Never mind the fact that Gene does bear a marked resemblance to the Smiths. The British foursome had a similar approach to UK guitar pop — a love of joyous songcraft composed of equal parts intelligent words, cheeky melodies and a sense of grandiose melodrama. But where Morrissey basks in his miserabilia, Gene singer/lyricist Martin Rossiter kicked against his grim London world, finding solace, community and redemption in his band’s music. Despite the often-dreary subject matter (which ranges from homophobia to gang violence to premature death), Olympian retains an exuberant spirit that never gets mopey or maudlin. Rossiter’s songs are witty and articulate, often fraught with an epic temperament (“Sleep Well Tonight,” the bracing “To the City”), even when capturing the minutiae of urban life and love (“Truth, Rest Your Head”). On such soulful and electric anthems as “Haunted by You” or tender-but-tough ballads like “Your Love, It Lies,” Gene conjures up echoes of the Faces, the Jam — even Queen. Guitarist Steve Mason is a wonder, whether he’s getting orchestral on the majestic title track or plying the proverbial hot licks all over “A Car That Sped.” In the end, Olympian is so good Rossiter can be forgiven his occasional Mozzer-like growl; Gene’s touching and terrific tuneage is enough. (The A-sides of the band’s first two singles, “For the Dead” and the splendid “Be My Light, Be My Guide,” were left off the British release but added to the US edition as bonus tracks.)
The Olympian EP features a different mix of “Olympian” (retooled for UK pop radio with the piano up and the guitars down), as well as two UK non-LP tunes and a fine BBC radio version of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.” For the Dead reprises the band’s first 45 with producer Phil Vinall’s remix of the title cut and the original B-side (“Child’s Body”), plus live takes of “Sick, Sober and Sorry” and “Truth, Rest Your Head.”
To See the Lights collects all of Gene’s consistently excellent B-sides, including the way-Smithsy “I Can’t Decide If She Really Loves Me,” the ripping title cut and yet another fine Rossiter romantic lament, “How Much for Love.” There are also some fab radio sessions (like the amazing, bare-boned “A Car That Sped”), such live thingies as the shambolic take on the Bacharach/David standard “I Say a Little Prayer” (recorded at Glastonbury in ’95), plus “For the Dead” and “Be My Light, Be My Guide.”
Given Gene’s momentum, Drawn to the Deep End should have been a significant breakthrough, yet it is something of a disappointment. The instrumentalists are in excellent form, handling the rockers and ballads with equal parts theatrical drama and dynamic subtlety. The tempo- shifting, suite-like “New Amusements” remains Gene’s most ambitious moment on record, and Steve Mason’s guitar stands out in nearly every song, especially the Smiths-like “Where Are They Now?” The unavoidable problem here is Rossiter, who has devolved into a weeping, humorless, pathetic boo- hooer (or its flip side, a milquetoast who gushes thanks to anyone who cares for him). While his lovely baritone sounds even better than Morrissey’s, the insufferable lyrics lack his wit. Sobbing desperation ruins the otherwise beautiful “We Could Be Kings”: “Will you hold me like a child / Will you catch me when I fall / Can you hear me when I call / When I’m hungry and I’m cold / Will you feed me from your palm / And shelter me from harm / Can you love me?” “Speak to Me Someone” and “Why I Was Born” also suffer from high-maintenance sappiness. Rossiter regains his effectiveness when inhabiting other characters (examining the long-term effects of child abuse on the bruising “Voice of the Father,” conjuring up London’s fog and grime on the murder ballad “The Accidental,” making like Freddie Mercury on “I Love You, What Are You?”), but they’re no match for the self-absorbed love cries.
Thankfully, Rossiter toned it down on Revelations, but the effort is in vain. He continues to send a mixed message, proclaiming himself to be “In Love With Love” (as an excuse for infidelity), then sighing that “Love Won’t Work” one song later. He dabbles in socialist politics here, as clumsily as he shouldered love on the prior album. Activism poorly suits the vocalist’s mannerisms; he turns compassion into dogmatic finger- pointing. The well-meaning “As Good As It Gets” offers vague working-class angst, and groan-inducing lines like “Yes, I started life retarded” damage the Tony Blair- questioning “Love Won’t Work.” Much of the album rocks harder than Gene’s norm, but the louder guitars don’t convey intensity and too many of the ballads lack memorable melodies. On the plus side, the riffs and emotional drama of “You’ll Never Walk Again” almost reach U2 levels, “Angel” poetically questions social class and the piano-driven “Something In the Water” boasts a winning chorus (despite Rossiter’s silly vocals). Revelations provides added evidence for those convinced that Gene are Smiths slaves: the best melody here, the pub shout-along “Fill Her Up,” shares its hook with “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” while the “The Looker” lifts its “this is the last line I’ll ever sing” lyric directly from Morrissey’s “Disappointed”. A pedestrian, forgettable affair.
Rising for Sunset is a bland live set that magnifies Gene’s troubles. Ballads like “Your Love, It Lies” are handled deftly, and Rossiter is in fine voice (especially on “You’ll Never Walk Again”), but the band fails to generate any spark on the harder numbers.
As Good As It Gets: The Best of Gene is an adequate retrospective, but hardly essential. The disc contains such rarities as the suicide ballad “Drawn to the Deep End” (omitted from the album of the same name) and a cover of the Jam’s “Town Called Malice,” yet it omits many gems from Olympian.
Such a downturn in quality relegated Gene to a forgotten also-ran in the Britpop realm, so few noticed the band’s return to form, Libertine. The set gets off to a weak start with the pretty, empty, whining and overlong “Does He Have a Name?” and “Is It Over?,” an inexcusable rip-off of the Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over” that raises the melodrama to unlistenable heights. But the rest of the album delivers a batch of solid tunes, sprinkled with reggae (!) rhythms. This new ingredient gives Mason new avenues to explore, making “We’ll Get What We Deserve” and the excellent “Spy in the Clubs” especially powerful. Rossiter also shines, returning to Olympian-era form on “O Lover,” a gentle Marvin Gaye-styled plea for a girl to leave her abusive boyfriend. He even allows himself a light-hearted moment on “Walking in the Shallows,” a charmingly awkward request for a one-night stand (“My heart’s full of pain / So I’ll follow my groin, not my brain”). Rossiter still wields the schmaltz too liberally (“You”), but Libertine is Gene’s most satisfying album since Olympian.
Gene disbanded in 2004.