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Record Collection Reconciliation 26-30

26. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark - Dazzle Ships - Virgin, 1983

OMD's Dazzle Ships

Why I Bought It: Pure whim. I knew OMD played synth-pop but couldn’t remember if I’d actually heard any of it (in retrospect I’m familiar with “If You Leave” from the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, but that song would be more likely to discourage me from checking out their other work), so my main reason for buying Dazzle Ships is Factory Records’ house designer Peter Saville’s name on the inner liner. The sleeve is vaguely similar to New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies in its use of die-cut circles, but the slanting blocks of color remind me more of the cover for Wire’s 154. As an added bonus, there is a record inside the sleeve.

Verdict: In his All Music Guide review of Dazzle Ships, Ned Raggett calls the album “a Kid A of its time that never received a comparative level of contemporary attention and appreciation.” I did not see this one coming, so excuse the Radiohead aside to follow. While my fondness for Radiohead pales in comparison with that of the vast majority of critics and many of my peers—I tend to respect rather than enjoy their work—I understand what they tried to accomplish with Kid A. By appropriating the songwriting techniques of electronic artists, Radiohead aimed to write new forms of rock songs from the ground up, thereby avoiding the tired genre conventions of their peers. While those songs differ both structurally and sonically from their guitar-rock past (and present), the group’s unrelenting thematic emphasis on alienation in the modern condition brings continuity to their catalog (at the sake of greater emotional resonance in my view, but I’ll leave that alone for now). The album succeeds as both a statement record and a courageous step out into the abyss for a popular act, so I hardly take comparisons to its aims lightly.

Hearing Dazzle Ships for the first time with those expectations in mind was a curious experience, since I’m not familiar enough with their previous work to sense a huge shift in approach. There are three types of songs on this album: sound experiments, traditional synth-pop, and attempts to splice elements from the former into the latter. I’ll deal with the sound experiments first, since those are the most explicit attempts to push OMD’s aesthetic forward. “Radio Prague” is a sampled fanfare and an effective introduction for “Genetic Engineering,” but it’s not memorable in its own regard. “Dazzle Ships (Parts II, III & IV)” veers from industrial lurching to gothic bursts, but ultimately exists more of a moody bookend or a jarring introduction for “The Romance of the Telescope” than an actual song. “Time Zones” layers recorded time announcements from various languages, but for what purpose? These songs add atmosphere to the record, but so did the radio clips on Kraftwerk’s Radio-Active, so it’s hardly a novel approach for the genre.

“Genetic Engineering” does an excellent job of internalizing the found sound—more specifically, found technological sound—of “Radio Prague” for a more traditional synth-pop song, something neither “ABC Auto-Industry” nor “This Is Helena” can quite accomplish. Those songs try to replace OMD’s typically dramatic vocals with robotic recitations, reminding Raggett of “Fitter Happier” from OK Computer, but neither song finds the proper balance between organic emotion and technological precision. The beginning of “Radio Waves” suggests another sound experiment, but its upbeat chorus and hand claps completely reverse these expectations.

Andy McCluskey’s vocals tend to pull me out of the album’s more traditional songs, particularly the wildly emotive “International,” tampering with the atmosphere created by the more experimental tracks Yet “Of All the Things We’ve Made” closes the album on a high note, accompanying its reserved, reticent vocals with a muted guitar jangle and echoing piano notes. Whereas much of Dazzle Ships relies on surface-oriented advances to amaze the listener, the subtlety of “Of All the Things We’ve Made” suggests that it’s not the aesthetic surroundings of OMD’s music that needed tweaking, but some of their most fundamental components. Dazzle Ships certainly tries hard to invigorate their synth-pop approach with an experimental edge, but too often I hear the constituent parts instead of a wholly synthesized product of these urges. Raggett’s comparison may be somewhat accurate in terms of intent, but it’s a disservice to OMD when it comes to the final product.

27. Meat Puppets - Out My Way EP - SST, 1986

Meat Puppets' Out My Way EP

Why I Bought It: I remember taping their 1990s buzz bin entry “Backwater” from the radio for the bus ride to school, but something tells me that I would’ve been put off at the time by the cow punk of their earlier SST albums. After seeing a few Meat Puppets LPs on Pitchfork’s Best of the ’80s list, I decided to finally check them out, picking up used copies of Meat Puppets, Up on the Sun, and Out My Way.

Verdict: Out My Way is a solid stopgap EP, but not an essential release like its predecessor Up on the Sun. Side A has three fleshed-out rock songs with scaled-down country influences and amped-up fretwork, making some sense out of Mark Prindle’s consistent comparison of the Meat Puppets to ZZ Top. Side B, however, doesn’t fare quite as well. After the par-for-the-course “Not Swimming Ground,” “Mountain Line” is saved only by an intriguing instrumental outro and the high-energy cover of “Good Golly Miss Molly” couldn’t end fast enough. It’s worth grabbing for a few bucks, but none of the melodies have stuck in my head like the title track to Up on the Sun.

As an added bonus, Out My Way came with a 1986 SST catalog. Ever since Touch & Go sold me on Slint with “So far ahead of their time they’re standing behind you,” I’ve held a special affinity for record label and mail order catalogs. Unfortunately, SST avoids both band comparisons and witty descriptions, opting instead for song titles, release year, and underground standing as their go-to hooks. I am rather impressed by the presence of a custom Black Flag skateboard—$40 for the deck only, $100 fully equipped.

28. Pat Metheny / Ornette Coleman - Song X -Geffen, 1986

Pat Metheny / Ornette Coleman's Song X

Why I Bought It: While distantly removed from Song X’s release in 1986, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and This Is Our Music are two of my favorite jazz records, so I’m willing to check out most LPs adorned with Coleman’s name. As for Pat Metheny, I enjoy his performance on Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, but I haven’t yet listened to any of his original performances, something that this project will reconcile with the double LP 80/81.

Verdict: I expected Song X to sound considerably more alien, given its oblique title, release in the mid-1980s, and prominent involvement from Pat Metheny, but those expectations were clearly way, way off the mark. While the collaboration between free-jazz pioneer Coleman and crossover guitarist Metheny may have been intended to bring Coleman into mainstream 1980s music, the actual content avoids making any radical departures. The other contributors—Charlie Haden on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Denardo Coleman on drums/percussion—help ground the proceedings in the vein of The Shape of Jazz to Come and Free Jazz. Metheny takes a backseat role to Coleman, who takes most of the songwriting credits and resides in the prime real estate of the mix. That isn’t to say that its release in the mid ’80s doesn’t color the sound, since Denardo Coleman’s electronic drum treatments and Metheny’s guitar synths do make appearances, but it’s remarkable how little those elements stick out as dated.

I do wonder how a true 50/50 collaboration might have worked out, since Metheny is clearly deferring to one of his inspirations. “Song X Duo” brings some space to the Coleman/Metheny dynamic and possesses a rare moment of a warmly ringing guitar chord. Whether this moment is merely an improvised resolve or a tantalizing suggestion of what might have been is debatable, but Song X shouldn’t be seen as a failed experiment because of Metheny’s deference. It’s a solid album that chooses cohesion over fresh earth, the subtle incorporation of a new player over a war for territory.

29. Faith No More - Introduce Yourself - Slash, 1987

Faith No More's Introduce Yourself

Why I Bought It: While I love Angel Dust and, to a lesser extent, King for a Day… Fool for a Lifetime, non-“Epic” tracks from The Real Thing tend to set off my cheese metal alarm. So aside from “We Care a Lot,” I’ve steadfastly avoided the Chuck Mosely era of Faith No More. Finding an LP of Introduce Yourself for less than five bucks finally convinced me to take a shot at their pre-Patton catalog.

Verdict: Introduce Yourself exceeds my admittedly low expectations by a fairly wide margin. Both sides are frontloaded with their best songs, leaving the clunkers (“Death March,” “Blood,” “Spirit”) to bring up the rear. Side A starts off with four solid tracks—album highlight “Faster Disco,” the melodic “Anne’s Song,” the energetic “Introduce Yourself,” and the rap metal prototype “Chinese Arithmetic”—before losing steam with the aimless banter preceding “Death March.” Similarly, side B is anchored by “We Care a Lot,” “R n’ R,” and “The Crab Song” before fading off. Jim Martin’s chunky riffs and Mike Bordin’s muscular drumming hold the record together, but it’s ultimately Chuck Mosely’s vocals that determine a given song’s worth. When Mosely tries to sing (see aforementioned clunkers), the solid instrumental mix beneath is wasted, but when he alternates between semi-rapped verses and shouted slogan choruses, his inability to carry a tune is irrelevant. Perhaps I should cut Mosely some slack in this situation, since Mike Patton’s stay in Faith No More exhibits a similar dichotomy (nasal whine vs. every other vocal strategy attempted), but even Patton’s nasal crooning doesn’t ruin songs quite like Mosely’s tuneless voice can. Still, with seven worthy songs, Introduce Yourself handily defeated my lingering reservations.

30. XTC - Mummer - Virgin, 1983

XTC's Mummer

Why I Bought It: After J. Robbins compared Burning Airlines’s Mission: Control! to the antsy pop of early XTC, I picked up their singles collection Upsy Daisy Assortment and made little progress beyond “Making Plans for Nigel.” Hearing Drums and Wires and Black Sea—the guitar-centric albums to which Robbins likely referred—helped contextualize the cheery power pop of the singles collection. I would have preferred grabbing the highly praised English Settlement or Skylarking (although the latter has since been rectified), but dropping a dollar on an unheard XTC record in a beat-up sleeve seemed like a smart idea.

Verdict: Mummer lacks much of the exuberance that sold me on the power pop complements to their post-punk edge of Drums and Wires and Black Sea. The near-scat vocals in the Middle Eastern-aping “Beating of Hearts” start the album off with a bang and the energetic, scathing “Funk Pop a Roll” closes Mummer with that endlessly entertaining trick of writing a great pop song about the dangers of pop music (see also: Elvis Costello’s “Radio, Radio,” Pavement’s “Cut Your Hair,” Archers of Loaf’s “The Lowest Part Is Free,” Juno’s Rodeo Programmers”), but aside from the gloriously melodic “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages,” the lack of energy between these bookends is underwhelming. “Ladybird” is certainly pastoral, but I wouldn’t call it memorable. Several of the songs are nearly saved by great moments—the orchestral cacophony concluding “Great Fire,” the subdued melodies in the outro of “In Loving Memory of a Name,” the dark lyrical bent of “Human Alchemy”—but they still lack the internal consistency of XTC’s best tracks. It’s easy to understand why the songwriting on Mummer is muddled—it was the band’s first album after Andy Partridge’s nervous breakdown and consequent retirement from touring, drummer Terry Chambers left midway through the recording session—but I’m dismayed that two of its three best tracks already reside on Upsy Daisy Assortment.