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Protest Songs


1984's  Swoon was one of the decade's great debuts, thanks to Paddy McAloon's ingenuity and lyrical flight which married the muso flourishes of Steely Dan to the beat-pop of Postcard Records (Orange Juice and Aztec Camera) with added Motown-via-Newcastle cod-soul. McAloon's allegorical twists are sometimes too obtuse, as on Don't Sing, which could be about D.H. Lawrence or James Joyce, and is as instant as an airport novel. The pattern is repeated throughout, notably with Cue Farfare and Green Isaac I and II. Best of all is Cruel, where McAloon's dissection of New Man ideals vs old style machismo (I'm a liberal guy, too cool for the macho ache / With a secret tooth for the cherry on the cake) is both poetic and lucid.

Protest Songs was recorded in a hurry, after their second album, Steve McQueen, but released after the third, From Langley Park To Memphis. As the music settled down into less complicated breeziness, so did the lyrical jigsaws. While there is nothing breathtaking about any of this, McAloon's second-division songs still better much of the competition's premier offerings.


2 stars








Protest Songs


Let's  get this straight at the outset; this isn't the new Prefab Sprout album and they aren't protest songs. Confused? Listen to Paddy McAloon and you probably will be-but the record proves that worse things happen at sea.

The Kitchenware account claims that Protest Songs is to Steve McQueen and Langley Park what Nebraska was to The River and Born In The USA. It was recorded in September, 1985, in Newcastle, just after the release of Steve McQueen. The plan was to sell it as a limited edition to fans attending their concerts that winter, but CBS Records decided that would be, yes, confusing and vetoed it. Subsequently, a box of white labels went missing from the corporate offices which explains the wide availability of bootlegs. Now that it has a legitimate release the band are doing no promotion, no single, and there's a minor flap on to ensure that Prefab Sprout devotees place it accurately in their overview of the band's aesthetic development.

This palaver may well seem a touch precious. On the other hand, Protest Songs could be their most durable collection to date. While it lacks From Langley Park To Memphis's sheen, CD players need not feel affronted by its straightforward almostlive ambience. For all their limited resources and intentions, they sang their harmonies, filled in the strings and brass on keyboards, and the outcome is very close to their trademark lush soft-rock but with a rough edge to salt the sweetness.

As usual, the songs are pretty, warm, user-friendly; Diana, Tiffanys and Wicked Things you'd walk down the street whistling with a dumb-ass grin on your face. But, as a writer, Paddy McAloon's game is deception-probably. In contrast to the storytelling of Langley Park, the lyrics here are diaphonous, a tease. That is, they do make you wonder whether they're deep or meaningless. However, there seems to be a theme, if not a concept: not sonorous Life, but life with a nervous little I, lots of ums, ers, and a wary glance over its shoulder.

The first two tracks, The World Awake and Life Of Suprises, are in philosophical vein behind the up-and-running light soul sounds; human existence is a flickering thing and, if you'll take Paddy's advice, the only way to cope is face it (rather than pretend we are A1, ultra-fine). After that the songs float tantalisingly between meditation and fragments of anecdote. Til The Cows Come Home, thudding along to the beat of what might be an industrial press, actually describes how, socially and educationally, things have changed for the better-but the resigned tone implies plus ca change. Dublin sells itself as nostalgia for pretty colleens, then turns to what lies Behind the soft and peachy skin / Where DNA or God begins (crap or a corker according to taste, you see).

Protest Songs is an odd combination of modesty and overweaning ambition-extremes successfully moderated on Langley Park.


4 stars