Almost nine years ago at Washington, D.C.'s Warner Theater, a grand, ancient vaudeville house, British synth-rock quartet Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark -- by then generally known as O.M.D. -- stood on-stage beaming and looking somewhat bewildered at a house full of enthusiastic fans. At one point, bassist-principal singer Andy McCluskey grinned at his long-time partner, keyboardist Paul Humphreys, then stepped up to his microphone and said something to the effect of, "Geez, it's kind of odd that after all this time we finally get noticed because of this silly little love song." And with that they launched into "If You Leave," the very same silly little love song that, as a result of a certain set of circumstances A primarily its inclusion on the soundtrack to the John Hughes film Pretty in Pink -- had wormed its way to number four on the U.S. Top 40 chart several months earlier.
However, the song, while pleasantly innocuous, was wholly unrepresentative of O.M.D.'s previous work, a quietly brooding synth soundscape punctuated by periodic bursts of buoyant pop brilliance (anyone out there recall "Electricity" and "Enola Gay"?). Over the course of seven albums, from 1980's self-titled debut to 1986's The Pacific Age, the group experimented with found sounds, scratching, and fetching ambient atmospherics. But until John Hughes, until "If You Leave," they'd registered little more than a blip on the American pop-music radar screen. Ironically, O.M.D. never recovered from the success of that single, subsequently releasing an EP and a greatest-hits package that included one new song, after which Humphreys split. McCluskey carried on, releasing a now-forgotten 1991 album. Then nada.
Curiously, del Amitri, a thinking person's rock-pop-folk band from Scotland, finds itself in a situation not too dissimilar from that of O.M.D. in 1986. Through a confluence of related elements -- the rise of the Adult Album Alternative radio format, a giddy video clip, and, not incidentally, a silly little love song, the jaunty "Roll to Me" -- del Amitri, at long last, has seized the attention of Americans, who for ten years and through the band's first three full-length albums have regarded the band with a yawning indifference. Curious, too, that the perfectly likable two-minute-long "Roll to Me" somewhat misrepresents its makers, because del Amitri's three most recent albums -- 1989's Waking Hours, 1992's "Change Everything", and this year's Twisted -- teem with singer-songwriter-bassist Justin Currie's biting, acrid tales of romantic disillusionment and everyday ennui, which he renders in a clear, evocative voice. Listening to them end to end likely would have a disturbingly deflating effect, the emotional equivalent of getting the wind knocked out of you. Consider this: Waking Hours, arguably the band's best album, opens with the lines, "It seems like weeks since you looked at me baby/Without that look of distaste" ("Kiss This Thing Goodbye"), and it concludes with "And we'll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow" ("Nothing Ever Happens"). So what gives with this "Roll to Me" stuff?
"It's kind of weird," admits del Amitri guitarist Iain Harvie, alluding to the sudden ubiquity of the single, his thick Scottish burr pouring through the phone line from a hotel room in New York City. "The song popped up when we were recording, and it seemed kind of like a throwaway. At first we weren't sure whether we'd stick it on the record or stick in on a B-side. But then we thought, 'Well, it's a pretty good song,' and it works okay within the context of the album, and there's nothing wrong with having pop songs. But we didn't stick it on the album expecting it to be the big single. What the hell -- it's a funny old world."
In truth, "Roll to Me," which surfaces midway through the twelve tracks on Twisted, serves as brief breather between the album's two halves, both of which bristle with Currie's wrenching songs of romantic dissipation ("One Thing Left to Do," "Tell Her This," "Driving with the Brakes On," and especially "It's Never Too Late to Be Alone"), personal despair (the brutal "Never Enough"), and societal numbness ("Food for Songs," "Being Somebody Else," "Crashing Down"). Not unlike Elvis Costello, Currie sees love and romance as transitory, but still can't help believing in the possibilities, even if he sometimes settles instead of selects (the new album's "It Might as Well Be You").
"We're not sort of miserable guys and unhappy," notes Harvie. "I'm not even that miserable about love. But it's an easier thing to write about than the joys of love. Although if we'd done a whole album of 'Roll to Me's, then we'd probably be perceived as incredibly transparent. It's much more difficult to sound witty if you're happy, particularly for a bunch of guys from Glasgow, where the standard of talking to each other is sarcasm -- sarcasm is sort of a cultural touchstone in Scotland."
Harvie, now 33 years old, and Currie, the sole holdovers from the band's beginnings in Glasgow more than a decade ago, form the core of del Amitri. The pair share writing credits on six of Twisted's songs (Currie wrote the other six himself), which the band -- Currie, Harvie, guitarist David Cummings, and keyboardist Andy Alston, abetted by Lightning Seeds drummer Chris Sharrock -- assembled in a rented country house south of London early last year before going into the studio to record the tracks. "Actually, it was pretty much a mansion," Harvie says with a tiny snort. "We deliberately wrote the record in the rehearsal room, which was much more fun, much more spontaneous. We all went out and stayed in this big house, sort of to try and capture that Led Zeppelin thing: You know, go into the country and get your heads figured out while you make the record," he adds with a laugh.
They set up their equipment in the house's enormo dining room, Harvie relates, and when he and/or Currie had an idea for a song, the band would convene to work on it. By way of example, he explains that he and Currie collaborated on the chiming "Here and Now" and the affecting ballad "One Thing Left to Do," while Currie wrote the mostly acoustic "Tell Her This" solo on guitar, then brought it to the band. In all cases, Harvie notes with a touch of that aforementioned sarcasm, his partner shuts himself away to compose the lyrics: "He's kind of precious about them." As for the music, the setting and setup resulted in a bigger, rockier, more immediate sound on several of the songs, with Harvie, notably, getting demonstrably frenzied on guitar during the outro to "Being Somebody Else."
"Maybe we should release 'Being Somebody Else' as the next single," he jokes. "I can see these radio station people run screaming from that -- it's like six minutes long and about taking drugs. I don't think they'd be interested at all."
Probably not. And yet the song functions as the album's sonic set piece, building gradually, almost imperceptibly, as Currie depicts a hollow contempo lifestyle -- "How are you going to pass the time of day/In your beautiful empty shell/When you've shaken the hands of so many sinceros/You feel like a fake yourself" -- and then finally erupting into an aural tsunami with Harvie spraying stinging shards from his guitar. It probably figures prominently in the band's live performances. Ditto Currie and Harvie's bracing, midtempo "Crashing Down," wherein Justin paws through more emotional wreckage, wielding some of his most blistering lyrics to date: "And you might not think about/Just what happens now as your guests collect their coats./In an empty house full of ashtray doubts/Your formless future floats."
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Mighty adult stuff, and a long way from the country-tinged folk-pop of del Amitri's self-titled 1985 debut, which they larded with agreeable songs such as "Sticks and Stones Girl." In fact, del Amitri's obsessive adultness on its three most recent albums, its resolute fatalism on the nature of romance, perhaps have made more than a few people, including U.S. radio programmers, squirm (cf., fellow traveler Elvis Costello's travails while traversing similar territory). But with the relatively recent advent -- and nascent ratings success -- of AAA radio in the U.S., bands such as del Amitri and like-minded songwriters (Aimee Mann, for instance) may have discovered a career lifeline.
"We've always had a fair amount of radio airplay with a couple of songs off the last couple of records," Harvie points out. "But now I think people are starting to be aware of who's making these songs."
Del Amitri and opening act the Caulfields perform a 10:00 p.m. show on Sunday, August 20, at Marsbar, Town and Country mall, Kendall; 271-6909. Tickets cost $10.