Formed in London in the early ’80s by Welsh identical twins Michael and Jay Aston, Gene Loves Jezebel flaunted a daring, alluring combination of new wave’s melodic energy and gothic rock’s dark sensuality. The band further differentiated itself from the pack with the brothers’ unconventional singing style (a bizarre mixture of yelps, screams, howls and hiccups interspersed liberally throughout the coy lyrics) and glammy androgynous appearance.
For most of Promise, the Astons generate a powerful, dense sound that falls somewhere between U2, Adam Ant and Public Image: thickly textured guitars coloring a driving beat under aggressively impassioned, generally tuneless vocals that occasionally lapse into YokOnoesque wailing. The songs have a decidedly sexual air, but it’s the sheer din — roughly produced but convincing — that makes Promise worth repeated listenings. Numbers that don’t go for maximum impact peddle a sensitive, spacious attractiveness that suggests considerable range and skill. (Bruises is a six-song album précis.)
On the atmospheric Immigrant, intelligently produced by John Leckie, the five-piece Jezebels resemble a pop-sensitized version of Bauhaus, a gritty U2 or a smacked-out Duran Duran. “Always a Flame” is aggro-dance rock with a walloping beat and a real melody; “Shame” has similar attributes, plus a catchy refrain. The US edition of the LP appends Promise‘s “Bruises,” a solid number which brings all of the band’s U2 tendencies to the fore. (“Worth Waiting For” is equally Bonoesque.) The Desire 12-inch combines two mixes of that song with three album tracks.
“Desire” also appears on Discover, the band’s first American major-label release (a development reflecting their burgeoning haircut-based popularity on college radio and in alternative media) and their first to feature veteran London guitarist James Stevenson (Chelsea, Generation X). Beyond “Desire,” however, Discover wavers from obnoxious (the Lotte Lenya-meets-Bauhaus sound of “Heartache,” the annoying push of “Sweetest Thing”) to melodious (“Kick” and “A White Horse,” which suggest a mild New Order influence). Throughout, Michael Aston warbles in an unmusical voice which blends the worst excesses of Siouxsie and Bono; it hardly matters how well Gary Lyons’ production renders the instrumentation so long as the vocal mic is on. (The British tape configuration adds eight live tracks recorded in Nottingham in early 1986. Original pressings of the UK album included a bonus disc, entitled Glad to Be Alive, of the same performance.)
A transparent effort to commercialize the Jezebels made The House of Dolls their most listenable — that’s not to say likable — record yet. Excepting a pair of songs (“The Motion of Love” and “Suspicion”) handled by Jimmy Iovine, the LP was produced by Peter Walsh (Simple Minds, China Crisis, Peter Gabriel’s live LP), who multi-tracks Aston’s vocals (without completely curbing his habit of yelping and wailing unexpectedly) and surrounds them in clearly articulated and tuneful arena guitar rock, leaving the impression that GLJ is on the verge of discovering a most unpleasant hybrid of Van Halen, U2 and a billy goat.
Michael Aston quit after The House of Dolls; without his iconoclastic influence, Kiss of Life is slick and streamlined, all spiffed up and ready to take on the charts with a vengeance. The angular “Jealous” comes off fairly well, as does the easygoing title track, but the remaining songs lack the preening self-confidence so prominent on all previous releases. Left to sing alone, Jay tones down his flamboyant style considerably, further diminishing GLJ’s dazzle. And cutting away the bombast reveals insipid lyrics (“Why can’t I / see you smile / Just once in a while / Let me see you smile” forms the intellectual body of one seven-minute song).
The Jezebels regained their equilibrium for Heavenly Bodies. The songs are still unabashedly calculated, but they’re also catchy and brimming with the assurance absent from Kiss of Life. The undulating “American Dreamer” and the jaunty “Rosary” are quite impressive, as is the serene “Heavenly Body.” “Josephina” evolves from an edgy intro into a well-crafted combination of mid-tempo hard rock melodies and spacious atmospherics. Jay Aston no longer seems overwhelmed by his role as bandleader, and the occasional vocal embellishment indicates he’s even enjoying it. Indicating a previously unknown talent for expressing deep emotions, his gentle, wistful vocals on the dusky “In a Lonely Place” make the song quietly powerful and lovely.
Some of the Best of Gene Loves Jezebel is accurately titled, as it doesn’t include anything from Immigrant or Heavenly Bodies. “Suspicion,” from The House of Dolls, is in place, but that album’s biggest single, “The Motion of Love,” isn’t. The raucous “Desire” and the dizzying “Heartache” from Discover made the cut, as did “Jealous” from Kiss of Life. A few lesser-known album tracks sweeten the pot, but the two new songs don’t add much. The 18-cut Voodoo Dollies does a much better job of recapitulating the band’s work, and has a useful booklet to recommend it as well.