The Contrast offers up a lot with this ambitious first major release Mystery #1, only now getting North American distribution, two years after its original UK debut. The best way to describe the proceedings is this: Tom Verlaine meets Tom Petty, infused with the lyrical anger of a younger Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson—oh, and there’s plenty of jangly Rickenbackers as well.
If that sounds good to you, read on. The Contrast basically is the name adopted by creative force David Reid, who writes the songs, sings them, plays guitars and often bass as well. Rounding out the Peterborough trio are James Crossley on drums and Chris Corney lending bass and backup vocal support on a majority of the tracks.
Andy Hawkins (Blind Idiot God, Midget) knows a thing or two about powerful pop/rock and ably handles production, engineering and mixing on these 14 songs. While much succeeds here, not everything does—but the large volume of choice more than makes up for it (there’s a healthy 47:40 of music here).
Me, I’m a sucker for both jangly Ricks and musical tales of woe. The jangle really shines most on three superb tracks. “She’s Been Here Before” (the UK single) is an infectious jaunt of a pop song and much to this listener’s delight, sports layers of guitar sounds. “Turn Off the Sun” is yet another guitar-driven pop gem, with a deceptive upbeat sound that runs counter to the antisocial lyrics: “I don’t want to see the sky ‘cause there’s nothing I care about / Nothing that makes me cry / But I’ve got a crazy feeling / I’ve been lying to myself all along”.
“Perfect Disguise” (the CD opener) completes this pop-gem trilogy, and who can find fault with such lines as “You pulled my world apart / You made an art of screwing up everything”. While those three songs might be reason enough to like this album, there’s much more to recommend.
The title song “Mystery #1” is an interesting study in obsessive paranoia within the context of a failed relationship, echoed by powerful guitar lines. “Short Term Memory” is a battle between vocals and guitars to describe another failed love: “There are too many letters in the bags under your eyes”.
“57” is my favorite of the pained failed relationship songs here. More of a ballad, the vocals really convey the anguish of trying to figure things out, the shoulda woulda couldas of what went before and drinking to forget: “It’s been 57 hours since I lost you / Right now I miss you so much my head will explode”.
“Bad Dreams” also manages to capture the existential angst of being stuck without direction, offering the easy excuse of the plaintive cry: “Bad Dreams Come True”.
“You Never Listen” is another catchy one, trading off angry energy with familiar sounds from the past. “Mad Professor” serves up a slower tempo tale of the sad sack professor (e.g. I’m the mad professor of late night bars or of bad ideas) who screws up in spite of his education.
Similarly, the slower pace of “Independance” shows that Reid and company can change the pace and still succeed—there’s plenty of space between the drum beats and the vocals here, and it works well in the context of this oblique examination of the difficulties encountered as an independent band. However “Publicity Stunts” seems to follow a similar formula (perhaps with a little more of a Tom Petty sound)—and as such, takes away from the strength of the previous song (one or the other would have been better served without the other).
Guitars drive the tune “Remember”, which seems very much like some vaguely recalled song from the late 1970s or early 1980s, familiar yet not distinctive. “Falldown” is fueled by energy, but this repetitive song really doesn’t distinguish itself as anything unique. The simple arrangement of the closer “Friend for a Day” is a sweet quiet consolation, telling this friend: “Don’t be sad / We still have Paris”.
Reid shows a lot of promise, mixing many shrewd influences from the past into a wonderful collection of guitar-driven power pop with more hits than misses. This polished performance sounds anything but a debut. He knows his pop, can write a catchy chorus, and has the ability to create guitar hooks that grab you. His lyrics are wry and bleak and often smart and surprising (and yes, words are included in this package that also has some very nice design by Sharon Reid).
Mystery #1 is a good CD made better by the fact that it is one very impressive initial effort. Polish, energy and attitude combine with subtle touches that make it work even after many listens. Hearing it made me eager to know more about The Contrast, and made me want to hear more. As such, the delayed distribution that only brings this music stateside now is a mixed blessing. While this music is new to North America, Europe and Australia, it is two years old. Apparently Rich Mackman of The Vow and Spencer Hart have joined The Contrast and David Reid and company’s new lineup has just finished their follow-up release. A single entitled “Cant’ Stand the Light” from that new CD should be released in the UK this summer and I can’t wait to hear it.