Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The Beautiful South - 0898 (1992)


Released March 1992

Recorded at AIR Studios London

The Beautiful South were a strange entity. For some reason, I don’t view them as I do any other group. They are certainly not a “rock” group. They weren’t soul. They weren’t post punk. I honestly do not know how to categorise them. They were totally unique. I can’t really express what I want to say very well, but they certainly were a one-off. Eschewing traditional rock musical cliches, they had a subtle, melodic, light sound, full of evocative piano, gentle acoustic guitars, sensual organ, occasional big brass punchy parts. On the whole, though, the music and three-part vocals (on this album from Paul Heaton, Dave Rotheray and Brianna Corrigan) is subtle, tuneful and light. You would expect, therefore, celebratory, good-time pop songs. You get that, musically, but lyrically you get something much darker. Cynical, sardonic songs about the human condition, traditional life, politics. All of those populate their songs, but beneath that there is still always a real sensitivity and compassion. You did get the impression, though, that Heaton, in particular enjoyed dressing up what were often ghastly lyrical tales in irresistible pop melodies. The group were also utterly faceless too. Apart from Paul Heaton, I can’t remember any of them. Their image and dress was decidely ordinary. Not their songs, though, they were special.

“36D” is a melodic, infectious and movingly cynical song about sexual objectification. The piano, bass and guitar are perfect, as is the brass when it kicks in on the chorus. As always, Paul Heaton’s voice has a vocal just packed full of plaintive pathos, despite its meanness, at times - “close your legs, open your mind…” is the first line. Despite the poppy melody, Heaton turns every song into a biting issue. “Old Red Eyes Is Back”, about a sad old alcoholic has him at his most compassionate, though, even though the song is a critically observational one. The thing about The Beautiful South is that if you start to get a bit downpressed by the relentlessly sombre subject matter, such as on the suffocating “We Are Each Other”, you can, as on that song, lose yourself in the delicious poppy tune. That is why they were such a schizophrenic group.

The catchy, poppy theme exists on "The Domino Man", which is a jaunty, singalong number with some excellent brass and "We'll Deal With You Later" has the same punchy vibe to it and a great piano riff. "You Play Glockenspiel, I'll Play Drums" is a captivating, almost funky number, with an intro very similar to Billy Joel's "All For Leyna". "When I'm 84" is an infectious and wryly amusing look at ageing. It also has a funky break in it. "Here It Is Again" has a deep, rumbling bass intro and some tinkling piano before an insistent vocal rides over one of their rockiest songs, full of rolling drums and cutting guitar interjections (yes). "I'm Your No. 1 Fan" is an upbeat duet between Heaton and Corrigan. "Something That You Said" has a moving harmonica intro and one of those classic heartbreaking, but vaguely disturbing Heaton vocals and then Brianna Corrigan joins in to what is a most dark duet.

“Bell-Bottomed Tear” has Corrigan at her most fragile and vulnerable-sounding. The pathos drips from this song like the tears of the title. “This is the woman you laid…” she laments, staring off into the distance, like Cathy in “Wuthering Heights”. It is a shame she disagreed with Heaton about the subject matter in some of his songs and left the group one album later, because she got it so right. She was, undoubtedly, the group’s best ever female vocalist. “The Rocking Chair” is just tear-jerkingly beautiful, when she sings “Am I skinny, a shade too fat, my friend the cat knows all about that…” it just moves my soul. Not sure why, just something about her plaintive delivery. I simply love the song.

This album was Brianna Corrigan’s album, if you ask me. (although it is clearly Heaton's masterwork, let's be honest). Her finest three-quarters of an hour, even though she only sang on two songs - "Bell Bottomed Tear" and "The Rocking Chair". These are the two which forever stick in my mind. The sound is 100% better than on "Choke" as well, thankfully.


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