[19 May 2014]
Playing a bit like the Kinks to Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe’s Beatles and Stones on the Stiff label, Wreckless Eric always seemed perhaps too idiosyncratic and decidedly British to reach a wider audience. Sure, he had a mid-sized hit with “Whole Wide World”, but beyond the vague recognition that particular song may engender in the average listener, the name Wreckless Eric does not typically register. This is a decidedly unfortunate oversight given the depth and breadth of his catalog, way with words, and gift for a melodic hook.
While the majority of his musical notoriety resides in his late 1970s/early-‘80s sides for Stiff, this pair of reissues from the late 1980s/early-‘90s show Wreckless Eric having lost little musical ground in the intervening years and, if anything, having dug even deeper into his very specific, highly idiosyncratic notion of what a pop song could or should be. Never one to embrace fidelity or prevailing musical trends, Wreckless Eric’s sound is very much that of a man out of time, finding kindred spirits in a previous generation of musicians who were rooted in the wild early days of rock-and-roll before it became commercialized, homogenized, and generally robbed of its intrinsic parent-scaring properties.
The first of these two recent reissues from Fire Records, 1989’s Le Beat Group Electrique, was his first album in nine years and followed up his last release for Stiff, Big Smash!, which, while a stellar album in and of itself, was not the big smash of its overly optimistic title. Instead of raging back onto the scene, Le Beat Group Electrique takes a more subdued, subtler track, utilizing space and softer dynamics to make its presence felt. As with previous outings, Le Beat Group Electrique find its sound firmly embedded in the past, eschewing the notion of the 1980s indie record sound in favor of something even more organic with nary a trace of paisley, having never left the garage in the first place.
Judging by the track titles, the intervening years and virtual radio silence from Wreckless Eric were rather rough. “Wishing My Life Away”, “Depression”, “It’s A Sick Sick World”, and “I’m Not Going To Cry”, along with the general theme of the album, are all less than cheery and clearly the work of someone whose previous perceived failures took a bit of a toll on their creator’s psyche.
And yet despite the maudlin thematic nature of these tracks, the overall impression left by the music itself is still highly pleasant, melodic, and hook-filled (“Sarah” and “The Sun Is Pouring Down” chiefly among these). He may have been suffering from a bit of depression, but it did nothing to dampen his ability to put out an enjoyable collection of more restrained, stripped down pop songs that only briefly descend into chaos (“Parallel Beds” and “True Happiness”).
1993’s The Donovan Of Trash turns up the volume and overall energy level, gloriously shambolic in its overall lo fi aural aesthetic and sounding as if it were recorded sometime in the mid-‘60s rather than during the peak years of grunge. One could easily imagine any of these tracks coming from the studio of Joe Meek with their sonic weirdness, “Telstar”-esque guitars, and kitchen sink production. In fact, the only indication these thirteen tracks weren’t recorded in the 1960s is “The Extra Bonus Track”, with its mention of “compact discs”. Were it not for this anachronistic reference, one could easily be led to believe these to be lost Joe Meek-produced sessions.
Fitting then that Wreckless Eric would pen a song about the man with seemingly first-hand lyrical details documenting Joe Meek’s studio, recording process, and general day-to-day. Indeed, “Joe Meek” employs a number of the titular producer’s sonic trademarks and crafts an intricate analysis of both Meek and the mindset of his protégés as they both aspired to a level of greatness neither would ever be able to attain.
Throughout, Wreckless Eric’s lyrical content skews left-of-center with oftentimes bizarre imagery and chanted choruses that take a moment or two to discern exactly what is being said (“Semi-Porno Statuette”, “The Nerd/Turkey Song”), while also managing subtly heartbreaking, autobiographical paeans to his formative years (“School”, with its kazoo chorus quote of “Silent Night” and “Lureland”). The only downside to The Donovan Of Trash is that, unlike the source material it aurally apes, the typical run time here is well north of three minutes, making those that touch five minutes feel a bit interminable in their oftentimes overly lethargic length.
Overall, this is a scruffy little album that further regresses from the territory explored on Le Beat Group Electrique and chooses to firmly exist in a time completely removed from the present, turning its back on the modern world in favor of freakier times when people like Wreckless Eric himself could enter a studio with the hopes of turning out a hit single based solely on the merit of the material alone rather than the prepackaged notion of what a performer should be. Seems he just came along a decade or so later than he was supposed to.