From the astonishing Rene Magritte-tribute cover photograph to the sparkling music and sound on Swimming‘s four long songs, this Michigan quartet doesn’t skimp or compromise in any regard. Figures on a Beach play complex, serious (but not dour) poetic compositions with intricate instrumental and vocal arrangements that rely mainly on guitars, drums and keyboards. Anthony Kaczynski has a strong, capable voice just on the edge of melodrama; multi-tracking gives him startling creative range. Hard to classify, you might think of this remarkable, unpredictable band as an American (not Americanized) Simple Minds. Don Was produced the Figures’ 1984 dance single, “Breathless.”
Standing on Ceremony finds the group, expanded to five and relocated to Boston, discouragingly stuck in an art-dance rock ditch. Confident flashes of Simple Minds, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Ultravox and their offspring may have been novel and intriguing on a 1983 American indie record, but those same stylistic attributes sound a bit quaint four years later. These guys are obviously skilled and facile, but the boat had already sailed on this record.
While the quintet’s stylistic referents are still fairly obvious on Figures on a Beach, the confident assertion of the group’s flip personality helps set them in a more original context. Rather than rely on swanky execution, some of the hooky songs are angularly offbeat and substantial; Kaczynski’s colorful delivery makes good use of the ironically serious lyrics. The only serious drag here is a pounding modern disco version of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” that seems tacked on as a commercial afterthought.