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.