A man of great promise....
This is a comprehensive box set, with an informative booklet that covers this (sometimes) underrated eighties group's album and singles output. The albums included are:-
CAFE BLEU (1984)
Formed in early 1983 by ex-Jam frontman Paul Weller and keyboardist Mick Talbot, The Style Council were a strange phenomenon. Often derided by the cognoscenti, in many ways they were an experiment gone wrong. In many other ways, they were an excellent group that produced some great albums with a soulful, often adventurous sound and some biting, socially conscious lyrics.
As far away from The Jam as it was possible to get, really. This album was a brave mixture of soul stylings, contemporary jazz and a bit of rap influence thrown in. Some of the tracks are jazzy, piano-driven instrumentals like “Me Ship Came In” or smoky jazz like “Cafe Bleu”. Others feature guest artists like Tracey Thorn on the lovely, late night jazz of “The Paris Match” and various guest instrumentalists on the rap-influenced “A Gospel” and “The Strength Of Your Nature”.
The hit single “My Ever Changing Moods” is stripped down to a soulful piano-only version, while the other hit, “You’re The Best Thing” features a different mix, with saxophone to the fore. “Headstart For Happiness” is a jaunty, upbeat poppy number which again shows this material is just nothing like anything The Jam put out, and all released just a few short months later. The sea change was really quite remarkable.
Where the Style Council had a problem was in the image they carefully created, swanning around in Paris in gaberdines, pictured sitting at cafes pretending to read “Le Monde” and drinking cappuccino, wearing dark glasses and so on. After Paul Weller’s gruff “man of the people/no bull” persona in The Jam, it all seemed very pretentious, contrived and just a little silly. It garnered a lot of ridicule, which was a shame, because the music was good. A brave experiment that deserved more credit.
OUR FAVOURITE SHOP (1985)
This album was The Style Council’s high point. A collection of mainly highly politicised songs that see the jazzy piano instrumentals and smoky club torch songs of “Cafe Bleu” jettisoned in favour of a more full band, rocky sound, slightly more akin to how The Jam may have progressed had they stayed together, certainly in the case of the rousing “Walls Come Tumbling Down” and the non-album single “Shout To The Top”.
Kicking off with the pertinent “Homebreakers”, the tone is set - 1985’s Britain under Thatcherism is a miserable place to be. They were not wrong. “All Gone Away”, despite its tuneful lilting acoustic backing, and “Come To Milton Keynes” continue in the same vein, then “Internationalists” raises the tempo, musically, with some poppy funk, although the cynical, world-weary message as the same. “A Stone’s Throw Away” is another cautionary, sad tale about Police and government brutality. Weller’s voice is so soulful but pointed on all this material.
“The Stand Up Comic’s Instructions”is a monologue delivered by Lenny Henry, as a bigoted Northern working mens’ club “concert secretary”. The depressing thing is, in 1985, dinosaurs like this still roamed the earth.
“A Man Of Great Promise” (to deceased poet Adrian Henri), the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “Down In The Seine” are all a bit of a throwback to the previous album. “The Lodgers” is another Style Council anti-Thatcher classic as is “With Everything To Lose” (later re-worked as “Have You Ever Had It Blue”).
The unique appeal of this album is that it message is so strong, so powerful, such a protest yet the music is uniformly so tuneful, often so light, so melodious. Weller has never sung better, either. Nobody else ever made political protest so musically enjoyable.
Although the rain macs and Gitanes had gone now, Weller and Talbot were now dressed in pure white denims for promotional photos. A terrible time, politically, but an even worse time for fashion.
THE COST OF LOVING (1987)
After the high point that was the politically-motivated “Our Favourite Shop” from 1985, two years later the Style Council were back with a shorter album of more polished, professional-sounding soul/funk/pop, tapping into what was now starting to be called “RnB” - laid back, synth-drummy late night US-influenced radio soul.
The album was much less instant and “in your face” than its predecessor, tending to wash over you somewhat. The two singles from the album, the soulful “Waiting” and the even more relaxing and very appealing “It Didn’t Matter” are probably the high spots. The stark pointed “A Woman’s Song” and also “Fairy Tales” show that Weller had not quite lost his political edge, but overall, it seemed as if he wanted to drop the political opinionating and just chill out, man. The plain orange cover seemed to exemplify that feeling too. Bright, one dimensional but just maybe lacking a little in individual personality?
“Right To Go” featured rap/hip-hop, for the first time since “A Gospel” on 1983’s debut album, from guests The Dynamic Three. However, it does, unfortunately, sound dreadfully naive all these years later.
“Angel” is another of the album’s high points though, a beautiful soul ballad. “Heavens Above”, “The Cost Of Loving” and “Walking The Night” are all eminently listenable tracks - good hooks, nice soul feel and Weller’s voice as good as it could get.
The sound on this remastered release is good, as warm and full as it can be given that The Style Council's out put was always rather trebly and while this album is often cited as being the start of The Style Council’s decline (I guess commercially that was certainly true), personally I have always found it to be an enjoyable listen every now and again. The fact that in 2018 I still dig it out has to be a compliment. It is, however, very much of its time in many ways.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP GROUP (1988)
Released in 1988, for many, this was the death knell for The Style Council - an apparently preposterous, pretentious, indulgent piece of work with a couple of elongated “medley” style tracks where one leads into another. The rambling ten-minute “The Garden Of Eden: A Three Piece Suite” and “The Little Boy In A Castle/A Dove Flew Down From The Elephant”. Just a look at the titles is enough to start one doubting this product. Classical piano (albeit beautiful at times), some lovely strings and occasional impressive vocals but a general feeling of going nowhere in particular. “Little Boy”, in fact, was just a piano instrumental, why the need for the extended double title? This was a brave experiment, and I have to admit I enjoy it occasionally, and admire Weller for doing it, but even when writing this review, I find myself being a bit confused by it all.
However, despite these clearly “experimental” outings that admittedly meander around without really getting anywhere, there are two absolutely copper-bottomed classic Style Council singles on here in the amusing “Life At A Top People’s Health Farm” and the soulful pop of “How She Threw It All Away”. The album is immaculately played and performed and the sound quality on this remaster is full and warm, beneath the sometimes over-orchestration on many tracks.
There are other highlights too. The album’s piano-driven opener “It’s A Very Deep Sea” is beautiful. There is also another soulful feel in “Confessions 1,2 and 3” The acapella harmonies of “The Story Of Someone’s Shoe”, while impressive, are a bit twee, to be honest, however. “Changing The Guard” is a gently appealing little song, though, Weller duetting well with his wife at the time, Dee C. Lee.It was clear to see, despite the good points on here, however, that Paul Weller, although clearly wanting to diversify and offer up different sounds and creations, was in the midst of something of a creative quandary. As much of the vacuous feelings of the 1980s were fading away and that decade’s pretentions being cast away as indulgent and vain, similarly, it was probably time to call and end to The Style Council’s brave, but ultimately fruitless journey.
You could imagine NME journalists back in 1988 shaking their heads and composing their “poor old Paul Weller” invective after listening to this.
Time for Weller to change direction.
MODERNISM: A NEW DECADE (1989)
Recorded in 1989 but not released until as part of a box set in 1999
I am afraid to say extended mixes of dance music leave me cold. Yes, it is ok to put on and just leave it on while you do something else (like write a review, I guess!) but I struggle to gain much musical satisfaction from endless keyboard loops and pounding, metronomic drum machines. "Love Of The World" and the more vocal "Can You Love Me?" have a vague appeal. I like the intro to "That Spiritual Feeling" and the whole vibe of the sax-driven track a lot. Indeed, it would be resurrected on one of his first solo releases in 1993. "Sure Is Sure" is a bit intoxicating at times, I have to admit and it does feature Weller's voice at points in it.
Look, it is all listenable, as such, it just doesn't get my juices flowing much. Sorry to all you late 80s house fans.
I admire Paul Weller for having the sheer stubborn belief to put out an album of house music at the time. However, the fact that a few years later, having hit rock bottom, creatively, he began channelling his inner Nick Drake, Traffic and "What's Going On" era Marvin Gaye and utterly reinvented himself has to say something.
Also included are all the non-album singles, "b" sides, and a full disc of extended mixes and previously unreleased rarities.