[25 January 2007]
Between 1977 and 1984, the seeds for much of the great music of the last 30 years were planted. In the UK, the punk, post-punk, new wave, and rock pouring out at this time was astonishingly vast and often great. One band that captured all of this was the Stranglers. Considering the number of artists from that era who have been name-checked in the last few years, it is in some ways astonishing how little the acts of today have paid homage to the Stranglers. Perhaps they have always lacked a clear iconography or focused style to latch onto. The Sex Pistols were pissed-off punks, Joy Division were tensely menacing and charcoal gray, and the Fall took garage rock and twisted it in new wavy ways. The Stranglers, however, grabbed from all of this and mined their own parallel musical vein. They were often catchy, but weirdly so. And Dave Greenfield’s keyboard work could verge on a proggy kind of rock, which, in the late ‘70s, couldn’t have been less fashionable. Still, the “Meninblack” were popular in the UK all through the ‘80s, scoring several hits and winning many fans.
Sure, they sucked in the ‘90s, but they were never meant to be a good grunge-era band, anyway. Thankfully, music trends move in cycles, and that classic Stranglers sound fits in perfectly here in the 2000s. On Suite XVI, their accurately titled 16th studio release, the band pick up where their first creative run left off, a couple of decades ago. Three-fourths of the original line-up are still together, with the ironically silver-haired Jet Black on drums, JJ Burnell on bass and vocals, and Greenfield on keys. Much newer to the band is guitarist and singer Baz Warne, finally providing the crucial ingredient missing in the Stranglers since Hugh Cornwell left in 1990.
So, with fresh blood and good timing, the band issued their best-reviewed album in ages in 2004, Norfolk Coast. Since then, vocalist Paul Roberts has left the band, leaving a lean quartet who seem more than capable of shouldering the load all on their own, thank you very much. Suite XVI starts off blazing with “Unbroken”, a ferociously catchy, organ-blasting rocker that’s been lodged in my brain since my first listen. Always a band with a wry sense of humor, that trend continues with the lyrics here: “I’ve been chained before my peers/ I’ve been old before my years/ Even been confused about my orientation” (sung: “orientay-yay-tion”). The next two songs are primed for release as singles, too. “The Spectre of Love” is another pop-fueled rocker, this time heavier on guitars, and “She’s Slipping Away” is both bouncy and oddly romantic with its cinematic melodic refrain.
That initial trio of tracks are great, but the truly off-kilter personality of the Stranglers feels a bit submerged. On first exposure, I was concerned. If the whole album continued like that, we would have a problem. However, while some discs are front-loaded with all of the good material, Suite XVI offers nothing but great songs from start to finish. And, beginning with the thorny, jittery “Summat Outanowt”, a tremendous variety of songwriting reveals a band who knows how to write killer tracks for everyone, disc jockeys and die-hard fans alike. The slow, pretty, and reverb-doused “Anything Can Happen” is a somber and beautiful anti-war meditation: “Dare to look me in the eye/ The man who sent our sons to die/ Mothers, daughters they do cry.”
Perfectly placed mid-album is the kinetic rave-up “See Me Coming”, an awesome cross-breeding of Love & Rockets and Inspiral Carpets, but with pitch-perfect melodrama that could be pure cheese in less capable hands. In the record’s latter half, the band take turns venturing into desert soundscapes with “Bless You (Save You, Spare You, Damn You)”; manic post-punk-pop on “A Soldier’s Diary”; and cow-poke cabaret with the campily blunt “I Hate You”. Only “Barbara (Shangri-La)” fails to find a strong hook, but the band make up for this with the rousing (yet also floating and, at one point, goofy(!)) closing cut “Relentless”. Blending atmosphere, energy, mood, sobriety, and high jinks into one track, it showcases everything you should love about the Stranglers.
During their heyday, they never pigeonholed themselves or got stuck in a rut, unleashing mostly great albums all throughout the punk and new wave era. More than 20 years later, the Stranglers have renewed that same maverick approach, sounding as creative and enthused as ever before. If you were a fan back in the day, you must get this album. For everyone else, Suite XVI might just knock your socks off while you’re waiting for new releases from next-gen bands like Kaiser Chiefs and the Bravery. Those acts might not even be aware of the influence of the Stranglers on their sound, but that just goes to show how wonderfully subversive the Stranglers have always been. Now 30 years into their recording history, the “Meninblack” are back.