't repeat its worldwide success in the American charts.

After three, beautiful albums for A&M - "Wonderful Life", "Comedy" and "Black" - Colin decided to go the independent route in a time when it often represented an artist was past his sell by date. But in 1993, after establishing his Nero Schwartrz label (Get it, foreign language enthusiasts?), Black returned with "Are We Having Fun Yet?", a fantastic collection of songs that showed there was a brilliant life for Colin beyond the constraints of a major label.

The album was released before the omnipresence of the internet. I recall reading about the album and it happened to coincide with one of my many trips to London. By this time, I had become a marketing executive at EMI and I managed to track down a telephone number for the label through my contacts.

I phoned up and spoke to someone that may have been Black's manager. As I think back, I'm not sure who it was. That detail has been lost to the mist of time. I recall scheduling an early evening appointment to pick up a copy of the CD. The label was housed in a small office above a restaurant. It felt a bit like a clandestine rendezvous for illegal substances. But I had a wonderful conversation with the manager, revealed my deep admiration for Colin's work, handed over the required amount of pounds and promptly inserted the CD into my Walkman for the trip back to the hotel. Such is my dedication to great music that moves me.

Enough with the past. Let's get to the present. Colin Vearncombe has graced us with his latest collection, "The Given", a full four years since his last fully formed solo album. Apparently, plans are afoot to release a second album, under the Black moniker, in September. Not sure what the reason is for the split personality.

"The Given" is an economical effort only in number of songs and purchasing ability. It is being given away free (Hence, the title?) at Colin Vearncombe's official website for a limited time. The rich tapestry of music within the zeros and ones is more substantial than most artists release in a lifetime. The common thread among all the tracks is, of course, Colin's passionate and exquisite prose draped against a backdrop of simple, earthy instrumentation. His voice is in fine fettle, a warm croon with a nod toward Scott Walker at times while still maintaining his unique, melancholic, vocal stamp. And I'd like to add that it's his finest work since "The Accused" which was released a decade ago.

"Naked" channels a bit of Roy Orbison and Jimmy Webb with its impassioned string arrangements, ringing guitars and cardboard box drumming. There's also a bit of Motown soul sneaking in around the edges.

Southern gospel and a hint of Muscle Shoals is dialed up on "Blondes" while "Chapter And Verse" is a lilting number with shades of early 70s, AM radio classic, "Ventura Highway", with its sexy Telecaster in tow. California soft rock meets English midlands pop. Probably my favorite track on the album.

"Breathing Underwater" is probably closest to the first, three Black albums. It's more "Everything's Coming Up Roses" than "Wonderful Life". It starts out with a scratchy, blues guitar and a driving drum pattern which gives way to a joyous chorus framed in tympani rolls and glorious backing vocals. The song ends with a repeating, Rhodes vamp out. My choice for second favorite track.

"John Lee Scared" is a boozy, little, stripped-down number while "Beneath The Radar" is a dreamy, acoustic song on which Colin's voice floats effortlessly over the reverb drenched guitar and echo chambered backing vocals. 

A Spanish themed guitar and brushed snare lead off "No Second Chances" which conjures up visions of a smoky, backstreet lounge.

"The Given" closes with the jaunty "Misbegotten Child" with its jangly guitar and driving rhythm section. Overall, the album is a solid affair and a must have if you like thought provoking lyrics, clever twists, emotionally delivered vocals, memorable melodies and top notch songsmithery. Like the best albums, each subsequent listen reveals deeper layers both sonically and lyrically. Definitely one of my top ten albums of the year.

1 comment:

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