Saturday, March 28, 2015

Is There A Heaven Singing: A Look At The Astonishing New Translator Compilation From Omnivore Recordings

It's a miracle that a band like Translator ever existed.

In the dark days when Duran Duran was ruling the so-called "alternative" scene -- when it wasn't even called that -- and bands like Men Without Hats were hitting the Top 40 thanks largely to having popular videos on MTV, a band like Translator couldn't get a break. That they did and that "Everywhere That I'm Not" is now seen as sort of a standard of the era says a lot about how great this band was

The trajectory of Translator's career as a band may have been relatively brief but, at a minimum, it means that even people who don't remember much about this band probably recognize that single to this day.

Decidedly diverse, able to leap a set of styles with ease, and never as easy to categorize as even R.E.M., Translator were cats from another planet. Like I said, it's a miracle that this band ever existed, let alone got some airplay. And here's the blueprint of that miracle.

The good folks at Omnivore Recordings, alchemists all at piecing together treasures from the vaults of our musical past, have given us what will be seen as one of the most important reissues of 2015. Sometimes People Forget is a 22-track collection of (nearly all) previously unreleased cuts from Translator. That these "demos" are so remarkably good says so much about why this band was so great. This is music of an astonishingly high quality and I'm happy to say that I'd reach for this one on the shelf way before I'd reach for a lot of current bands' records.

Take, for instance, "Fiendish Thingy" which, back then, may have sounded like someone's attempt to redo early Talking Heads cuts with more force, but now sounds like a stroke of genius, all abrasive guitar-lines and nervous vocal bits that seem like The Feelies with an attitude. Punk-y, it's a gem. "Optimism" takes that vibe and goes further back to Nuggets-era notions of rock attitude -- rage, swagger, and furious drum fills.

But things here are not all rough 'cause, if anything, Translator were too diverse for their own good. As founding member Steve Barton explains in the excellent liner notes:

"We were a very powerful and original-sounding trio -- and a pretty unique band on the scene. We'd play a bashed-out song and follow it up immediately with a ballad. Sometimes we would play 'The Girl From Ipanema' -- not in an ironic way but really play it."

And one gets a sense here that Translator's fatal flaw was that they were too good at too many things. Refined a bit, they could have been another R.E.M. More overtly quirky and they would have morphed into the West Coast's version of Byrne's gang.

Still, a cut like "Get Out" is far more overtly political than anything any US band was recording in 1983. And, politics or not, the song is a masterful and sinewy jam that seems an odd version of the slower cuts XTC were cranking out simultaneously in the UK at about this time. Funky but not like the Gang of Four stuff, this is a great, great song both lyrically and musically.

And then, after that one, we get the Byrds-ian "Everything is Falling" which is thrilling in a whole other way and which sounds remarkably unlike "Get Out" earlier in this collection. By the time we reach "Gravity", we can hear a real R.E.M. -- or is it early Let's Active? -- influence. The song positively chimes and you can detect something here that recalls one-time label-mates Wire Train too -- a band desperately in need of the Omnivore Recordings reissue treatment!

When you hear tunes like "Inside My Mind" it's with the sense that some of the rough edges of early Translator material have been stripped away 'cause the band sounds too tight to be recording "demos" this good. The song has a decided smoothness that places it -- again -- closer to R.E.M. but without the obscured vocals. Direct and affecting, "Inside My Mind" is better viewed as being similar to what bands in the Paisley Underground would soon be doing in this era.

"Is There a Heaven Singing", even in its demo form, shows signs of growth for the band. The mood is closer to Opal or The Dream Syndicate. "These Old Days" is all wistful hooks -- that glorious and emotional coda! -- and thoughts of the passage of time, while "Friends of the Future" is, in an odd way, like an American spin on Bauhaus styles.

Sometimes People Forget showcases the progression of this band and while it appears that certain rough edges were being turned into sleek and shiny alternative rock bits as time went on for Translator. "Standing in Line" briefly brings back the punk attitude in the service of a pretty darn good chorus.

"I'll Be Your Summer" closes this collection in fine fashion, all summer-y vibes and a big dose of catchy-ness and the song serves as a sort of reminder of the guitar-based strengths of this American band. Funky or punky, Translator were also masters of making music that was sublimely pop. One could almost jokingly call them The Raspberries of American alt-rock based on something like this, or other tracks here.

But why insist on pigeon-holing them like that?

This compilation does what all good compilations should do: It makes you want to get out all of the band's records and reassess their place in rock history. And if that sounds like a dry endeavor, it's not because this is genuinely thrilling alt rock, for lack of a better term.

Really, in terms of pure listening pleasure, Sometimes People Forget was just a joy to play. And play again. The music of Translator is music that I enjoyed and mentally appreciated but it may not have been music that I can say I really loved. Until now.

This is an absolutely essential compilation.

Sometimes People Forget by Translator is out early next week via Omnivore Recordings.