It’s been 21 years since the Reid twins first charted the single by which they will forever be known, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” Used in movies, commercials, and on mixtapes everywhere as an expression of the lengths pining ex-boyfriends and speechless romantics are willing to go for love, the song has become synonymous with the Proclaimers. While most people outside the boggy reaches of Scotland wrote them off as one-hit wonders, Craig and Charlie Reid have been quietly persisting as musicians, recording five more albums between 1988 and 2009’s Notes and Rhymes, in pursuit of that former success.
You have to admire that kind of tenacity. It would have been easy for the brothers to go the way of the Bay City Rollers, relegating themselves to dusty Glaswegian jukeboxes and karaoke bars. It has certainly helped the profile of the band to have songs featured in movies like Benny and Joon in 1993 and Shrek in 2001. The wartime musical Sunshine on Leith, which drew upon the Proclaimers catalogue for inspiration, also kept them somewhere very close to the spotlight. It’s hard to say how they’ve survived the finicky evolutions of the music world. But after listening to their latest outing, what is clear is that the brothers still know how to create catchy songs.
“Love Can Move Mountains”, the lead single and opening track from Notes and Rhymes, sets the tone with a gentle piano lead and a simple drum beat before moving into the rousing chorus. The theme is clichéd, no doubt, but the Reid twins manage to make the sentiment therein much more endearing, thanks to their charming Scottish accents and an unabashed belief in amorous power. The title track romps along proudly with rock and roll classicism and touches of Celtic music, making it hard to resist doing the Foxtrot with a pint of porter sloshing perilously in hand. The countrified sobriety of “It’s Always Easy (To Find an Unhappy Woman) is an unexpected but enjoyable inclusion that demonstrates the genre range of the Proclaimers on what is otherwise a rock record. It’s enough to make even Merle Haggard smile.
But the album is not without its shortcomings, which are somewhat puzzling given the previous displays of great songwriting. The John Cougar Mellancamp frankness of “Three More Days,” while touching in its familiar homeward bound message, comes off as unconvincing, and even a little hokey. “Sing All Our Cares Away” presents much of the same with its predictable descriptions of people experiencing the various burdens of the world. To be fair, songs like this are difficult to pull off gracefully. It’s too easy to fall into a Pollyanna-singing-troubles-away kind of optimism that removes empathy from the listener and replaces it with something more cynical. Then there is the Proclaimers’ answer to generalized economic downturn, namely capitalism. As the Reids sing: “Golden days are just a memory / that’s okay because the market is still free.” Hopeful, sure, but I’m not sure how comforting this insight is to the world’s less fortunate and impoverished population.
The difference between greatness and mediocrity on Notes and Rhymes is the separate lyrical approaches required by straightforward rock jams and storytelling ballads. The former seems to occur naturally for the Reids, and it shows in the organic energy of the more up-tempo songs. The latter, while not forced, doesn’t possess the impact or properly emotive impetus needed to offer something truly memorable; think of someone like Jim Croce. The only exception to this is the slow piano of “On Causewayside”, which effectively, and with relatable consideration, describes the sadness of an old rundown neighborhood. On the whole the Proclaimers show that they still have a lot more to offer the world than equations of love and mileage. Their latest record isn’t perfect, but it shows that the talent didn’t run completely dry two decades ago.
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