[1 October 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Book of Love have received the deluxe remaster-and-reissue treatment on Collectors’s Choice’s Noble Rot Records. The electro-synth-pop darlings originally put out four albums on Sire between 1986 and 1993, and each one is now presented in an expanded form with an interesting, if somewhat incomplete selection of bonus materials, and packaged with extensive liner notes in slim, gatefold digipack sleeves.
These reissues are obviously meant for completist fans and people who still take pleasure in having a physical representation of the music they are hearing. And that should have been more of a consideration when these were designed. While the original artwork is present along with much of the original layout, and while it is nice to have such thorough liner notes and lyric sheets contained within the fold-out format, the visual reproduction seems lacking. The photos are dark and muddy and the text and graphics of the lyric pages, particularly, are annoyingly small and more than a bit blurry. I don’t know if this is a result of rushed, cost-cutting production or simply a reality of printing on this kind of cardboard, but it noticeably mars the aesthetic effect I expect from a group like Book of Love.
Also, I’m against cardboard sleeve cases, ecological though they may be, because of the often difficult and sometimes damaging process required to extract the CDs. Perhaps this is part of the reason for the poor quality of the artwork? It’s assumed that you’re going to mangle the case anyway, so why bother? And is it really so costly to include plastic spokes, or perhaps add another pane in the fold-out, or make the CD slots slightly bigger so that the discs can be removed without fumbling, grasping, and pulling them toward the spine of the case? Scratches, smudges, and frustration should not accompany the listening experience, especially not one as uplifting as Book of Love.
And—once you get these discs in your player of choice—the music truly is an elevating experience. Even on their more somber songs, Ted Ottaviano, Susan Ottaviano, Jade Lee, and Lauren Roselli have somehow managed to capture all the sunshine of summers past or the energy of children playing in the park and put it into their sound. It can instantly put a bounce into even the most leaden step, whether you’re a fan of music so perfectly designed for dance or not. No less than four of the tracks from the debut, Book of Love, “Boy”, “I Touch the Roses”, “Modigliani (Lost in Your Eyes)”, and the title track, hit Billboard’s dance charts. All of the songs have a similar irrepressible, ebullient quality, so that the entire album plays like a string of unstoppable singles.
In addition to the near perfection in the self-titled first album’s tracks, this new edition also contains a second disc featuring demos, live recordings, and remixes from the album. This second disc might be a bonus for many people, but die-hard fans could be a bit disappointed. First, the extra tracks included on the earlier CD release aren’t here. One wonders why the band or the record company didn’t simply choose to include all of the remixes for the songs that originally appeared on the 12-inch singles, when they were including another disc anyway. (A remix of “Lost Souls” is quite conspicuously absent, given that every other song from the” You Make Me Feel So Good” 12-inch is here.) Book of Love’s contribution to a promotional Christmas record, “We Three Kings”, is here, though, which is a plus. The live versions of “Happy Day” and “Boy”, recorded at an AIDS awareness benefit concert, unfortunately suffer from abominable sound quality, but perhaps that only highlights the remastered sound of the other tracks. Perhaps the songs do emerge a bit brighter, but honestly, they’ve always sounded bright and clean to me, so it’s difficult to judge. The demo recordings are the best feature of the second disc, because it’s interesting to hear the evolution of the songs as various signature Book of Love elements came into being.
By the release of 1988’s Lullaby, which was the highest-charting album of the four, Book of Love’s signature sound had been distilled into pure sonic silver, and nowhere was this more apparent than on the opening track, a remake of “Tubular Bells”, the theme from The Exorcist. This is the first place on these reissues where the remastering is obvious, and it’s a marked improvement to my ears, as the flood of frantic notes cascades clearly, distinctly from the speakers, sending shivers up my spine. Also notable for improved clarity are “Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls”, one of the first charting pop songs to openly address AIDS, and “Witchcraft”, an amusing, entrancing ode to women and Bewitched. The reissue of Lullaby also includes the 12-inch versions of several tracks, “Tubular Bells/Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls (Regan’s House medley)” and extended or alternate mixes of “Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls”, “Lullaby”, and “Witchcraft”.
If Book of Love represents the band’s masterwork and Lullaby is the apex of its chart success, then 1991’s Candy Carol was its psychedelic period. Though it doesn’t have as many single-worthy tracks as its predecessors, it does have “Sunny Day”, which appeared in Silence of the Lambs and “Alice Everyday”. The effects of remastering on this disc are, again, not as apparent as one might expect. Although there are bonus tracks, most notably, the “Sam the Butcher” remix of Alice Everyday”, many things a longtime fan might want are missing. The extended remix of “Quiver”, which was released on the CD single for “Boy Pop” from LoveBubble, for instance, is something that definitely should have been included here. In fact, several other remixes from this album are available if you track down the CD singles, but that rather defeats the purpose of having any bonus tracks collected here.
LoveBubble, the band’s final album, released in 1993, is a clear indication that the members’ musical interests were diverging. Not that this is a bad thing. It gives the listener a taste of each individual’s personality and contribution to the whole. However, the whole, as usual, was more than the sum of its parts, and, apparently, Book of Love was no longer adding up. The magic melding of elements, the alchemical compound produced during Book of Love and Lullaby (and to a lesser extent, Candy Carol) was separating and the chemistry dissolving. It’s interesting to note that LoveBubble is the only Book of Love album to feature all four members as lead vocalists, but the eclectic charm of the distinct styles and voices isn’t enough to raise this record to the level of the previous three. This reissue features only four bonus tracks: two are mixes of the “Boy Pop” single, one is a remix of “Hunny Hunny”, and the final one is “Chatterbox (The Late Night Chat Mix)”.
The reissues of the four Book of Love albums are great for any lover of synth-pop, particularly if you’re already a fan and a completist, but they are by no means complete themselves. Fortunately, purchasing all four as a set is not required to enjoy the remastered versions, as each album is sold separately.