Modern English

  • Modern English
  • Mesh & Lace (UK 4AD) 1981  (4AD) 1992 
  • After the Snow (Sire) 1982  (4AD) 1992 
  • Life in the Gladhouse EP (UK 4AD) 1982 
  • Gathering Dust EP (UK 4AD) 1983 
  • Ricochet Days (Sire) 1984  (4AD) 1992 
  • Stop Start (Sire) 1986 
  • Pillow Lips (TVT) 1990 
  • Everything Is Mad (Imago) 1996 
  • Life in the Gladhouse: The Best of Modern English 1980-1984 (4AD) 2001 

Colchester’s Modern English (which originally formed as the Lepers) undertook a drastic change of direction after Mesh & Lace, a load of monotonous droning and shouting by a precious art band oppressively weighed down by its self-conscious 4AD pretensions. After the Snow, on the other hand, is a flawed but rewarding batch of hard-edged, melodic dance songs, a style to which the group has subsequently adhered. Instead of the muddy production that favored only the drummer on the debut, the second album has both sparkling sound and overtly normal musical intentions. If nothing else on After the Snow is as striking as “I Melt With You,” it’s still a fine album. (Besides the After the Snow track for which it’s titled, the four-song Life in the Gladhouse 12-inch contains three non-LP songs. The decade-later US reissue of the album adds a half-dozen tracks from UK singles, although it’s worth noting that two of those are “Life in the Gladhouse.”)

Ricochet Days sounds like an attempt to reconcile the band’s abiding commitment to free artistic expression with the lure of growing American stardom. It equivocates between finely wrought slices of catchiness (“Hands Across the Sea,” “Rainbow’s End”) and slightly more obscure efforts. Greater intricacy nicely tints all the material; pristine production by longstanding collaborator Hugh Jones adds to their appeal. Still, Modern English remains precariously perched on the fence between making a musical statement and aiming for commercial easy street.

Stop Start made it obvious which way Modern English was leaning, and it was nowhere particularly challenging. Especially bad sign: the refrain of “Ink and Paper,” co-written by erstwhile Rubinoo (!) Tommy Dunbar, is too reminiscent of “Born to Run” to be a coincidence. With nowhere left to turn, the group sat out the remainder of the decade.

An inferior remake of “I Melt with You” is the red radio carpet on which Pillow Lips returns Modern English (containing three-fourths of the Stop Start lineup, led as ever by singer-guitarist Robbie Grey) to action — as if anyone had noticed their absence. The diverse record contains some easy-to-like bounce-pop (“Beauty,” “Care About You”) but other tracks either drift along listlessly (like the enervated title tune) or sag under clichéd lyrics (“Life’s Rich Tapestry,” now there’s a novel idea) and equally unimaginative melodies.

The five non-LP tracks from Modern English’s pre-pop era (’80-’81) gathered on the 12-inch Gathering Dust are atmospheric, dense, aggressive and abrasive.

[Ira Robbins]

See also: This Mortal Coil