tremble clef

Friday, November 10, 2006

Hue and Cry, "I Refuse" (1987)/"Remote" (1988)/"Peaceful Face" (1989)/"Stars Crash Down" (1991)/"Sign 'O' The Times" (1999)

With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that that the foremost question on British minds in the year 1987 was not, "Will Maggie win reelection and become the longest serving Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool during the early 19th century?" Rather, what obsessed your typical British citizen from Land's End to John o' Groats was this query: "Wait, which one is Hugh again? And which one is Cry?"

Of course, the answer is "neither." Much as there wasn't a Godley and a Creme, or a Peaches and a Herb, or a Salt and a Pepa ("Wait, what?" - Ed.), Hue and Cry is made up of Scottish brothers Greg and Pat Kane. If I remember right, the siblings at points talked about their band moniker as having some sort of political implication -- the term did originally refer to a kind of almost vigilante law -- which would be in keeping with their intellectual leanings (the sleeve of the band's debut album offers a definition of "nominalism," and namechecks Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. Yes, quite). But it wasn't an especially memorable point, nor a particularly convincing one. I would like to think that the name was more appropriate in that the brothers in those early days were famously combative -- they were Noel and Liam before Noel and Liam -- but that may just be me.

The band's first hit was the funky "Labour Of Love," which was possibly some sort of anti-Thatcher track; it reached #6 in 1987. This was a time when the chart was dominated by lots of white boy soul bands, ranging from Wet Wet Wet to Brother Beyond to Curiosity Killed The Cat to Johnny Hates Jazz. While it's always difficult to draw lines between authentic and faux versions of a sound, Hue and Cry's blue-eyed soul was always superior to those other bands', in my mind, if much less commercial. Indeed, "Labour Of Love" would be the band's biggest hit; the two follow-up singles from the Seduced and Abandoned debut album both missed the Top 40. But I prefer one of them to "Labour Of Love": "I Refuse" has the former's conviction, but cloaks it in a kind of slick, smooth slinkiness. The guitar is especially divine, and Pat's vocals are more multi-dimensional.

A year later, the band issued its second album, Remote, and I was surprised by how much I loved it. The record used more synthesizers, and seemed a little less obsessed with being "funky." Greg has since characterized the album as them "showing off basically and it ended up being so over-produced." But I loved it precisely for that reason: I mean, I like shiny things. Accordingly, some of the lyrical grandstanding of the debut album was replaced by more modest, but therefore more approachable themes. The second and most successful single from the album encapsulated this perfectly: "Looking For Linda" was a poignant character sketch, and makes it point about class without anvillious means. "Violently," "Dollar William," the groovy "Under Neon," the shimmering ballad "Where We Wish To Remain," and the closer "Family Of Eyes" all hold up equally well, but my favorite song is the title track. It's a simple tale about the paradoxes of feeling far away from someone: "I am dead on the end of your wire/Till you twist and pull it /The tension is all that we'll ever have/May as well use it." I especially love the harmonies on the chorus -- the way the Kanes' voices split on the phrase "remote from you now," thereby perfectly illustrating the point of the song -- and indeed, the poetic phrase embedded in that chorus: "remote as old diary phrases."

Reacting to the "over-produced" nature of Remote, the Kanes decided, before starting on their third proper album, to "remind [them]selves of exactly what Hue and Cry is about -- that everything [they] can communicate through big productions and great backing bands, [they] can also do just with piano and voice." (A slightly rockist notion, but we'll let it slide.) Those words come from the sleeve of Bitter Suite, a live acoustic album that the band released the following year, and which was also packaged as the second disc of Remote (I found a copy at the Princeton Record Exchange for US$3.99, yay.) Consisting of stripped down versions of their own songs -- "Looking For Linda" and "Remote" both get reworked -- alongside covers (Kate Bush's "The Man With The Child In His Eyes," Robert Wyatt's "Shipbuilding," Thelonius Monk's "Round Midnight"...), it's a excellent album, and probably the Hue and Cry record I've listened to the most over the years. An outstanding track from the collection, quite sensibly picked as its single, is "Peaceful Face," an original Kane ballad about finding tranquility that contains some typically vivid -- though some might say overwrought and purple -- metaphors: "The wind makes a noise in the leaves/And the calm on your face, I want to believe/Through troubles contort and constrain/Yet I know you'll return to peace, once again/Like a moon on fire, or a silver wave/Bring a peaceful face to me again/Like a heart in chains, or a hole in flames/Bring a peaceful face to me again."

And then, tears: in 1991, Hue and Cry released their next album, which -- oddly, seeing how much I enjoyed the preceding efforts -- pretty much slipped under my radar. Well, perhaps not too surprising: none of the singles from the album made a splash, and the album proved difficult to find in the stores. I remember somehow hearing the title track on the radio, and being arrested by, if nothing else, the melodramatic title phrase. "My axis is spinning out of line/my emotions are like meteors on fire/such a starvellous sound/when those stars crash down": I'm a sucker for any stars-related trope, and if you add a word "starvellous" (starvellous!) to the mix, I'm pretty much helpless to resist. Years later, I came across a cheap copy of the album, and while the title song was as captivating as I remembered, the rest of the album felt like its moment, inasmuch as it even had one, had passed.

I lost sight of the band after that, and, unfortunately, so did their record company. Circa severed ties after Stars Crash Down in their opinion under-performed commercially (even though it reached #10 on the UK albums chart); the brothers consequently released their fourth album (Truth and Love) on their own label, and then began making more specialized big band and jazz albums. Some years back, I came across one of those jazz efforts in a HMV sale (it was 99 cents -- sorry, boys), and picked it up for old times' sake. It's...interesting. Yeah. If you must sample something from it, an obvious candidate would be their cover of Prince's "Sign 'O' The Times," which the band, ditching most of the song's original melody, reimagines as a kind of jazzy be-bop number. You've been warned.

In April of last year, Hue and Cry returned to the British consciousness by participating in ITV's Hit Me Baby One More Time. In their heat, they beat The Real Thing (?), Hazel O'Connor (...), China Black (!), and Sinitta (!!) by performing "Labour Of Love" and covering "Crazy In Love"; this advanced them to the finals, where they apparently came in a close second to Shakin' Stevens (!!!). It's not clear if their cause was helped or hindered by the fact that, with their preemptively shaved heads, they now look a bit like Right Said Fred.

But Shakin' Stevens, my friends. Shakin'. Frickin'. Stevens.


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