[6 July 2008]
Many US music fans who were around during the initial reign of Orchestral Manœuvres in the Dark (OMD) think of the band as a cute little synth pop group who gave us mid-‘80s radio hits like “So in Love” and Pretty in Pink‘s “If You Leave”. As an American teenager during the John Hughes era, those songs were my own exposure to the charms of OMD. Happily, their Best Of led me backward to their excellent and pioneering synth pop albums from earlier in the decade.
Their third such full-length, 1981’s Architecture & Morality, was a huge hit in their native England. It peaked at #3 on the UK charts and sold a staggering three million copies. In the US, meanwhile, the LP topped out at a mere #144 on the Billboard 200. Here in the 21st century, the album has already been remastered twice. In 2003, its sound was pumped up and polished and bonus tracks were appended, while the 2007 edition added a second disc of videos and live audio. The subsequent outpouring of glowing reviews have granted Architecture & Morality a second life and made it a must-have for modern hipsters who weren’t yet born upon its initial release. The celebration continues in 2008 with OMD Live: Architecture & Morality & More. This CD (a corresponding DVD is sold separately) documents the string of concerts performed in 2007 by the reunited 1981 lineup of the band.
For those of you who need some catching up, OMD formed in 1978 as the duo of singer/multi-instrumentalist Andrew McCluskey and keyboardist Paul Humphrey. The pair released their self-titled 1980 debut with little outside help. By album two, 1980’s Organisation, they’d added live drummer Mal Holmes. For its tour, they ameliorated their lineup with keyboardist and sax player Martin Cooper. This core group would remain together until 1989, when Humphrey, Holmes, and Cooper staged a three-man mutiny, bailing on McCluskey to form the short-lived and largely ignored group the Listening Pool. McCluskey, meanwhile, forged ahead, recruiting a new band and managing one last good OMD album, 1991’s Sugar Tax. By 1996, the good name of OMD had been dragged through the dregs of two additional, mediocre albums and slumping sales. Finally, McCluskey put it to rest.
A decade later, renewed interest inspired the original foursome to regroup and dust off that trusty ol’ trio of initials. They took their biggest-selling and most highly lauded album to the stage and topped it off with a handful of hits. The setlist is truly the best of what the group has to offer. The first nine tracks of OMD Live consists of the entirety of Architecture & Morality, albeit in a different running order. Whereas the original LP kicks off with the surprisingly reckless and intense “The New Stone Age”, the live disc is sequenced for a much more gradual build. The instrumental title track, with its collage of burbling synths and steam valve sounds, works nicely as an opener to create an aura of mystique. This segues perfectly into “Sealand”. A longish track, the first vocals from McCluskey don’t occur until midway through. His throat is older, but its as supple as ever, handling the delicate melody with ease. Now warmed up, the band ratchet up with “The New Stone Age”, and it’s nearly as unhinged as on the studio LP, recorded 26 years prior. As with the whole of OMD Live, the sound is considerably warmer and more expansive, imbuing the band with the sultriness of a sweaty nightclub, rather than the chillier tones of isolation that permeate their early full-lengths.
Architecture & Morality‘s singles are bunched together as a trio toward the end of the rearranged, live version of the album. The sweetly innocent-sounding “Souvenir” runs right into the pulse-and-glide of “Joan of Arc”, which is followed (as it is on the source LP) by “Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)”, its waltz-time companion. After A&M‘s finale, the lovely “The Beginning and the End”, a miniature OMD hit parade follows. Most of your favorites are here, including atomic bomb-themed “Enola Gay”, “Electricity”, and, yes, “If You Leave”. Of all of these, only “Electricity” sounds like its been given new life. The rest feel as though the group are sprinting through them. McCluskey even seems out of breath on several occasions. None of these versions are at all bad, and were probably a blast for those fortunate enough to attend the shows, but these interpretations also don’t add any new dimensions to the great old originals.
The Architecture & Morality segment of the show is the main attraction here, and makes a strong argument for parting with your pocket change. The & More portion is fun enough, but those frothier songs also break the enthralling mood of what came before. Once you’ve enjoyed OMD’s live recasting of their synth pop masterpiece, you won’t need to hear anything more.