Lovingly kept on the outskirts of mainstream, but peeking in just enough to garner critical acclaim and praise for his vision and tastes, Matt Johnson has come a long way in a longer period of time. As the founder, singer and one-man musical army behind one of Britain’s most unappreciated bands, The The, he has changed with the times while maintaining an eclecticism and integrity few can match. Perhaps best known in North America for his reworking of classic Hank Williams songs on Hanky Panky, Johnson is hard to pigeonhole in the same way as fellow Englishman Joe Jackson. Regardless, though, the work speaks for itself. Now, some 23 years after The The’s inception, Johnson has set about re-releasing early albums—but with no bonus tracks, just some visual additions and touches. To kick things off, Johnson has released this amazing collection of singles, accompanied by another disc of 12” remixes.
Starting off with “Uncertain Smile”, Johnson sounds like a cross between a young Stephen Patrick Morrissey doing Echo and the Bunnymen tunes. Crispin Ciao’s saxophone solo is quite gorgeous, but its new wave vibe doesn’t deter or detract from the song as one might think. Much more ‘80s synth-influenced is “Perfect”. Originally produced by Mike Thorne, who worked with Soft Cell and Wire, the song was reworked by Johnson and Paul Hardiman. Johnson’s lyrics here are the song’s selling point, with a verse or two Jarvis Cocker wouldn’t mind incorporating. The harmonica performance is also grand, considering former New York Doll cum “Hot Hot Hot” singer David Johansen is behind the mouth organ. “Sweet Bird of Truth”, a song that caused controversy and was banned in 1986 for its religious overtones, is too polished and tidy musically.
Johnson has always written about what he knows best, but he doesn’t come across as preachy or with a large chip on his shoulder. “Infected” has a lot going on from start to finish, with a large amount of backing vocals, a swirling amount of synths and a healthy dose of rhythm. It’s also one of the more danceable or “boogie” tracks here. “Heartland” is more of a jazzy downtrodden song, a track that the Beautiful South’s Paul Heaton could sink his teeth into and never let go. “This is the 51st state of the U.S. of A.”, Johnson repeats near its conclusion, a theme that seemed ahead of its time for even 1986. A similar track is “The Beat(en) Generation”, a song where Johnson almost croons throughout with a rhythm and feel that evokes The Cure’s “Love Cats”.
One of the The The highlights is “Armageddon Days”. Resembling a cross between Tom Waits and Pete Townshend’s “Face the Face”, Johnson originally intended it to be the first single from the Mind Bomb album. The week before, though, the Salmon Rushdie controversy began, so it was all but commercially scrapped. “Dogs of Lust” has a definitive blues swing to it over Johnny Marr’s signature guitar style. Taken from 1993’s Dusk, the track seems to capture all of Johnson’s musical influences. If there’s any sticking point with the song, it’s that the track seems almost spliced for radio, just clocking in at over three minutes. “Slow Emotion Replay” is another strong number where Marr has a leading melodic role.
The darkness or subtle bleakness of some songs results in shining moments. “Love Is Stronger Than Death”, a song about the passing of Johnson’s younger brother Eugene, has an acoustic bent to it, relying more on the vocals than others presented here. If there’s a clunker of a song, it’s “This Is the Day”, a song that was the band’s biggest British hit. The cheesy synth loop doesn’t work at all. “I Saw the Light” more than atones for the miscue, though. With a groove and feel that comes straight from the gut, the chorus is the song’s kicker. What is even more prevalent is that the message isn’t lost in the technological or musical advances.
Three previously unreleased tracks are tacked on, but don’t seem like obligatory songs to complete a “best-of” package. “Decembersunlight (Cried Out)” is a new version of the track from Naked Self and has a lovely duet featuring Liz Horsman. “Pillar Box Red” returns to “Heartland” in its tone and texture but with an orchestral string section to it. “Deep Down Truth” has much more staying power to it, boasting a rambling acoustic introduction before it moves into a highbrow rockabilly feeling. It’s perhaps a sign of things to come.
The remixed second disc (FYI: open the jewel case from the upper left-hand corner, otherwise you’ll break the jewel disc!) features eight remixes previously unavailable in North America. While it’s nice to have a version of such tracks, there is very little difference in the songs, aside from the fact they are elongated. “Armageddon Days” has more of a funky drum’n'bass vibe in it, setting it apart from the other more formulaic tracks. The fact that they’re not the gyration-inducing and thumping of current remixes is a blessing above anything else. “Violence of Truth” and “Gravitate to Me” are remixes of two songs that don’t appear on the first disc. The former’s piano introduction moves into more of a dance feel but doesn’t really add much to the disc generally. Regardless though, Matt Johnson is The The man. A must for any casual or diehard fan.
// Notes from the Road
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