Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Curin' with JT - Part 2 – Pop Leanings

Japanese Whispers (1983)

JT’s thoughts: While the music change is drastic from Pornography to this “album,” some of the themes remain. Robert does blow us out with a few truly playful pop songs, but the overwhelming material here is of a darker nature. ‘Just One Kiss’ could’ve fit nicely onto Pornography and ‘Lament’ sounds like a leftover track from the Faith, but the true brilliance of this album lies in the ‘singles’...’Lovecats’ and ‘Let’s Go To Bed’ are easily two of the best pop songs that Robert ever wrote. (B+)

Favorite: ‘Let’s Go To Bed’

Least: ‘Speak My Language’

Gem: ‘Lament’

Me: Another fairly major stylistic shift, as the acrid bitterness and heavy handed doom of Pornography is gone. But instead of falling back to previous outings, they take their signature mope and run it through the synth pop filter du jour in a way only the Cure could. This is the first outing where they are doing much more instrumentation than the existing band could effectively pull off in a live setting (mostly just a duo here) and there are loads of fun and interesting little keyboard flourishes, guitar fills and just random noises going on to fatten up the sound considerably. Also, we get the return of Robert’s whimsy and playfulness, especially on the two “full band” jazzy numbers, Speak My Language and super fan fave, The Love Cats. I remember thinking how patchy this album was stylistically, but now I know better, and since this is really a US collection of three UK singles, it’s hard to fault a lack of cohesiveness, and I sorta wish each single and its b-sides were lumped in order. But the way it’s spread out works pretty well as a legit album, and Japanese Whispers is a perfect bridge between the Cure’s post punk beginnings and the pop that would make them alt-super stars. (A-)

Fave: The Upstairs Room

Least: Lament

Gem: Just One Kiss

The Top (1984)

JT’s thoughts: While easily the weakest of the early Cure albums, there are enough great songs on here to put it head and shoulders above most of the other stuff that was coming out during the same time period. This album, Robert’s work with Severin as the Glove and Japanese Whispers are nice transition pieces that would lead to the Cure’s breaking through to the mainstream over the course of the next three albums. (B-)

Favorite: ‘Piggy In The Mirror’

Least: ‘Give Me It’

Gem: ‘Dressing Up’

Me: For all intents and purposes this is a Mad Bob solo album, as he played everything but the drums, and even Lol Tolhurst was relegated to “other instruments.” Coming off the high water mark of Let’s Go to Bed, The Walk and The Love Cats (aka Japanese Whispers), one would think that pop bliss was just around the next record groove, but no. The Top is a dark affair, perhaps even more so than the violent Pornography, because at least there we find some relief through activity. Now it’s just a wallowing in self-misery (so to speak) and the album is a sludgy, somewhat complex listen as a result. In fact, it’s the first Cure album that I’d say is better to break down and take in pieces rather than as a whole, as the songs themselves are mostly pretty good, sometimes excellent, but only the latter when they bounce and attempt to be happy, or at least content, in their melancholy. This is the most experimental album since Seventeen Second, but fuller, more developed and staying within defined song structures. There are a lot of atonal dirges (Wailing Wall, The Top) replacing the lush beauty of say Faith for a cold, sterile atmosphere of complete isolation. Other songs are wild and frenetic (Give Me It, Shake Dog Shake), searching for a hold and an identity. Some are like madcap carnival music (Piggy in the Mirror, Bananafishbones), but any whimsy is covered by a lurid creepiness that is equally ingratiating and off putting. And still others try to be bright, shimmering pop (The Caterpillar, Dressing Up, Birdmad Girl), but still maintain a certain barren gloom that is hard to shake. These latter are also the most satisfying lyrically, though there are some other nice (if disturbing) images scattered throughout. Overall, The Top feels like an unfocused effort that is hampered by its indecision, which mars all but the very best tunes and makes the rest so dreary in the murk, that there’s more effort than ecstasy in this brand of misery. (B)

Fave: Birdmad Girl

Least: Give Me It

Gem: Piggy in the Mirror

The Head on the Door (1985)

JT’s thoughts: Easily the most poppy of the Cure albums since TIB/BDC, and containing the breakout singles ‘Inbetween Days’ and ‘Close to Me,’ this was the Cure’s first major introduction to mainstream radio and MTV. Many of the songs on this album sound a bit dated (hey it was 1985, what do you expect!) in recording but the hooks and melodies are all exactly where they need to be and as such, this album is an amazing, easy and enjoyable listen. (B+)

Favorite: ‘Push’

Least: ‘Screw

Gem: “Six Different Ways’

Me: Ok, first off I want to say that, with similar production either way, there’s not much difference between many of these songs, as far as style goes (Latin flair, prominent synths, bouncy rhythms), and those from The Top. However, production is the key, and overall HOtD is a much livelier, more upbeat affair. (So I’m basically saying that production could have saved The Top or killed HotD.) Having said that, while the signature sulk is still in place, it’s presented playfully, almost tongue in cheek, as if Robert has embraced the melancholy he’s known for and is going to have a bit of fun with it. But again, it all falls to production, and the post break up lament of In Between Days would have sounded like a jump off a cliff under the weight of The Top, instead of a lighthearted, “la, la,” devil may care romp. It’s the juxtaposition of happy music and sad words that make it so deadly and delicious. In a similar vein, Close to Me would have been more sinister, the Baby Screams more vicious, Six Different Ways more morose and The Blood, well, that’s still a song about a hangover, so you can’t help but giggle. As they stand here, these songs are teasingly glum, never taking themselves too seriously, but also not so paper thin as to blow away in the wind. There is still some true darkness thematically, even in the shimmering “bubble gum” of In Between Days, and some numbers (Kyoto Song, Sinking) are strong indicators that despair and questionable deeds are really only a click away. (A)

Fave: Push

Least: Kyoto Song

Gem: Screw

Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)

JT’s Thoughts: And with ‘Just Like Heaven’ the Cure had officially arrived in the mainstream, and what an album to do it with...at 18 Songs and over an hour of music, Kiss Me is a bit of a monster. Robert must’ve been overflowing with creative juices at this time and hits on all different moods from melancholy (‘One More Time’ & the Disintegration sounding ‘A Thousand Hours’) to angry (‘Fight’ and ‘Shiver and Shake’) to happy(ish) (‘Hey You!’ & ‘Hot Hot Hot’) to lovelorn (‘Just Like Heaven’ & ‘Catch’) and nearly knocks it all out of the park. There are a few slight missteps and as a rule 18 songs is just overkill, but Robert somehow makes it all work. (A)

Favorite: ‘Catch’

‘Least: ‘Shiver and Shake’

Gem: ‘The Perfect Girl’

Me: I’m gonna level with ya…I really don’t like this album. Of course there are a lot of essential Cure songs on here, not only the well known (Just like Heaven) but more obscure as well (All I Want). Robert is in full form from playful to tortured and in/out of love, with a nice blend of upbeat and dreamy numbers showcasing pretty much everything the Cure could do well, up to that point. Honestly, aside from a handful of sorta trite throwaways (Shiver and Shake, Fight), there’s not a bad song on the album, but with a few exceptions, I rarely get excited when I’m listening, just recognize that these are good songs by a great band, enjoying the experience from that perspective but nothing more. I think the issue for me is twofold. 1) This is a dreaded double album, and broken down just right, this could be two “to the point” and therefore stellar releases (or at least one and some good b-sides). 2) The production/performance is rather stiff, and while HotD may sound more “80s dated,” those songs are loose and vibrant, while much of Kiss Me suffers from a stifled, claustrophobic atmosphere that hampers rather than enhances the outcome. As a result, while I love a good 95% of these songs, I never want to hear them in this setting. And really, maybe that’s just me. (B+)

Fave: Just like Heaven

Least: Shiver and Shake

Gem: All I Want

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