Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Music Box: Prefab Sprout

As much as I mourn the death of the record store, there's no denying the huge door the Internet has opened for obsessive music collectors. Not only have I been able to track down even the rarest of rare import CD singles and out-of-print Japanese-only albums, the stealth nature of online music has even allowed me to get my hands on items that heretofore would have been unthinkable: infamous shelved albums and tracks. From unreleased Romeo Void demos from a 1993 comeback attempt and Susanna Hoffs' aborted 1994 sophomore effort (known as "The Wallace Album," for Matt Wallace's production), to Debbie Harry's take on Stock Aitken and Waterman's "Mind Over Matter" and Blondie's comeback collaboration with Duran Duran, "Studio 54" and "Pop Trash Movie," I can't imagine how I would have gotten any of these if not for the Web. As successful as I've been there are still a number of things that still elude me, namely "Apocalypso," the third album by the Motels that was rerecorded and renamed "All Four One" with some songs substituted (Capitol released a wonderful expanded version of that album with four of the lost tracks, but sadly "Sweet Destiny" has never appeared anywhere, nor have the original versions of four of the other original songs), "Trash Mad," Clare Grogan's 1987 post-Altered Images solo debut, and "Electric Nebraska," the plugged-in version of Bruce Springsteen's 1982 classic.

Maybe the only thing better than finding a fabled unreleased album (did you know Adam Ant has a lost solo album too?) is buying the new album by a favorite group only to find out it is, in fact, the Beach Boys "Smile" of their career that you never even knew existed. That's exactly what happened when I got Prefab Sprout's new disc, "Let's Change the World With Music," which I heard about where I find out about all my "new" music, Along with the Style Council and Everything but the Girl, Prefab Sprout were THE quintessential Kenny band in high school, one I'm sure I took an even greater interest in because hardly anyone else knew about them.

Like most of my faves, it all began with my brother Bill's bringing home a record from college, in this case the band's 1983 four-song EP, featuring "Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone)," "Radio Love," "The Devil Has All the Best Tunes" and "Walk On." While Bill liked it, I think he was soon on to the next group (Aztec Camera, maybe?) while my obsessive collecting had just begun. (Buying gatefold picture sleeve singles from here to London and back.)

Their full-length debut, "Swoon" featured the instant classics "I Couldn't Bear to Be Special" and "Cue Fanfare" (could anyone but Paddy McAloon write a catchy pop song about chess champ Bobby Fischer?!). Then with Thomas Dolby at the helm, "Steve McQueen" (aka "Two Wheels Good") only upped the ante, as "When Love Breaks Down" finally became a bonafide hit, "Goodbye Lucille (Johnny Johnny)" ripped my heart out and "Moving the River" was the poem I always dreamed I could write. The stylistic change of "From Langley Park to Memphis" threw me for a loop, but when I finally warmed up to it, it was a full-on love affair. "The Golden Calf" might not sound like them, but it may well be their finest moment (how's that for a compliment?), and "The King of Rock 'n' Roll," "Cars and Girls" and "Hey Manhattan" deserved all the attention they got. Ironically (or was their label just a bunch of pricks?), "Let's Change the World With Music" wasn't even the first time the Sprouts had an album rejected by the suits. The real follow-up to "Two Wheels Good" was actually "Protest Songs," an oft-bootlegged album recorded in '86 that finally came out in 1989. Some say it's not their finest hour, but I like its low-key style and would argue that any best-of collection would easily require a minimum of three songs from it, including their ode to the princess "Diana."

By the time "Jordan: The Comeback" came out in 1990, I wasn't sure what format I was buying music in. When I finally got around to buying the CD I was leery of it all -- 19 songs in four "chapters"? How could I have possibly predicted it would be the band's masterpiece, a fearless concept album on which McAloon tackles his three favorite subjects -- God, Elvis and heartache. I must confess something: I hesitate to put this disc on in my house because whenever I do, it becomes a quasi-religious experience ("Scarlett Nights"), something I will play over and over and over for weeks on end. No other album affects me so. (Blame it on "Jesse James Symphony" and "Jesse James Bolero" ... and if you ever get your shit together, Albany, the "Wedding March" is all mine.)

After something so moving and so epic, it seemed to make sense that it would take seven years for a follow-up. (Who wouldn't be exhausted after that epic of an album???) But what a disappointing one 1997's "Andromeda Heights" was. The songs are a little less sophisticated and a lot more more syrupy, but it's the Kenny G-style saxophone that ruins nearly half of them, giving them an easy listening sheen they desperately do not need.

But alas, it wasn't true. The actual follow-up to "Jordan: The Comeback" was a mere two years later, when "Let's Change the World With Music" was composed and recorded as a demo back in 1992, but rejected by the record label. It's now out -- remastered by Calum Malcolm in 2009 with insightful liner notes by Paddy in which he explains how it was nearly his "Smile" -- and proves to be the glorious missing link in the Prefab Sprout discography.

A few years ago, my friend Greg Jelinek and I set out to produce the ultimate Prefab Sprout rarities CD. The 43-song "Mine All Mine" was the end result, an epic collection of b-sides, outtakes and live tracks that still makes me wonder how this many good songs could have been left off the band's proper albums. That I never got to see them live is high on my list of musical regrets. (FYI: There's a great fan site is HERE.)

Some New Songs
Overcome Lyrics
Don't Turn Away Lyrics
Elliott Yamin
Tick Tock Lyrics
Back To The Crib Lyrics
Juelz Santana
Somewhere Over The Rainbow Lyrics
I Get It In Lyrics
Gucci Mane
Want It All Lyrics
This Is It Lyrics
Michael Jackson
Abbi Lyrics
Flamboyant Bella
Who Says Lyrics
John Mayer
Get your own here.


Frank Anthony Polito said...

I can't admit to being a "fan" like you are, but I do enjoy their music.

Back in the early late '90s, I discovered them via "The Best of Prefab Sprout: A Life of Surprises" which became the soundtrack to the unauthorized MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH script I was attempting to write, with "When Love Breaks Down" becoming the break up song (obv!) for Art and Phlox.

Looks like I know what I'll be adding to my ipod later tonight!

nojarama said...

I pray for the day of both the unreleased Adam Ant (and almost as perfect as "Wonderful" was) "Persuasion" album and Deb's criminally fantastic & fabulous version of "Mind Over Matter" being legitimately released.