Wiping off the industrial grit, burning flames and sleazy sampler ooze of his night jobs in Revolting Cocks, Ministry and Pigface, Edinburgh-born/Chicago-resident singer, guitarist and pianist Chris Connelly (not the MTV film show host/onetime Premiere magazine editor but the former Fini Tribe member) has made three restrained solo albums that increase the peace and are, at heart, more pop than anything else. Paying proud homage to moody Anglo- American pop legend Scott Walker in both the style and title of Whiplash Boychild (credit also goes to the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” for the phrase), Connelly starts things off plain and obvious with the restrained Bowiesque balladry of “Daredevil” and “Ghost of a Saint” (both of which sound precisely like Scary Monsters demos) and the dolorous piano and paper-thin singing of “This Edge of Midnight” but soon winds his way onto craggier terrain: “Stowaway” (especially the “daydream mix”) takes a mild ride down the techno road, “The Game Is All Yours” does the clubland house boogie and “Confessions of the Highest Bidder” is a distracted tape collage. An ambitious lyricist who doesn’t quite have poetry within his reach, Connelly is an able, mannered singer with some intriguing ideas. Covering Walker’s bizarrely mundane exposition, “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg,” isn’t one of them, however.
Phenobarb Bambalam, which Connelly recorded in the aftermath of his girlfriend’s suicide and dedicated to her memory, cuts back on the Walker/Bowie devotions for a bit of the sterner rock aggression and dance rhythms of Connelly’s other endeavors. (Although the downcast ’60s inflections of “Too Good to Be True” and the guilty feedback miseries of “Heartburn” do follow Whiplash Boychild‘s lead; a dramatic cover of Tom Verlaine’s “Souvenir From a Dream” introduces a new design entirely.) Keeping the sound pressure beneath drastic levels, Connelly sounds like all the wind has been sucked out of his sails; the bleak record winds along aimlessly on auto-pilot, avoiding sharp turns and great ambitions, often letting the grooves shape the songwriting rather than the other way around. Although hauntingly effective in conveying gloom, Phenobarb Bambalam shunts much of the suffering in the lyrics away; Connelly’s resigned singing leaves the album’s emotional door wide open, and all the claustrophobia in the music rushes right out.
Shipwreck brings Connelly triumphantly back to shore in a swimmingly (sorry) integrated blend of unabashed pop songcraft, artfully inspired singing and diverse stylistic imagination. A wordy personal recollection of religion and family, “Spoonfed Celeste” bounces along in a vintage dance-hall idiom; the lonely, alienated portraiture of “Anyones’ Mistake” becomes a gorgeous, finely detailed waltz. Drummer William Rieflin (of Ministry, Pigface et al.), who played on Whiplash Boychild as well, fires up a breathtaking attack on “Drench” and settles into a snappy stride for “The Early Nighters,” a sublimely tuneful jazz-pop eulogy for River Phoenix. Using the consistency of his voice to seam together smooth restraint and demi- bludgeonry, Connelly lets guitarists Chris Bruce and William Tucker and bassist Bruce McNulty load up the tanks for the oppressive density of “Meridian Afterburn,” then floats calm emotional crooning over it all like a lord and master observing the battle from the safety of a castle tower. Connelly’s pronounced vocal resemblance to Bowie remains disarming throughout Shipwreck‘s eleven fascinating chapters, but as long as the real thing shows no inclination of creating music this affecting and accessible, Connelly might as well make the most of it.