Thursday, February 22, 2018

Another Lost Look: A Quick Review Of The New Altered Images Box From Cherry Red Records

Altered Images made music that was very much of its era, even as the band consistently sought to make tunes that would transcend the stylistic confines of the Eighties. The Scottish group, famous for lead singer Clare Grogan's delightfully chirpy duties as a perky front-woman, made only 3 records but each was distinctive and utterly unlike anything else in the New Wave era, even as the singles and album tracks rode forth wrapped in all the trappings of those years.

Collected for perhaps the first time like this, the band's 3 studio albums and singles are gathered together here on Altered Images: The Epic Years box-set from Cherry Red Records. The 4-CD set, dropping tomorrow, collects nearly everything the band recorded, and it is an essential purchase for both long-time fans of this group, and those wishing to discover their charms for the first time.

The debut album, 1981's Happy Birthday, reveals a band that owes a huge debt to Siouxsie and The Banshees. That shouldn't be too surprising given that Steve Severin from The Banshees produced this record. However, the title track was produced by Martin Rushent. While the single "Happy Birthday" remains a glistening marvel of a pop-song, all chiming hooks from the heavens, other numbers here are nearly as infectious. "Beckoning Strings", with its multi-tracked vocals from Grogan, and pulsing bass-lines from Johnny McElhone, is the playful cousin to stuff like "Spellbound" from producer Severin's own Siouxsie and The Banshees, while "Idols" tries to hit at some kind of dark-pop like that band had already produced. Elsewhere, the lighter "Real Toys" offers up a showcase for Tony McDaid's supple guitar-work, over the top of Michael Anderson's forceful hits on the drums. For me, the real highlight of Happy Birthday -- beyond the incredible title track -- has always been the rippling "Legionnaire", a number that very nearly floats away on the wispy mood it conjures up. More proto-Cocteau Twins than anything else here, it's sort of surprising how these Scottish pioneers seem to be inventing the sound of another set of Scottish pioneers. The remainder of Disc 1 of Altered Images: The Epic Years is given over to non-album singles that present another aspect of this band's appeal. And if "Dead Pop Stars" and a cover of T.Rex's "Jeepster" indicate anything, it's that this band could not be confined to the styles circumscribed by producer Severin here on this fine debut recording.

Pinky Blue from 1982 saw the band turn their sound over to "Happy Birthday" single producer Martin Rushent. Decidedly poppy, the record remains the band's most perfectly-realized offering, and the one where nearly every track sounds like a fine single. If the title cut offers up Clare Grogan's chirpiest bit of vocal hiccuping, it's a cute and charming performance, and one that is very much a product of 1982. Elsewhere, the smoother "See Those Eyes" sees Grogan modulate her vocal style a bit to fit the smoother styles of the backing track. Of course, Pinky Blue yielded the monster hit "I Could Be Happy", a blast of icy-edged electro-pop, and the cut still sounds about a dozen years ahead of its time. Rushent, clearly, deserves a lot of credit here for hearing something manageable in the band's brand of peppy New Wave, something that he could tame a bit. Where Severin seemed to want to produce the band in such a way that they sounded like his own band, Rushent, thankfully, gets the appeal of this lot and offers up the very finest performance ever recorded by Altered Images. Elsewhere, a misbegotten cover of Neil Diamond's "Song Sung Blue" remains an aberration, and the sort of thing that would have been better reserved for a flip-side to a single, while the lighter "Goodnight and I Wish" seems an airy outlier in this band's catalog. Disc 2 of Altered Images: The Epic Years is given over to a bunch of singles, including the seminal "Dead Pop Stars", and re-recordings of "Real Toys" and other early tracks.

The final studio album from Altered Images, 1983's Bite, is not a record that is universally loved. Produced by Tony Visconti and Mike Chapman, and featuring a new drummer (Stephen Lironi), the album is sleek pop that, while well-done, offers few big hooks. Frankly, Bite seems like a serious misstep from the band still, and the sort of thing that remains nearly lifeless when compared to similarly-styled offerings from peers like Human League or ABC. "Don't Talk To Me About Love" remains a faint stand-out track, but it pales in comparison to earlier numbers from this group, while "Change of Heart" serves as a good showcase for Grogan, even as it remains a fairly weak track. Every time I try to find a way to love Bite (1983), the only song that usually jumps out at me is "Another Lost Look", a track that has a bit of life to it, and a number that remains unburdened by the production it's saddled with. Disc 3 of Altered Images: The Epic Years is given over, like the first 2 discs of this box, to a few singles from the era.

Altered Images: The Epic Years offers up a briefer final disc of remixes to complete this collection of the group's studio work. Some of these are nearly as good -- if not better -- than the album versions so this disc serves a listener well, rather than just being a way to offer up the remaining pieces of the studio legacy of Altered Images. The sort of box-set you almost didn't realize you needed, Altered Images: The Epic Years collects nearly everything from Altered Images in one place, and, as such, it remains an essential collection. This is, quite simply, some of the best, most invigorating New Wave one is likely to re-encounter from the early Eighties. And if the band eventually fizzled out on their final studio record, at least they did it with a great deal of style, Clare Grogan remaining the ultimate diva of the post-Blondie era.

Altered Images: The Epic Years from Altered Images is out tomorrow on Cherry Red Records.

[Photo: Uncredited from the band's Facebook page]