The Worst of Emporium
Some bands really don’t need to have a “Best of” or “Greatest Hits” compilation, particularly bands with little or no critical approval that don’t have a charting single to their name. So goes the case for Scottish band Emporium, one you probably have never heard of – and, based on the evidence presented on their latest offering, a compilation of tracks from some 14 years of existence, there’s probably a reason for that. This is a band that is so obscure that the usually very thorough AllMusic.com only just has a page on the group – there’s no biography, and there are empty reference pages listing two of their four albums. Emporium also barely has a presence on social media sites, and there isn’t a promotional video for anything in their catalogue on YouTube that I could find. (This is a mostly studio-bound outfit, so that would more than likely eliminate any chance of scoring any shaky, iPhone-taken footage of the group in a live setting.) So what’s the point of From Another Planet (1998 – 2011): The Best of Emporium? Based on what the band has to offer here, there isn’t any. This compilation only serves as a means for members of a little known group to boost their collective egos, and is an utter waste of record store shelf space. Assuming any record stores out there would even bother to stock this.
Actually, I bring up record stores because, in fault No. 1 of this package, there are laudatory liner notes written from an American fan who scored one of the group’s CD singles in the used bins of the establishment he was working at. This is something you probably don’t want to admit as a band: that someone had your album, and then gave it away. So that’s just a hint to what’s wrong with the existence of this disc. Problem No. 2 is the cover art: it isn’t merely bad Photoshop, the front image is barely above the level of clip art. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Emporium spent only 99 cents to get the image that graces the front of the jewel case of this CD. It’s cheap and doesn’t exactly invite the listener in. However, the biggest problem overall is the music itself: you get 17 tracks of badly orchestrated synth pop that’s so outmoded that it could pass as horrible J-pop from the early ‘90s or, worse yet, Karaoke versions of popular songs. When the liner notes proclaim that this is “the most bizarre collection of pop tunes I’ve ever heard”, that isn’t too far off the mark. While one Scottish newspaper mistakenly called this music “a psychedelic cross between the Small Faces and the Beach Boys”, what Emporium really sounds like is early ‘80s Depeche Mode, bad Depeche Mode, with lead singer Ewan McKenzie over-emoting in a Dave Gahan-like falsetto. The whole raison d’être of Emporium is summed up by the chorus to the song “Choice”, which is the final song and probably best (in relative terms) thing to be found on the compilation: “I’ve got no money, it’s a choice I’ve made / I’ve got no job, it’s a choice I’ve made.” Clearly, these songs were recorded on an apparent lack of a budget, which might be appealing in a lo-fi aesthetic kind of way if those damned keyboards weren’t so chintzy. In addition to all of this, the record label, Whimsical, is actually run by the band, meaning that this is little more than a congratulatory, vanity self-release.
When McKenzie sings “‘the effort’s wasted” on the seventh track, he might as well have been talking about this compilation. It isn’t until the tenth tune, “Listen to the Noises (Guitarist Magazine Version)” that you get a halfway decent song, and that’s because the cheesy keyboards get dialled down in place for some crushing indie rock-style electric guitar work. Ultimately, what saves this from being totally a bottom-of-the-barrel release (assuming that there’s even a barrel) is that the band clearly knows how to play its instruments—well, for the most part, as the song “Elevate” features nothing but poorly edited-in samples and feels, overall, as though it’s on the verge of falling apart—and there’s the odd hint of a decent melody here and there in the choruses. The final song “Choice” also has a giddy bass line and an actually affecting synth part, making it rise above the pack. However, most of everything here is undermined by the lacklustre basement-level production quality and hammy synthesizers gumming up the works. In fact, I dare listeners (assuming there are any who care enough by now to pick this up) to discern what songs came from 1998 and what cuts came from 2011—you simply can’t tell the difference. There’s absolutely no progression in these cellar dweller songs, as though the group couldn’t afford upgrades to their studio equipment and instruments. As well, aside from the brief introductory opening track, not one of the remaining 16 songs runs under four minutes, bludgeoning the listener with endless choruses that ramble on and on and on.
Therefore, From Another Planet isn’t a case of being the best tracks from a group that deserves to be well known: it is strictly Amateur Hour and should have stayed hidden away from public view. In fact, Amazon.co.uk lists this album as a “limited edition”, and there’s probably a good reason for that: there simply isn’t an audience for this material. In the end, the only conclusion one can draw is that if this album is supposed to represent the best material of a group, one would shudder to think what the deep cut album tracks must be like. From Another Planet isn’t a flattering compilation in the least – it appears to represent the very worst of Emporium, a band that would probably be better off floating CD-Rs to friends and family. At least, it would spare critics the indignity of having to listen to this poorly executed pop sludge that passes as supposed music. Emporium is simply not worth talking about in any sort of endeavour if you like anything halfway decent. With that, I might as well stop muttering and save my breath as there’s virtually nothing here to recommend in the slightest.