Artist: Black Box Recorder
Release Date: 20th July 1998
Label: Chrysalis Records
Length: 37:10 minutes
Luke Haines, instruments, backing vocals, songwriting
Sarah Nixey, lead vocals
John Moore, instruments, songwriting.
- Girl Singing In The Wreckage
- England Made Me
- New Baby Boom
- It's Only The End Of The World
- Ideal Home
- Child Psychology
- I. C. One Female
- Up Town Top Ranking
- Kidnapping An Heiress
- Hated Sunday
Funny little album, this. Not long out from The Auteurs, the man Luke Haines finds another outflow for his none-darker takes on English suburbia; another vent for his often splenetic, livid social outlook, and one where he doesn't have to sing. Much.
This time around, it's done in exquisitely understated style -- low-key, lo-fidelity, low-profile. The music is fiercely intelligent, crafted to match the meaning of the words at a deep level rather than a superficial one. Take the album's opener, the glorious Girl Singing In The Wreckage. A lesser band (latter-day Pulp, mayhap?) might have sobbed this song into a stringsoaked porridge of melodrama and tragedy, and ultimately made you feel a whole lot less for the protagonist as she laments: "It's my primary instinct to protect the child / My dress is torn, my hair is wild." Instead, Black Box Recorder set these words to a sprightly, bobbing pop ditty which is altogether far more effective: lend it your attention, and it unsettles; ultimately, it chills.
Sarah Nixey's vocals are arresting, her voice well-chosen. The little-girl-lost tone is offset by glimpses of a BBC accent and peerless enunciation, none more so than in the knowing, careful way she sings "It's classless and crass" on the funereal It's Only The End Of The World. The trouble is, this emotionless approach tires, being used on every song. The voice that sounds so convincing singing "I trapped a spider underneath a glass ... just to see how long he'd last" (from 'England Made Me') sounds rather less so singing "After school we'll steal a car." (on 'Swinging,' one of the weakest points here.)
Still, it's at least a rest from Haines' own hissing sneer, which nevertheless turns up singing backing lines on a number of tracks.
As ever with Haines, the lyrics have the edge over the music, but only just. Musically, it's rarely particularly inventive as such, getting by just fine for the most part on quietly plucked guitars, whispering drums, and Nixey's singing. Oddly though, it's the sparsest moments that work best; New Baby Boom, for example, or the title track's verses, or even with the unexpectedly trip-hop stylings of Up Town Top Ranking. Elsewhere, the chimes that open It's Only The End Of The World are grating, and a little more variation would be nice (by the time you reach the gorgeous Kidnapping An Heiress, you may no longer be inclined to care.)
So, the lyrics then. It's sharp stabs at suburban ennui throughout, Haines' ever-present disgust with modern England here themed on the state of the nation's youth. Never is it more apparent than in the sly nursery rhyme perfection of an Ideal Home: " In an ideal home... nothing you do can go wrong. / Everything's safe and you can / Sit by the fire, read a good book or watch TV. ... In an ideal home, there's never an awkward silence." pitted against "Miserable songs from the house next door / Maybe they're planning to end it all."
Every sweetly-sung lyrical knife in the heart of modern values is honed with malicious precision, but tempered with a kind of resigned impotence that suggests Haines is quite aware he's not going to change the world. It's not all perfect, either; Child Psychology forces the issue home a bit harder than necessary, its hookline ("Life is unfair, kill yourself or get over it") neither as damning nor as funny as it thinks it is. Its ice-cool narrated verses strike a few chords, though, like this universal recollection of a childhood Christmas: "My parents welcomed me with loving arms, but within an hour we're back at eachother's throats: a normal happy childhood back on course..." Top choice for a single, then, Mr. Haines.
In all, far from essential listening: musically, quite appropriate for entertaining guests, but lyrically, foaming at the mouth. If you're in the mood for glowering at the world through knotted eyebrows and clenched teeth, this should make a fine accompaniment. But you might want to try second album, The Facts Of Life, first.