Monday, September 12, 2011

Curin' with JT - Part 1 – Uncharacteristic Beginnings and Early “Goth”

JT and I have been at it again, this time tackling the rather lengthy back catalog of the Cure. I think it’s safe to say that, along with the Smiths, the Cure was the musical magnetism that first brought our friendship together nearly 20 years ago. That being said, the importance of this band on our lives, both separately and as the Duo of Awesome, was at one time immense, and doubtless our musical tastes and general perceptions of life and how to live it (to throw in a little REM there) wouldn’t be quite the same without them.

Mad Bob

So, again, when we bash on a record a bit, it’s from the tough love perspective of a true fan who expects much from their heroes and whose disappointment is great when they fail to deliver. I will say here that over the past couple or so releases, our faith (pun intended) in the Cure as a reliable source for inspiring music has rather waned, and we have literally spent hours discussing whether that change was in us as older folks or in the band as, er, older folks. However, with the output of their latest effort, 4:13 Dream, we together found a spark that made us think that Mad Bob and crew still had it, and I think it’s safe to say that we’re both looking forward to any new material with more aplomb than, well, dread.

Before were get started, note that, for you purists our there, we are including Boys Don’t Cry and Japanese Whispers as proper albums, even though they’re technically singles collections for the US market (though we both decided to lump the former in with Three Imaginary Boys).

Also, for the sake of reader digestion, I’m breaking these albums down into four separate posts.

Ok, now that we have that business out of the way, get out your lip stick, your eyeliner, pull on your hair, pull on your pout and let’s move…

Three Imaginary Boys/Boys Don’t Cry (1979/1980)

JT's thoughts: These albums are both extremely strong. They weren’t (totally) punk. They weren’t (totally) new wave. What they had was a very strong set of catchy punky new wavey pop songs that still sound fantastic 30+ years later. The addition of both “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Killing An Arab” gives Boys Don’t Cry the decided edge on rating. (TIB- B, BDC- A)

Favorite: (TIB) “Fire In Cairo”, (BDC) “Boys Don’t Cry”

Least: (TIB) ‘The Weedy Burton’ (BDC)“So What”

Gem: (Both) ‘Another Day”

Me: In 1979 Robert and Co were pretty much jumping on the punk/post punk bandwagon and to me they sound like they’re trying to be the Buzzcocks. That in and of itself is neither good nor bad, just what it is, because the end result is some great pop punk and some, well, songs. Of the two collections, Boys Don’t Cry is the most consistent because it contains all the singles (Killing an Arab, Jumping Some Else’s Train, Boys Don’t Cry) plus the best songs from Three Imaginary Boys (Accuracy, Grinding Halt, Fire in Cairo, Three Imaginary Boys). The problem with Three Imaginary Boys itself is that songs like Meathook, So What and Foxy Lady (the only instance in the Cure of a cover on a proper album or when someone other than Robert took lead vocals) are charming but ultimately uninteresting throwaways, not worthy to stand up against even third tier numbers on Boys Don’t Cry (which are second tier numbers on Three Imaginary Boys) like Object or Subway Song. There’s very little to point to what they would do just a year later (Three Imaginary Boys, Another Day), though occasionally this sound would pop up again in future efforts. Basically, this batch of songs was one to get out of their system, which they do amply in most instances, while others present some of the best examples of the genre. (3IB – B+/BDC – A-)

Favorite: Jumping Someone Else’s Train

Least: Foxy Lady

Gem: Another Day

Seventeen Seconds (1980)

JT's thoughts: The Cure start to come into their own on this album. TIB/BDC were both fun poppy albums, but this album truly sounds like a ‘Cure’ album. There were hints of where the band were headed with ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ and ‘Subway Song’ but I can only imagine the shock on the A&R men’s faces when they heard the album and there were no obvious singles. Having said that, next to the Big D this album has always been my favorite by the Cure...we’ll see if by the end of these reviews I still feel that way. (A+)

Favorite: “Seventeen Seconds”

Least: “The Final Sound”

Gem: “In Your Room”

Me: From the first notes it’s obvious that this is a completely different type of music from the Three Imaginary Boys Don’t Cry era. Augmented to a four piece and with two new members, it’s almost a different band, but I think this has more to do with Robert’s vision than personnel changes. Slower, sparser, stripped of basically all but the barest bones of pop conventions, in a lot of ways Seventeen Seconds is more sketches than fully realized songs. But the ones that are (Play for Today, A Forest, M) remain some of the strongest of the Cure’s early output, while other minimalist offerings (Secrets, At Night, Seventeen Seconds) and a couple of soundscape pieces (A Reflection, Three, The Final Sound) showcase an experimental vulnerability that they would never quite touch on again. There is very little jangle or bounce, even on the more upbeat tunes, and the bleak lyrical imagery, often present on Three Imaginary Boys Don’t Cry, is matched by the music all the way around, as any lightheartedness from before is completely thrown to the side. This is more a mood setter than the depths of despair that would come later, so in a lot of ways Seventeen Seconds is the rough outline of everything the Cure would do for the next couple of years, and even throughout the rest of their career, and should be listened to as a whole instead of dissected song by song. (A)

Favorite: M

Least: At Night

Gem: Secrets

Faith (1982)

JT's thoughts: This is it...this is where the Cure began developing the label that still clings to them despite the variety of phases and sounds the band have gone through. This is the beginning of the Cure as GOTH but it isn’t really. The songs are too strong and timeless to truly be labeled any one thing but, as the press tends to do, they said Goth and 30 years later the Cure are still a Goth band. If this is Goth, this and Pornography have to be the best Goth albums ever released, because Robert never gets lost on making ‘scary’ songs so much that he forgets to make beautiful songs. Suck that Peter Murphy! (A)

Favorite: ‘The Funeral Party’

Least: ‘Primary’

Gem: ‘’The Drowning Man’

Me: Aside from maybe Boys Don’t Cry (or more like Standing On a Beach), I have the most memories of this one pre Disintegration; just dark, foggy nights on childhood FL back roads, freaking out friends with the downbeats and somber lyrics. This one was pretty much a guidepost for me between about 15 and 18 and is still my overall favorite Cure album. But musically speaking, whittled back down to a trio with the loss of keyboardist Matthieu Hartley, Faith is ironically more keyboard heavy than Seventeen Seconds, and the addition of these keyboards, along with more overall F/X, helps to fill out much of the sound, picking up nicely where the latter album left off. Faith also benefits from a more fully developed set of songs, almost all low key, morose outings with plaintive melodies over lush and sweeping or tribal, rhythm-centric backdrops. The best moments of the album are the last two songs, The Drowning Man and title track; minimal, emotive and grief ridden dirges that (along with the Funeral Party) were the first true stamp of the gloomy, gothic shroud that has haunted the Cure, and made them millions, ever since. This album more than any other points to what they would do eight years later with Disintegration, and while they certainly became more frantic and foreboding in the space between, they were never as delicate or lovely. (A+)

Favorite: The Drowning Man

Least: Primary

Gem: Doubt

Pornography (1982)

JT's thoughts: Ok, at times, Robert does get a bit scary on this album, but again he never forgets the craft of song (Again, suck that Peter Murphy!), and while these songs are bleak I never feel anything but empowered listening to this album. The drums are almost tribal and very driving, leading to a feeling that this is perhaps the closest the Cure ever got to recording a ‘metal’’ album. (A)

Favorite: ‘A Short Term Effect’

Least: ‘Pornography’

Gem: ‘A Strange Day’

Me: Turn the despair knob to 11, please. I guess in some ways Pornography is the logical follow up to Faith, at least lyrically, as Robert has gone from pensive to bitter and often acts out his emotions in violence instead of gloomy complacency. Musically it’s so much heavier, so much more biting, abrasive and just downright sinister when compared to the sweeping, elegant heartache of Faith, it’s hard to believe this is the same band. I think the key ingredient here is anger, even fury, and this is most evident with the drums, which are pounded like hammers into anvils, never letting up, and the rest of the instruments follow suit. Even the lightest moment (A Strange Day) is wrapped in mystery and confusion, and the rest of the album is a diatribe that more than once pushes towards murder. But having said that, there is quite a lot of beauty beneath the icy keyboards and drilling guitars, as lovely vocal melodies (The Figurehead, Cold) weave their way in and out of the barrage, making this bitter pill not only bearable, but enjoyable again and again. Turn it up for maximum misery. (A)

Fave: Siamese Twins

Least: A Short Term Effect

Gem: The Figurehead

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