The enigmatic Frank Tovey (formerly known as Fad Gadget) is a creative and unpredictable writer, singer and performer whose records all differ considerably from each other; he’s an acquired taste with little consistency. After an eerie second 45 (“Ricky’s Hand,” on which Mute head Daniel Miller contributes synthesizer and Fad plays a “Black and Decker V8 double speed electric drill”), he released Fireside Favourites, an album that closely resembles early Human League. Except for the title track, which bounces along cheerfully, the basic mixture is dour vocals, heavy, repetitive bass lines, solid drums and odd noises. Tacky tunes like “Coitus Interruptus” only cheapen the proceedings.
Incontinent, which pursues the grubbier side of Fad Gadgetry, employs more instrumental variety and better production. Forgetting tripe like “Swallow It” and the charming title tune, some of this is interesting enough, but none is really involving; overall, the self-ndulgent album rambles incoherently.
Taking a major leap towards lyrical and musical maturity, Under the Flag joins pristine production quality with a no-nonsense synth drive that could pass for dance music, and shows absorption of a mild soul influence. (Then-labelmate Alison Moyet sings on a few tracks and even adds saxophone to one.) The funky approach gives Tovey a direct and accessible sound, but that’s not necessarily an accomplishment — it’s hard to avoid the feeling that he’s slumming in such relatively commercial seas.
Easy Listening, while fairly routine for the eccentric Boyd Rice, takes Tovey off on a conceptual trip far from his usual recording format. “All sounds either collected or generated…by non-musical appliances” — in other words, this ain’t music at all, but rather repetitive, rhythmically ordered noises, mostly on the order of church bells and other things that can be struck. Not all that radical and not in the slightest bit charming, the LP (recorded in 1981) is structurally impressive but aggravating in the extreme.
By the time of his first American release, Tovey had retired his alter-ego. The lively dance-rock — solid beats, strong synth lines, spurious electronic noises and occasional guitar solos and funk bass — on Snakes & Ladders alternately suggests contemporaneous Wire and Human League, but Tovey can hardly be accused of imitating anyone. His sense of humor makes “Collapsing New People” (retrieved from the British-only Gag) a satiric treat; “Luxury” and the poetic but dull “Small World” display an unexpectedly serious and mature side.
The Fad Gadget Singles offers eleven peeks at Tovey’s past, from his overlong and rudimentary 1979 debut (“Back to Nature” b/w “The Box”) and “Ricky’s Hand” to 1984’s “Collapsing New People.” Most of these tracks are available on albums, and none are particularly essential, but new fans may find it an agreeable means to sample and catch up on his import-only releases.
Hardened by its grim indictments of political strife, violence and modern urban life, Civilian sends Tovey to an adventurous land wherein percussion and triggered electronic soundmakers take the lead. Interestingly, rather than underscore the album’s focus on (generally not dance-oriented) rhythm, the mix allows vocals and the scanty melody instruments a fair chance to compete. If not for Tovey’s firm grip on song structure, this radical record might have turned into an endurance test. As it is, Civilian poses its intriguing challenge without discouraging participation.
Never one to repeat himself, Tovey next corralled a bunch of acoustic musicians and turned his attentions to American labor ballads. Despite the anomaly of an electronic baby strumming politely in the folk woods, the delightful Tyranny and the Hired Hand is successful on its own terms. Tovey’s courageous defiance of stylistic preconceptions may not have aided his commercial career any, but he deserves credit for exceedingly fine taste in both material (“Sixteen Tons,” “Joe Hill,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “North Country Blues”) and execution.