HIM: Uneasy Listening Vol. 1

[17 January 2007]

By Andrew Blackie

Like it or not, H.I.M. have been around around for a lot longer than the average American’s been aware of them—content to top the charts in Finland and Germany during the late 90s while Evanescence were just discovering the incredible effect and potential of wearing too much eye makeup and bogging your songs in death and faux-depression. This compilation proves it, pulling material from their albums Greatest Lovesongs Vol. 666, Razorblade Romance, Deep Shadows and Brilliant Highlights, and Love Metal and polishing them up or stripping them down for re-release. Doing the math in that hindsight means that some of this material has been sitting in the H.I.M. vault since 1996. 1996! There’s surely a history behind some of the tunes that crop up throughout the seventy-five minute listening process (did I mention that it’s also well worth your money?).

And while it’s easy to be skeptical about any compilation titled Uneasy Listening, let alone one of H.I.M.‘s music, in which pretentiousness has a permanent home, the minor miracle here is that this collection may well be their best, smoothest listen yet. Not only is there a wide range in the different remakes across the board—a couple of these tracks are stretched to almost symphonic proportions—but you don’t need to be familiar with their back catalog to pick it up… though it probably helps.

Frontman Ville Valo, essentially the heart and soul of the group, emotes in a sullen, utterly despairing baritone not unlike Robert Smith of the Cure, punctuated by frequent gasps into falsetto. Despite this, he’s never annoying like Davey Havok of AFI, instead rolling effortlessly through a list of bold gothic cliches (some of which he helped create) with his ever-so-slight Finnish accent. The greatest milestone on the disc, however, is the production: its knack for enhancing certain instruments (the melodramatic “Close to the Flame”, for example) at just the right time and being generally impeccable is the only thing that allows the band’s music to work as well as it does.

Rich piano and anxious strings work up underneath the contrived beauty of “Sacrament”, the thump-thump of the chorus bass drum all that betrays the lavish production. In contrast, the acoustic “Funeral of Hearts” has a simplicity that works with typical gothic appeal—that is, fare that makes good use of the words “cruelty”, “gun”, and “blood”, and subtlely builds its way to an epic conclusion. A brushed-up version of “Join Me in Death” (credited as a “Strongroom Mix” in the liner notes) sustains itself perfectly around an ethereal piano hook, and the ‘string version’ of “In Joy and Sorrow” delivers pretty much exactly what you’d expect from anything that includes a violin, i.e. lots of misery and drawn-out melodies.

A couple of radio unpluggeds are thrown in as well. “It’s All Tears” is suspiciously well-produced and not as raw as it should be, seasoned with organ-emulating keyboard in the background, yet Valo’s Jekyll & Hyde moan/shriek vocals come to the forefront nonetheless, as all the best acoustic performances manage to do. Of particular interest is the chunky steel-string guitar remix of their hit “Buried Alive by Love”; and “Please Don’t Let It Go” is performed in its entirety without drums.

Uneasy Listening begins to stumble near the end, employing a third-rate sound effect that sounds like a carousel through much of a remix of “The Path”, and ultimately concludes disappointingly with “Lose You Tonight”, where the sterile mix is ironed out over a trip-hop beat and Valo changes genders at the end of the song, a squeamish way to draw such an underatking to a close. Dark Light was a narcissistic and poppy way for the band to break out as an international act, though, so while we wait to see whether their upcoming disc will be any better, Uneasy Listening is the remedy, a sort of ‘Unofficial Greatest Hits Thus Far’. Though the whole Vol. 1 thing tagged on at the end is annoying—sequelistic discs always end up being really aggravating, not to mention an ego trip for the artists involved—it doesn’t feel like a cash-in. The remixes aren’t dull, the various tweaks and enhancements add that little extra to the songs, and it never loses the focus of its goal to bring you up to speed on a humorous and original band that do have real talent.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/him-uneasy-listening-vol-1/