If these four young Welshmen weren’t so studiedly intense, the Alarm might be able to drop the Clash/U2 pretensions and use their evident talent to make enjoyable records. Singer Mike Peters and bassist Eddie MacDonald write catchy, anthemic songs, but the tireless exhortations are tiring and, worse, can become ludicrous.
The Alarm compiles pre-LP UK singles: “The Stand,” the first (but not last) pop song based on a Stephen King novel, “Marching On” and three more slices of roughed-up folk-rock. Declaration further exploits the pose (and the big haircuts) with a batch of memorable tunes (“Sixty Eight Guns,” “Blaze of Glory,” “Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke?”), all smeared with Peters’ melodramatic bawling. The Alarm’s got an excess of passion; what they lack is the subtlety that keeps U2 from becoming histrionic.
Mike Howlett produced Strength and managed to rein in some of the Alarm’s brassiness, slowing them down, focusing Peters’ vocals and opening up the sound with dynamics and silence. Keyboards and stronger songs also contribute to the overall improvement, but it’s still an Alarm LP. Highlights: the title track, which rips off Billy Idol to amusing effect, and “Spirit of ’76,” a Springsteenish crypto-ballad about the group’s punk roots. Other tracks sound like old Gen X and Mott the Hoople. Weird but encouraging.
U2’s ascendancy to global domination did not pass unnoticed in the Alarm camp, and the dull and disappointing Eye of the Hurricane has its share of echoed guitars and sweeping vocal theatrics. (Although, to be fair, most of the songs have too little personality — of any sort — to warrant comparison.) “Rain in the Summertime,” an energetic dance-rocker with a catchy melody, is the album’s standout; the oddest piece of inanity here is “Shelter,” which mixes Pete Townshend’s riff from “The Good’s Gone” with lyrics lifted (in part) from various Stones songs.
The six-song, 42-minute Electric Folklore Live (in Boston, April ’88) captures the most sanctimonious excesses of the Alarm’s live show, not to mention those of the band’s unaccountably fawning devotees. The overall effect is a bit ghoulish.
The Tony Visconti-produced Change. was supposedly intended as a poignant lament on the dying Welsh language, but the Alarm lacks the lyrical subtlety or musical finesse to pull off such an ambitious conceit. Instead, the band sounds more desperately derivative than ever, taking half-cocked stabs at techno-glam (“Sold Me Down the River”), blue-collar wisdom (“Devolution Workin’ Man Blues”) and power-balladry (“Love Don’t Come Easy”) amidst the usual barrage of mock-messianic boot-stomping. Oddly, Change.‘s only affecting track is also its most over-the-top: the heartfelt choir-and-orchestra-accompanied “A New South Wales.” (In a commendably unusual move, the Alarm also released Newid., a complete Welsh-language version of the album.)
The pompously titled Standards collects thirteen (fifteen on the CD) of the band’s near-hits plus three new recordings: the self-aggrandizing and self-explanatory “The Road,” a slick remake of an early single (“Unsafe Building”) and a pointless run-through of John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War Is Over).” The CD bonus tracks are “Marching On” and “Blaze of Glory.”