Friday, October 24, 2008

Bite: A Reappraisal

I'm in music-collection pruning mode these days. Actually, I have been for about a year. (Of course, I'm continuing to accumulate new music at a rate faster than I eliminate music I have no use for, but at least I'm getting rid of things I genuinely don't want and replacing them with things I genuinely do.) And since I'm methodical and love long-term plans as long as they don't have anything to do with significant life things, I'm going about it by gradually going through all of my music, in alphabetical order, listening to everything and making decisions on whether to keep it or get rid of it. I spent a year or so on my CDs, and by the time I finished a few weeks ago I had gotten rid of about a hundred of them. Now I've started on the records, and so far I've only gotten rid of one, the Tijuana Brass Christmas album. Then I got to Altered Images and expected to cull another album.

I've always liked their first album, Happy Birthday, which combines K Records tweeness, 4AD atmospherics, and Siouxsie & the, y'know, Bansheeness better than anyone could reasonably expect. I've never listened to it much, though, and it was nice to hear it again and notice things I never had before, like the way the opening of the title track is very heavily Steve Reich influenced. So I filed it back away, mentally adding it to the list of albums I need to listen to more often.

Then I moved on to their third album, Bite (I don't have Pinky Blue). Altered Images did that thing that happened a lot in the early 80s where an idiosyncratic new wave/post punk band with a female singer got kind of successful with their first album or two and then for the next album brought in a big-name producer who smoothed out the idiosyncracies that made them appealing in the first place and pushed the band into the background in favor of highlighting the lead singer, usually to the detriment of the music and resulting in very brief success followed by breakup or lingering obscurity.

Here there are two big-name producers, the extremely different Mike Chapman and Tony Visconti. Chapman's good at wringing the sugary pop out of weird sounds like glam rock (with Sweet) and post-punk (with Blondie), where Visconti's good at, well, just about anything, but essentially at making you sound exactly how you want, whatever it takes. And if you want to sound like pop twisted into unrecognizable experimentalism (Low), or vice versa ("Heroes"), there's no one better. As for highlighting the singer over the band, just check out the difference between the cover of Happy Birthday and the cover of Bite. And yes, this was Altered Images' last album before they broke up. I think I had listened to it once before, and vaguely remembered the music as being very bland; I expected to get rid of it after listening to it one more time. But it turns out it's really fucking good.

It's very, very disco (in both the European and Motown styles, and not the honky American style), to the point where it seems like it must have sounded unfashionable in a 1983 that had moved on to...well, a different kind of disco, I guess. The twee sensibility is gone, though Clare Grogan's voice is still pretty precious, but the 4AD atmosphere and Siouxsie Sioux dark-edged punk feel still linger*, to various extents on different songs, and the whole effort to me sounds like what Everything But the Girl would have to sound like (at any given point in their career) for me to like them. The sound is very different (for one thing it's a hell of a lot more optimistic), but the blend of styles reminds me very much of His Name Is Alive's excellent R&B album, Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth.

"Don't Talk to Me About Love", the hit single, is a good song (with great ABBA-style backing vocals in the chorus), but one of the album's less memorable, though it does keep bothering me because I know there's another song that has the same melody in the chorus--something by Kylie Minogue, maybe? Or maybe it's just the similarity between Minogue's voice and Grogan's when in this context that makes me think that. Anyway, most of the album is better. "Bring Me Closer" and "Now That You're Here" are deep disco of the Giorgio Moroder variety, the former closer to his solo work but with a nice gay secondary chorus melody (the "Something that you do to me" bit) and a great cheesy sax solo in the bridge, and the latter closer to his work with Donna Summer, with a fantastic, propulsive drum beat, a gated delay effect on the guitars that I really like, and a catchy-ass chorus. "Another Lost Look" pairs Happy Birthday-style songwriting ("You told a secret but not the truth") with a more straightforward pop production. "Love to Stay" is exceptionally pleasant, an EBtG-style semi-tropical dance number, while "Stand So Quiet" is darker and almost sounds like it could be on Siouxsie and the Banshee's Peepshow. The second to last song, "Change of Heart", is the most ABBA-influenced on the album and also throws in some cheesy 50s touches that I like quite a bit, and then "Thinking About You" ends the album with a somewhat blacker sound, maybe like a slower Gloria Gaynor album track or (almost) a Honey Cone ballad.

I hope all of that sounds good, especially if you keep in mind that the whole affair is pervaded by hints of the foreboding atmosphere of Altered Images' earlier work, on some songs more than others but ever-present. If I've made the album sound derivative by comparing it to so many other things, I hope that that's taken as the compliment I intend it to be. Rather than a copy of all those other things, this is a synthesis and recontextualization. I think it's overdue for a reevaluation. And now I've written far too much about that.

Download the whole thing, if you'd like.

*Wow, did I ever get déjà vu typing that. Weird.

Totally awesome link of the day: The Brokers With Hands On Their Faces Blog

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