Smart and sophisticated garden-pop-jazz. Imagine Aztec Camera meets Steely Dan with absurdist lyrical inventions and close-formation female backing vocals — that’s Prefab Sprout, the unique creation of Newcastle singer/songwriter Paddy McAloon. Performed as a trio joined by a guest drummer, the debut EP and Swoon (no overlapping tracks) reveal a unique and ingenious wit — the album’s “Cue Fanfare” is about chess champ Bobby Fischer — supported by light and mellifluous music in a number of refined styles. Remarkable and enticing.
Steve McQueen (issued in the US as Two Wheels Good) was produced with a fine hand by Thomas Dolby, who also plays on it as the group’s fifth member. (Drummer Neal Conti had signed on fulltime, making the Prefabs a standing quartet.) A significant advancement over Swoon, the adult gossamer pop includes the remarkably airy “When Love Breaks Down” (guest produced by Phil Thornally, indicating the band’s strong stylistic backbone), the obscure but lovely “Appetite” and the mesmerizing “Goodbye Lucille #1.” “Blueberry Pies” sounds like a lost Sade tune; “Horsin’ Around” is as cavalier as its title. Brilliant!
On the airy Langley Park to Memphis, the quartet gets minor assistance from Pete Townshend (inaudible acoustic guitar on one track), Stevie Wonder and a gospel group; Dolby produced and played keyboards on four tracks. Notwithstanding one energized exception (“The Golden Calf,” which bizarrely resembles Cheap Trick), the easy listening lounge music — deco-era strings, movie-music horns, stage-whisper vocals, restrained tempos — is boring and uninvolving, burying McAloon’s offbeat lyrics in too deeply mellow an audio disguise.
After that loss of stylistic footing, it took the band a while to regroup — a situation effectively camouflaged by the belated official release of Protest Songs, an oft-bootlegged collection that was actually recorded on the heels of Steve McQueen, and suffers from that proximity. There’s a cavernous emptiness beneath the gossamer surface of unfinished-sounding songs like “A Life of Surprises” and the blue-contact-lensed soul of “Wicked Things” that’s all the more frustrating when you can hear the germs of so many squandered ideas.
Dolby’s return helps insure that not a drop of Jordan: The Comeback‘s considerable inspiration is wasted. With atmospheric worries out of mind, McAloon is free to rush headlong, through the doors of the Brill Building, across the Great White Way, into the arms of his muse. Echoes of Sondheim and Jimmy Webb resonate throughout the joyfully faux samba of “Carnival 2000” and the eerily precise Swede-pop of “The Ice Maiden,” but that’s not the real story here. The scoop is that Prefab Sprout has revived the concept album by crafting an interlocking sequence of concept mini-albums. Roughly half of Jordan‘s nineteen (!) tracks fall into two tightly laced suites that pursue McAloon’s dual obsessions; religion and celebrity (or, more specifically, God and Elvis). The latter supplies two of Jordan‘s most moving songs (“Jesse James Bolero” and “Jesse James Symphony”), while the former gets the best line (“One of the Broken”‘s salutory “Hi, this is God here,” and an open letter of apology from Lucifer: the breathless “Michael”). Remarkably dense, intensely rewarding listening. The related American EP joins the album’s souled-out “Machine Gun Ibiza” with three non-LP tracks.