Although changing Dexy’s from a nouveau American-soul band to an ethnic Irish folk group may make singer/mastermind Kevin Rowland seem a tad fickle, his singleminded devotion to whatever direction he selects gives the Birmingham group’s first two albums a powerful sense of care and dedication that many infinitely more consistent musicians never achieve.
Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, recorded by the original eight-man lineup, boldly challenged the direction new wave had taken in 1979 and ’80, long before soul music and horns became trendy. Taking inspiration from soul men like Sam & Dave and Geno Washington, onetime punk singer Rowland anted up a batch of emotionally powerful songs that work equally well as heartfelt tributes and modern creations. Despite the enormous amount of image-building that surrounded it, Searching is a fine, expressive album with no bad tracks.
Following a rancorous disagreement with Rowland, five bandmembers (including ex-Merton Parka keyboardist Mick Talbot) split with him at the end of 1980 and formed the Bureau, augmenting their instrumental resources with singer/songwriter Archie Brown, a guitarist and a trombone player. While Rowland began rebuilding Dexys, the Bureau cut an eponymous LP (produced by Pete Wingfield) that has some of the old band’s signature horn sound and rhythmic punch but not much else of note.
Too-Rye-Ay, overalls and country instruments notwithstanding, is not as radically different at its core from Searching as it might first appear. Fronting a totally new band (including ex-Secret Affair drummer Seb Shelton) augmented with a two-piece fiddle section and a vocal trio, Rowland retains some of the earlier throaty horn work to make a few tracks (one a spot-on cover of Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said”) sound a lot like the first LP. Elsewhere, fiddles, banjos, accordion and tin whistle take over to make jolly, rollicking jug band fare — the enormous worldwide hit “Come on Eileen” and “The Celtic Soulbrothers,” for instance. Other songs mix metaphors and become something more indescribable. Although a truly weird smorgasbord, the clever melodies and arrangements keep it consistently entertaining.
Dexys’ only album release in either 1983 or 1984 was Geno, a worthwhile compilation of early singles (A- and B-sides) assembled by the band’s former label.
To everyone’s lasting discredit, the band didn’t evaporate then and there: Don’t Stand Me Down (forever to be recalled, if at all, as the “accountants” album due to yet another image change, this time into conservative pinstripes) is a torpid snore that denies entertainment on every level. With titles like “Knowledge of Beauty” and “Reminisce Part Two,” the seven lengthy songs with absurd lyrics aim for a literate Van Morrison-like looseness, but end up just falling asleep or apart.
As if Don’t Stand Me Down hadn’t made the hairline between pop prodigy and pretentious twit abundantly clear, The Wanderer (credited to “Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners,” with a cover depicting the artist as a mustachioed dandy) treads that border as selfconsciously as ever. Recorded in New York with MOR fusion-jazz specialist Deodato producing, it’s a fairly restrained collection of relatively unpretentious lounge-pop, a bit samey but not entirely without charm. Ironically, these songs cry out for the Big Pop treatment that Rowland might have felt more comfortable giving them prior to the critical debacle of Don’t Stand Me Down.