From 1987 onward, Sire Records’ Just Say Yes series was the best yearly taste of alternative (when that word was a compliment) music released stateside. The five sterling volumes (I try to forget 1992’s sixth volume Just Say Yesterday) featured the most established acts in the Sire family (the Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, My Bloody Valentine, Depeche Mode), the series also introduced me to personal favorites like the Ocean Blue, James, Primal Scream, and the Wild Swans. Each volume instantly became the most hotly tipped source of new music for the kids I hung out with at school, as we rejoiced in previews from the next Ride album, debated Mighty Lemon Drops covers and learned about the Throwing Muses.
In 1988, volume two, Just Say Yo also introduced me to Book of Love via their remix of “Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls” which was meshed with Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” for a dizzying single. My knowledge of Book of Love never extended all that much further, for after “Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls” things weren’t nearly as bright, the disco pop scene pushed by the Pet Shop Boys and Erasure only had so much capacity and Book of Love disbanded in 1993.
Yet, I Touch Roses both reminds me of the brilliance of those Sire samplers and gives me a taste of Book of Love that I should have savored more fully at the time. This is an enticing collection of pop hooks, glossy melodies and Susan Ottaviano’s upbeat vocals that is far more enduring than a brief glimpse at Book of Love’s four albums would initially reveal.
The title track, a 1985 single then included on their self-titled 1986 debut, is crystalline, glistening synth-pop. The off-kilter beats unfold with all the force of jiffy pop as cushioned by lush keyboard textures as catchy as those of New Order and Depeche Mode, but are laced with Ottaviano’s Debbie Harry-influenced vocals. “Boy” was the song that first caught the eye of Sire chief Seymour Stein, then became an underground hit with all the seediness of Depeche Mode’s druggier, mildly pornographic earlier works. “Modligiani (Lost in Your Eyes)” was an even bigger cross-over hit (featured in Planes, Trains and Automobiles) with its effervescent melody and Ottaviani’s seductive vocal.
I Touch Roses‘s takes a bizarre turn when 1991’s “Alice Everyday”, 1992’s “Hunny Hunny” and 2000’s “Getting Faster” follows that trio of tracks from the debut. Although “Alice Everyday” was also a big hit, by the time 1991’s Candy Carol was released, Book of Love’s shelf life was getting near. “Hunny Hunny” featured on Just Say Anything (volume five) is alternately wildly catchy and wildly irritating, its charm can all too quickly become a bit too twee to stomach, and “Getting Faster” which was recorded for this collection is better left untouched.
“Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls”, however, is still masterful; this early examination of the AIDS epidemic which was beginning to sweep New York is flawless in tone and execution. Ottaviani’s breathy vocal drifts over punchy beats (where were New Order’s lawyers when royalty checks were issued on this one?) as Ted Ottaviani (no relation, startlingly!) crafted a gleaming keyboard melody and series of harmonies. Again, I have to pinch myself as a reminder that radio pop was once a very good thing “Sunny Day” (from Candy Carol) and featured in Silence of the Lambs was never one of my favorites with its forgettable Ted Ottaviani vocal, but this 2001 remix takes a step backward. “Chatterbox Pt. 2” is another ill-conceived track from 1992’s abhorrent Lovebubble. Yet, the other half of my introduction to Book of Love, the “Tubular Bells” remix returns to save the day.
With such constant reminders of Book of Love’s abundant merits lurking around each of I Touch Roses‘s mis-shaped corners, it becomes gleefully easy to recall the best of Book of Love and Sire while forgetting their mistakes as well as the abyss of radio friendly pop in this O-Town and ‘N Sync debased new millennium.
// Notes from the Road
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