... but the thin white dukes do
The Affectionate Punch
RUMOURS have been dripping down from Scotland about a diverse horde of determined post Skids / S. Minds / Scars groups all ready to shift our attention. Positive Noise, Altered Images, JosefK, Orange Juice . . . the newest rumours centred around The Associates, who it seems were refining the vision of 'Station To Station', who it seems had a singer who sang like that particular Bowie. He wasn't copying, that's how he really sang - from deep inside, neo-operatically.
It sounded ponderous, but 'The Affectionate Punch' is too good, too spectacular to be merely the work of yet another group set to make a career out of one of Bowie's stops. The Associates have further defined 'Station's' eerie combination of vitality and disorientation, drawn from is melancholia, and share its European feel. It's a debut almost as sensational as 'Real Life' - The Associates have things in common with Magazine worth talking about.
That European feel for a start, which basically stems from their liberating remoteness from standard r'n'r influences: the logic and out of the blue maturity of their sound: a Kurt Weill caught up with John Barry cabaret tension: and a respect for the irrational.
Billy Mackenzie is vocally reminiscent of Bowie: but Bowie has never sung with so much delightful range and subtlety, never really had to. Mackenzie's soul singing is in the pained, proud tradition of Holiday and Garland. He'd be comfortable and do a great job singing 'Windmills Of My Mind' (he almost does on 'Even Dogs In The Wild'). An artist at communication, he takes intense care over enunciation - the shape of words and the space between them. His vocals are either a folly or something very special: I reckon a little of the former, a lot of the latter.
The Associates sound is somewhere between evocative Cure and dramatic Magazine: a passionate cabaret soul music, a fulfillment of the European white dance music Bowie was flirting with back then. It is a fabulist (as opposed to surrealist) entertainment vitiated by a cool sense of art.
Billy Mackenzie and Alan Rankine write the music; Mackenzie the words. Rankine appears to play all instruments with remarkable skill except drums (Nigel Glockler). The ten songs are consistently inventive, ironic, irreverent, written with a light sometimes self-mocking restraint, arranged from a post-Eno, point of view.
The opening two songs are immediately impressive: the stylish cynical title track, typically laced with incidental delights; the almost atomised, light-headed 'Amused As Always' - Mackenzie's singing here at is most absorbed and absorbing. The side's closer, 'Transport To Central', forgoes obvious percussion and is formed around bitter, hedonistic guitars. The guitar sound on the LP is of the Manzenera / Levene / Smith line, lyrical, splintered, very anti-formal.
Individually, Mackenzie's songs don't say anything in particular (you could say they're fashionably vague, but I'm not going to). Nervy, inward-looking images are repeated, reviewed, suggesting a feeling or an action, a mood or a moment. Effectively simplistic, songs about chance, confusion, absurdity, failure, suspense, that never degenerate into the precious.
'A Matter Of Gender' is a lush example of The Associates' private desperation and public drama. 'Even Dogs In The Wild' is decadent cabaret, feeling for warmth; a typically clipped swing, finger clickings, a lone whistler in the dark. Mackenzie goes right over the top on 'Would I... Bounce Back' but still doesn't seem to be stretching himself; 'A' drags out the group's amoralism from its usual corner.
Don't look for message or moral - the songs affect a dreamlike incompleteness but are not unprincipled or uncaring. They develop an account of the various mechanisms by which people remain trapped in boredom, abstraction, essence.
With Mackenzie's obsessive flamboyance, the invariably plangent melodies, the richly fragmented detail of the songs, The Associates are undoubtedly theatrical. But their sense of theatre is natural, even profound, not the usual pop flash-trivia. The Associates are real performers.
At their worst they are engagingly supra-whimsical, at their best they are potently sophisticated and sensitive. Their well-ordered flair and melodrama seems right for the times: decay music.
'The Affectionate Punch' is a kind of masterpiece.