In praise of sophistipop: Prefab Sprout then, Stars now

[13 November 2007]

By Ben Wener

The Orange County Register (MCT)

I was about to start this by serving up some lofty rubbish about this being an aesthetically devolved age in which sophisticated contemporary pop (I like to say “sophistipop”) is all but dead. But then I glanced at the steadily growing stack of sophistipop discs on my shelf from this year alone, most of which I’ve had time enough to say exactly zilch about, and which you’ll likely never buy, let alone steal.

And in that same moment of feeling shame over having taken forever just to mention that one of my all-time favorite albums (Prefab Sprout’s “Steve McQueen,” from 1985) has finally been remastered and reissued, I was also heartened Friday to discover that the only seats available to see the swell Canadian troupe Stars over the weekend at L.A.‘s Orpheum Theatre were in the last few rows of the balcony. The coincidence of which reminds me that sophistipop never dies—it just takes on more and more cult status with each passing generation.

Sure, if only people had a deeper appreciation for snazzy Bacharachian harmonics and idolized the Smiths as much for Johnny Marr’s complex chordings as for Morrissey’s poetic mope, there’s no telling how popular something like Stars’ rich new recording “In Our Bedroom After the War” could become. There’s always hope—look at Belle and Sebastian filling up the Hollywood Bowl a few years ago.

We quirky types are always lurking about, looking for that next neat twist. Another current fave: “The Flying Club Cup,” a lushly romantic, melodically rich work in the French chanson style from singer-songwriter Zach Condon and his band called Beirut. (I also hear the usual wonderful things about the Real Tuesday Weld’s latest retro-modern foray, “The London Book of the Dead.”)

But in between my resurrected Neil Young fixation these past few weeks, I can’t stop returning to Prefab Sprout and Stars, for I keep noticing similarities between the two. Certainly Stars stars Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan and their adroit band mates work from a wider technological palette, which allows starker dynamics.

Some new songs have a moody undercurrent of Massive Attack and Saint Etienne and the like, if only for rhythmic grounding, while others are as twee as B&S or, in the case of the title-track closer, they exhibit theatricality caught somewhere between two other sophistipop forces from then and now, Elton John and Nellie McKay, the latter of whom has her own sleeper pick (“Obligatory Villagers”) languishing in racks and online.



Stars’ overall light touch, breathy male-female vocal interplay and sharp lyricism can’t help but remind me of the English outfit Prefab Sprout and its eccentric, reclusive tunesmith Paddy McAloon, whose literate, clever, insightful songwriting has few rivals among his peers (Morrissey/Marr perhaps surpass him on quantity alone, but Everything but the Girl’s Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn, for instance, were never so wry or crafty.)

“Steve McQueen,” known as “Two Wheels Good in the States” until this summer’s double-disc reissue from Sony Legacy, was Prefab’s second album, and it remains McAloon’s masterpiece, teeming with great lines, particularly about matters of the heart: He may insist that “absence makes the heart lose weight ... till love breaks down,” but “life’s not complete till your heart’s missed a beat.” His simple motto on life and love, from “Appetite,” which isn’t about food: “So if you take/Then put back good/If you steal/Be Robin Hood.”

A vivid study of everyday romantic discord—one that turns particularly poignant in the deceptively cheeky “Horsin’ Around,” as scathing a self-analysis of thoughtless infidelity as any guy is apt to fess up—the album always seemed to me to reach its inevitable conclusion in the atmospheric piece “Desire As”: “I’ve got six things on my mind/You’re no longer one of them,” McAloon sings in a sadly beautiful drone that suggests an uneasy alliance between heart and head that still resonates in me no matter how happily married I am.

This is the sound of intellectuals in love gone awry, winsomely conveyed in music that, admittedly, may throw you off at first. Big fan that I am of Thomas Dolby’s overlooked 1984 gem “The Flat Earth,” I love the similar sound he brought to “Steve McQueen” as producer, but any young Stars fan I’d heavily urge to check out Prefab will likely find the decidedly `80s sheen “as obsolete as warships in the Balkan,” to cite one of McAloon’s better metaphors. Spend some time with this music, though, and whatever feels dated about it may quickly melt away, as Prefab was one of few bands of the era (Aztec Camera was another, more so than, say, the Dream Academy or the Blow Monkeys) that was able to make something sumptuous out of all that synthetic stuff.

Then again, aren’t the `80s still back in vogue? Either way, dig in, closeted sophisticates. As with any good Stars album, which is all of them, subtle delights await—and there’s more to discover from Prefab, including two other finely wrought sets,” From Langley Park to Memphis” (1988) and “Jordan: The Comeback” (1990) that could do with a similar overhauling.

In the meantime, we die-hards who still hunt through import bins hoping to find some new McAloon sampling are tickled to at least have a second disc of Paddy indulging acoustic versions. They don’t all translate—“Goodbye Lucille #1” doesn’t adapt so well to waltz time—but it’s nice to know the guy’s alive and kicking somewhere, no matter how overlooked his genius will remain.

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