02 December 2009

China Crisis
Warped By Success
Stardumb Records

Warped By Success is China Crisis’ sixth (and final “studio”) album, and probably the weakest of their output, but the band themselves are, in the context of their body of work, of interest and worth study. Combining influences as diverse as Stevie Wonder and Brian Eno, they were among a handful of bands that brought literacy and occasional political commentary to “airy” pop music. If you like Steely Dan, Talk Talk, Black or Meet Danny Wilson, China Crisis will fit into those grooves nicely.

I love the title of this record, as China Crisis never had much of anything resembling the record-company definition of “success,” yet they’re still around (on occasion) 30 years later, and their “hits” are actually well-remembered by the casual listeners and well-loved by their fans. They were certainly a better unit when they were an actual band (consisting of more than just the two core members, Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon), but Warped is still an enjoyable if much more relaxed record.

The biggest issue with the album is what I call “Basia Castoff Syndrome,” that is to say a too-light, too-drum-machine-y, too “soft” approach to songcraft that reminds listeners of the inoffensive crap the aforementioned Polish songbird has coasted on. Most of the songs on this record could have easily been written for and recorded by Basia and those of her ilk. Indeed, the starting track “Hands on the Wheel” is so mellow it could almost be mistaken for a Burt Bacharach-Elvis Costello number, it’s so comatose and bereft of real feeling. The band has perfected their studio technique to the point of barely registering as human, right down to copious use of electric piano and that retched flugelhorn solo that is the hallmark of the territory Warped crosses into far too often, “light jazz.”

But if, like me, that phrase sends a shiver down your spine, stiffen up and stay with it; let’s face it, China Crisis was always a Wimp Rock Supreme sort of band, and they do usually pull back from being completely banal on this release -- most of the time. You knew you were getting a truckload of wussy when you put the disc in, so don’t be surprised that time and age has only made them wussier.

After the first two tracks of MOR mediocrity, you’d be forgiven for despairing at the beginning of “Everyday the Same,” a strongly Basia-like opening riff that slides, surprisingly and smoothly, into the first “familiar” China Crisis song of the album. Where the first two tracks seem whiny, this one finally has the intrigue and catchiness of the band’s earlier work, albeit still in an office-music wrapper. Here is a mature China Crisis that is still a far cry from “King in a Catholic Style,” but not at all bad. It sits beside “Wishful Thinking” without shame.

Gone is the Steely-Dan-esque opacity of lyric enigmas and most of the rhythmic variety that featured in their earlier albums, leaving Warped very White and not very African, but there is a place in the world for intelligent flaccid-rock (this stuff is too soft to be called “soft”), and this album has its role as the soundtrack for top-down driving through autumnal New England or sipping white wine and in front of the fire. Maybe there’s just a little tiny bit of preppie left in me, but on some level this laid-back music has appeal, particularly on those tracks where Daly or Lundon try to put some feeling back into it.

The album itself has very conflicted themes; half the songs are laments about lost love, the other half are pussy-whipped paens of gratitude that the lover (usually a man; not that it’s that important, but this is easily CC’s “gayest” album). Warped is almost the opposite of the controlled passion expressed by The Lover Speaks or Colin Verncoumbe in their own softer-rock styles. Songs like “Hard to be Around” and “The Way We Are Made” show off genuine emotion, but these examples are few and far between, with most feelings subsumed into the over-slick production.

Still, its all very pretty, even at its most hollow. And there are flashes of the genius we used to know: the surprising and delightful instrumental break halfway through, the cinematic “One Wish Too Many,” which shows off an orchestral direction I’d hope the band would take up if they ever record again; the signature hooks of “Good Again,” and “Real Tears,” which help to balance all the cringing you’ll do at most of the bog-standard late-80s arrangements -- “Wishing Time” is a particularly bitter pill to swallow on this front, not only coming right after the lovely “One Wish” but employing nearly every single possible 80s soft-rock cliche both musically and lyrically. Not even Colin Vearnecombe could save that crap, and that’s really saying something.

Luckily, the album ends much more strongly -- still laconic and lazy, but with the return of a genuine emotional edge. Songs like “Does It Pay” are more successful at their Steely Dan homage of silky background singers without destroying the human element.

Overall, the second half works better and sounds more soulful than the first half, but Warped By Success remains a dissatisfying endcap to China Crisis’ studio output, a dated collection of half-hearted songs that strips out a lot of what people liked about the band and replaces it with mostly empty promises. Considering their output overall, I’d love for them to give the studio one last shot to redeem their legacy. Fans of the band know they can do it -- their contemporary and later live recordings prove they are still consummate musicians with soulful sounds, and they still play around the Liverpool area to this very day. I think they could be “Good Again” ...

“Good Again” by China Crisis from Warped By Success

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love the first 2 CC albums best. I didn't like them working with Walter Becker too much. I kind of liked their Clanger & Winstanley stuff. But this was better off not happening. It says a lot when the house remixes of "Every Day The Same" are miles ahead of the LP version! This is super weak sauce happening here.