Sunday, September 20, 2009

spare change

All too often, people overuse the word "genius". It has become a shorthand for something "quite good" rather than stand for a person of rare talent. But it's impossible to think of a better description for Paddy McAloon. Prefab Sprout - fronted by McAloon along with bass playing brother Martin, drummer Neil Conti and Wendy Smith on keyboards and vocals - effortlessly produced one of the finest albums of the 80s with "Steve McQueen" (retitled "Two Wheels Good" in the US at the litigious request of Mr. McQueen's estate) and then repeated the trick in the 90s with the sprawling, ambitious "Jordan: The Comeback".

"Swoon", their debut album from 1984, is a real and raw gem. "From Langley Park To Memphis", the 1988 breakthrough album produced by Thomas Dolby which features the #7 UK hit single, "The King Of Rock 'N' Roll", is bristling with top tunes. In fact, they pulled five singles from it. And 1997's "Andromeda Heights", much like the cinematic "Jordan: The Comeback", is starry-eyed and velvety with beautifully romantic, lyrical turns.

It was after the release of "Jordan: The Comeback" that McAloon started to talk excitedly in interviews about follow-up records he had planned, one of which was "Let's Change The World With Music". Originally recorded in 1992, the demos have stayed untouched for 17 years until engineer Calum Malcolm remastered and spruced up the tapes, resulting in the follow up to 2001's "The Gunman And Other Stories".

It's hard to believe that "Let's Change The World With Music" is, in effect, an album of demo versions. The songs are typically gorgeous and lush, with Paddy sounding so young and vibrant. Of course, it reaches us sounding slightly dated now, but that's an inevitable byproduct of being recorded nearly two decades ago.

Although not a concept album in the traditional sense, the vast majority of songs here are beautifully crafted numbers about the great redemptive power of music. Therein lies one of the reasons it didn't see the light of day in the early 90s. Interpretation can be a musician's friend or foe. And in the case of "LCTWWM", Paddy ran into numerous foes at Sony Music when they felt uneasy upon hearing the many religious references he dotted through the lyrical landscape of the album. But it's pretty clear to these ears that religion is the metaphor for the love of all music.

The songs are also typical McAloon in that each one is instantly catchy and commercial while also boasting insanely clever arrangements and lyrics that are designed to be poured over and analyzed, reminding us that McAloon can often be a magical songwriter.

Opening track "Let There Be Music" starts with a rapped intro, the only cringeworthy moment on the entire longplayer. It proudly wears its date stamp by featuring a funky house piano riff throughout, while "Ride" rumbles along a driving, metronomic rhythm and builds on a wave of organs and synths.

"I Love Music" - lyrical and melodic nod to The O'Jays noted and one of four songs which feature "music" in its title and one of three to mention "love" - is a swinging delight with McAloon paying tribute to all genres of music from classical ("Clair De Lune". Check!) to jazz ("That motherfucker Miles". Whoa!) before namechecking the "unnerving, swerving" Irving Berlin (my fave lyric on the album), Nile and 'Nard (Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards) and contemporary, avant garde composer, Pierre Boulez. Encyclopedia ahoy!

Then Paddy invokes the Lord above in name with "God Watch Over You", a single originally released in 1994 by France Ruffelle who is best known for originating the role of Éponine in the English language version of "Les Misérables" for which she won Tony Award. The song has always been a favorite of mine with its eerie verses which open into a joyous chorus. It's great to finally hear Paddy's original which falls somewhere between "The Sound Of Crying" and "If You Don't Love Me", two of Prefab's finest moments.

There's also the standout "Music Is A Princess" in which McAloon compares music to that of a great love. Sample lyric - "Extravagant gestures are wasted on her. She's a princess. I'm Oliver Twist." In other hands, this would all be unbearably cheesy, but McAloon invests so much joy and wonder in these songs that it's impossible not to be swept away with it all.

"Earth: The Story So Far", with its opening segment of twinkling keyboards, reminds me a bit of "Nightingales" from the album "From Langley Park To Memphis". It's another grand and glorious number which could have only been improved upon with Thomas Dolby's production and Wendy Smith's heavenly vocals sprinkled on top. The song grows with the introduction of sleigh bells, synth strings, clever turns in arrangement and uplifting chord sequences. All of it delivered by Paddy's breathy, honey coated voice. Sheer beauty.

Paddy revisits some of his fascination with the bolero from "Andromeda Heights" in "Last Of The Great Romantics", a piano lullaby where you can easily translate "romantic" with its double meaning - the obvious or that of a composer, both of which adhere to the overall theme of the album. It's followed by the simplicity of "Falling In Love" which walks a more traditional singer songwriter path and allows a slight respite from the musical grandeur.

Thundering bass and chiming piano start the rollicking "Sweet Gospel Music" and drive it right into another massive, uplifting chorus where a soothing and rootsy B3 organ takes over. This is where a full production would have enhanced this track. Think of the Andre Crouch Gospel Choir filling their lungs and giving it some serious church.

On "Meet The Last Mozart", we're back to lullaby territory. Synthy bleeps and minimal percussion underline Paddy's sweet and tender delivery. And who else but Paddy could use the word "manure" in a pop song?

After ten glistening jewels, the album ends on the delicate, hymn like "Angel Of Love", a fitting conclusion to an album which blends equal parts music, love and spirit. Every moment of "Let's Change The World With Music" is a shimmering beacon in the darker landscapes of popular music. It's also a shining reminder that Paddy McAloon's lyrical skills and songwriting acumen remain sharp as ever. It will easily remain near the top of my list of favorite albums of the year.

Should you dare to venture into the accompanying liner notes, Paddy took the time to jot down his thoughts about and pay tribute to lost albums like the Beach Boys' mythical "Smile" and how their legend grows over time. He goes into great detail about how mesmerized he was in his youth at the mere mention of the album. Without ever hearing a note of "Smile", he was transported by it through the column inches dedicated to it. He was inspired by other people's reviews of it, those lucky few who managed to hear it. And that is how he developed his songwriting craft. He always wanted people to be able to enjoy his music through passionate discussions of it even if nobody heard a note of it.

After nearly 20 years cloaked in storage, the myth of "LCTWWM" has certainly lived up to its reputation and exceed expectations.


  1. I've lived with the LCTWWM album now for a week or so and, having ever only adored Steve McQueen, it's certainly lifted me back into Paddy's world. The album is indeed sublime and seems to improve with every listen as the lyrics and arrangements rise and settle into my head. I compare the songwriting to that of Tennant/Lowe - who also "shimmer" against most of the current pop music. Thanks for the great review - you're right on the money with every track. I'm heading back into the back catalogue now.

    p.s. oh and great blog too.

  2. @ I Get Excited - Such kind words. A glowing review of a glowing review, if you will. :) Many thanks.

    I grew up on "SMcQ" and "Langley". It helped me hone my songwriting skills. I fell in love with "Jordan". Simply glorious.

    Totally agree with you on the Tennant/Lowe comparison. Right down to the turn of phrase and some of Paddy's vocal nuances.

    Glad you like the blog. It's a labor of love that took some convincing for me to do. I'm really enjoying it.

  3. It is hard to believe these are demo's and thanks for some of the information i did not know....a great blog that veers from tres cool to tres kitsch...or as I like to think, the best of both worlds...

  4. Prefab lyrics are like a great film; there are many lines to quote over and over. I love all their records because "Nothing sounds as good as: I remember that"! Thanks for your informed review of the new record. Nothing better than a record review from a real music lover.

  5. @David - Glad you like the review! Isn't the album outstanding? It's like an old friend stopping by for a visit.

  6. Wow - I've now explored the Langley Park and Jordan albums and I'm wondering how I lived these years without them?. Brilliant songwriting, production...I'm squealing with delight.
    How cool is it to discover new music - I've spent years immersed in house (and PSB) and the now the Sprouts are shining on me.