Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Microdisney ‎– 39 Minutes (1988)

Style: New Wave, Pop Rock, Indie Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Virgin

Tracklist:
01.   Singer's Hampstead Home
02.   High & Dry
03.   Send Herman Home
04.   Ambulance For One
05.   Soul Boy
06.   Back To The Old Town
07.   United Colours
08.   Gale Force Wind
09.   Herr Direktor
10.   Bluerings

Credits:
Bass Guitar – Crazy Johnny Nancy
Drums – Tom Fenner
Guitars, Banjo, Harmonica – Sean O'Hagan
Keyboards – James Compton
Backing Vocals – Fabulous Golden Showers
Vocals – Cathal Coughlan
Composed By – Coughlan, O'Hagan
Producer – Jamie Lane

With 1987's "Crooked Mile," Microdisney appeared willing to compromise their values (gasp!) by hooking up with (and bending over spread-eagled for) Virgin to make a slick, over-produced, bubble gum-coated record designed to sell massive quantities and flood the airwaves. Sadly, the whole thing left the band with a blackened eye, as the album probably didn't rake in the fans or cash Virgin might have been expecting, not to mention that such a move must have smelled faintly of sell-out to some of their older fans. Despite this, Microdisney gave it another shot with "39 Minutes." But, they didn't quite seem to learn from the glaring mistakes that nearly derailed "Crooked Mile," and came up with yet another slick, glossy offering, that (at least on the surface) sounded like yet another attempt at conquering the charts. That's not to say "39 Minutes" is bad by any means. It might bring a puzzled cringe to the faces of those looking for a return to the sound of their Rough Trade years, but it's still got quite a bit going for it. People have a tendency to prefer "39 Minutes" to "Crooked Mile," and here's my theory on why: better song placement.

From the strong, surging, melodic opener "Singer's Hampstead Home," through the tough, hook-filled "Ambulance for One," the first half of "39 Minutes" builds up some seriously healthy momentum, interrupted only by the musically dull "Soul Boy." But on side two the cracks begin to show, with things being salvaged temporarily by the punchy "Gale Force Wind" and the hilarious "Herr Director," before collapsing with the slick (but lyrically interesting) MOR balladry of Bluerings. My point here is that although "39 Minutes" ultimately suffers the same level of inconsistency as its predecessor, it kinda gives the illusion of being a stronger effort because of its better song order. The holes don't really surface until side two, by which point the listener is so enthralled with the bulk of what came before that, that he's already decided this album's a keeper.

But "39 Minutes" has a certain energy and focus that also helps give it the edge over "Crooked Mile." As disgustingly slick as the album is (and believe me, I'll tackle that issue in a minute), it captures the sheer energy of the band better than anything they'd released previously. The drums are pounding, the guitars and bass aren't afraid to get a little aggressive, and Cathal seems even more pissed off than ever. There's tension boiling just beneath surface throughout, and when it's allowed to boil over, the results are positively riveting.

But all that teeth-clenching energy and white-knuckled anger aside, I just can't ignore that this album was grossly overproduced. "Crooked Mile," to be sure, had some serious production issues, mainly that it all seemed to be too trad and colorless for Microdisney, stripping them of their character with cheap sounding synths and lackluster arrangements. Unfortunately, "39 Minutes" goes absolutely overboard with tacky Paula Abdul sounding synth settings, late 80s-era Genesis guitar tones, and an overall studio sterile sheen that absolutely screams NINETEEN EIGTHY-EIGHT. Not even the Smith's "Strangeways Here We Come" was this slick. No, in fact, the only other record I can think of that sounds this awful is Prefab Sprout's "From Langley Park to Memphis." And of course one just can't shake the feeling that the sound of this record was mainly a result of some well-groomed, Armani-covered, loafer-wearing scumbags at Virgin going for one last ditch attempt at milking something in the way of a "hit" out of these freaks. I mean c'mon: lyrically and musically, "Send Herman Home" and "High & Dry" are wonderful songs, but shit, listen to those nagging fucking INXS synthesizers!!! VOMIT!!! And then what the fuck is Sean O'Hagan doing plucking out those muted guitar notes in the verses as if he were some fucking studio session hack in a mullet, white jeans, and bolo-tie!?! (Okay, Sean was working on a pretty serious mullet at this point, but still…)

Honestly, what the fuck were they trying to do? Did they think this was funny? Was this yet another, more perverse way of conveying their acute sense of irony? Did they seriously think that if they dolled up the sound that much, that the masses would actually pay attention to what Cathal was singing? As if they could sneak into the malaise of yuppie culture, like a wolf in sheep's clothing, lure them in with the foot-tapping, plastic-y sounds, and then bludgeon them to death with a sledge-hammer?

But enough of my ranting. That more than half the songs on this album are so well-written, melodically strong, and infectious that even I can work through the glaring production flaws, is a testament to what geniuses these guys were. Sure, a more organic production would've made this album easier on the ears, and it's tragic that the sound is so hopelessly dated. But if you can look past the flaws, you'll find songs of tremendous depth and sophistication.

Lyrically, Cathal is at his strongest and most direct. As with "Crooked Mile," here Cathal seems bent on sharpening his lyrical tirades to avoid being misunderstood, a problem that plagued him from the get-go. The sharp "Singer's Hampstead Home" rails against Boy George and the music industry that made him: "Pop songs with happy ends/You know they're dead but you still pretend/He only had blank rhymes to say/But he said 'em in a witty and stylish way". "High and Dry" has some particularly hilariously cynical lines, like "You've got dreams and I've got demons/I forgive them all because they're really into what they do," and later, "History - somebody canonize me".

"United Colours" is noteworthy for its attack on corporate advertising campaigns (in this case, United Colours of Benetton) using multi-cultural, third world issues in order to make themselves appear sensitive, culturally savvy, and conscientious. By wearing United Colours of Benetton, you too can make a statement by looking like you care! And as Cathal notes,

There's nothing wrong with young would-be rich that a head full of lead would not cure. They sleep well at night, 'cause they know wrong from right. United Colours to the drip, United Colours proud and thick, United Colours truths that tell, Colours of brainrot shot to hell.

That the use of third world imagery for shifting units by tapping into an increasingly prevalent yuppie climate obsessed with paying lip-service to cultural sensitivity is downright reprehensible, goes without saying. That Microdisney could embrace sounds that were commercial enough to potentially appeal to Benetton clad consumers, and then knife them in the back with such insightful and abrasive lyrics is truly a bold and commendable move which no one else really seemed to have the balls to try.

"Gale Force Wind" finds Cathal berating some loser, who, despite his lack of status and his resulting disdain for the wealthy, still harbors pipe-dreams of being rich and forcing those under him to suffer, thus failing to comprehend the larger picture that perhaps led to his depressing situation in the first place. "What the hell is wrong with you/You long to lord it like the rich folks do/You command me from the depths of gin/To walk a tightrope in a gale force wind", and later "Go apart, go right, go straight/and watch your friends become the kind you hate."

And no review of "39 Minutes" would be complete without a reference to the classic line in Herr Director (tackling the elitism and mind-numbing stupidity in the American film industry), in which Cathal sneers, "Haven't come through this misery for some art-school snob to look down on me!"

What needs to be emphasized here is that the passion and conviction with which Cathal sings this stuff is absolutely unparalleled. Even when the lyrics lean towards the ambiguous or willfully obscure, Cathal's conviction proves so commanding that one can't help but be deeply moved by it all. What's more, Cathal's intermittent fits of rage could easily rival our sweat-drenched, hardcore heroes Henry Rollins or Ian Mackaye, while his articulate, heavily ironic, eloquently poetic, erudite lyrics could run circles around Lloyd Cole any day of the week.

"39 Minutes" will always remain shackled tightly to the year in which it was produced, meaning, despite strong melodies, and lyrics that are every bit as relevant today as they were 15 years ago, the overall sound reflects the time in which it was recorded too much for it to be considered a genuinely timeless effort. I think I can also predict with some certainty that this particular sound isn't coming back in vogue anytime soon. And of course that forces us fans to make peace with the fact that this record will probably remain totally lost in a realm well outside the canonical annals of rock. As Microdisney's swan song, it's a particularly strong farewell, with its relevance and complexity not lost on those who bothered to pay attention. With hindsight, we see the band at their wits end. Succumbing to the temptation of bathing in late 80s production excess, perhaps out of sheer frustration, while simultaneously canceling out any hope at achieving rock star status with Cathal's abrasive, virulent lyrics and antics, shoving a huge middle finger in the face of that very same consumerist record buying yuppie mass that could've elevated the band's popularity in the first place. How one could not be utterly intrigued and fascinated by all this, I'll never know.
Jeff Whiteaker / Bubbyworld

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