The weird title of the first album by this Liverpool group — essentially a duo of Gary Daly (words, keyboards, vocals) and Eddie Lundon (guitar and music), plus Dave the percussionist — does convey a sense of what China Crisis is about. The rhythms — R&B, funk, reggae, Afro-gypsy, bossa nova — are so gently, modestly, melodiously proffered that it goes down too smoothly. Then you notice that the dreamily enunciated sentiments interface the political and the personal, with hopeful dreams and admissions of self-doubt and inner struggle. The cohesive feel is maintained despite four different producers; China Crisis’ sturdy intellectual backbone emerges often enough to avoid wimpiness.
Working With Fire and Steel has just as much going for it. Sax and/or oboe (!) appears on all but two tracks, with more horns on occasion and even strings (real and synth). Mike Howlett’s production, plus a new drummer and a permanent bassist, help the group attain a bit more sonic snap; the lyrics are less tortured, if just as thoughtfully and melancholically personal. (The EP of the same name unites two versions of the title track with a pair of pretty, wistful instrumentals originally released as British 45 B-sides.)
Flaunt the Imperfection was produced by Steely Dan’s Walter Becker but, while displaying a bit of Dan influence (see “The Highest High” and “Black Man Ray,” both memorable pieces of modern art-pop), it’s far more obviously a refinement of the band’s own style. The lyrical art seems so artless, the musical airiness so effortless; like the first album, it’s almost too subtle for its own good. (Almost.)
By What Price Paradise, Daly had handed the keyboards over to a fifth band member, but that had no audible, directly traceable influence compared to the switch to the production team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. The sound has more edge to it, yet is somehow less delicate, less distinctive than on previous albums. In fact, the vocals (lead and backing) on one track are so different that the group is nearly unrecognizable. Still, it pretty much is China Crisis; if the songs occasionally seem more conventionally written, they’re still attractive, even almost (gulp) commercial. What’ll they think of next?
On Diary of a Hollow Horse, aside from three tracks overseen by Mike Thorne, a return to Becker is what. While Thorne uses a sparer sound, Becker often opts to add sax, flute, extra guitar and female backing vocalists. But the album is more familiarly typical of China Crisis (again with a taste of musical Dan-ishness), and grows with repeated plays. In an uncharacteristic break with the usual conscious self-control, the group releases some tension in the nearly anthemic (by these standards) “All My Prayers.” Diary is no match for their finest work, but a gratifying effort all the same.
The China Crisis Collection is a balanced overview, but contains only one track from the ’89 LP.