Surface: The First Time / The Best of Surface
One of the mysteries, among many, about the Reagan-Thatcher years is why anyone thought that a certain cheap synth sound was a good idea. You know the one -- a sudden crashing chord that sounds half way between a shriek and a dropped tin tray. It is certainly evocative, but in the worst possible way: of jackets with the sleeves rolled up and over-gelled hair, for example. It ruins many otherwise perfectly acceptable songs and its appearance on this album, on most of the uptempo tracks, means that the skip button will almost certainly be required.
It probably would have been anyway. Surface were a pop-soul band in the transition period from mid-'80s glossiness to jack swing. The tunes mostly post-date the Teddy Riley revolution but sound as if they come from a little earlier in the decade. It is not considered a classic era -- too much clumsy, digital backing coupled with the emergence of the ultra-wet (rather than the soulful) ballad. Surface were guilty on both counts and their fondness for slowies more suited to Donny Osmond or David Cassidy has, unfortunately, proved a lasting legacy to what was shortly to become R&B. "Never Gonna Let You Down" is the worst offender -- worth hearing, if only to show you where today's boy bands get their "ideas" from. Songs like "The First Time" provided a dubious blueprint for the more mawkish efforts of the appalling BoyzIIMen, a group I hold responsible for much of what went wrong with '90s soul.
However it is not all gloom. Surface made one great record and some solid two-steppers. They even managed a few ballads that were free of the above-mentioned flaws. Historically their sound is a fair representation of black vocal group styles of the era. If you were young at the time, much of this disc will remind you of first loves, school dances and favourite radio shows. Others will identify a definite late Doo-Wop sensibility -- the perils of treading that thin line between innocence and sentimentality is always apparent. When it works, it has the warmth and purity of the best teenage pop of any era, when it misses it just seems shallow and clichéd.
The key track is the opener, "Happy". This, in its own way, is a perfect pop song with just enough soul to satisfy more cynical ears. Lead singer Bernard Jackson possessed a glorious voice, light but with impeccable phrasing, and this was his best performance. There is an ache and a tenderness to his delivery that is totally captivating. Like Little Anthony or Frankie Lymon and other teen-oriented precursors, it is all boy-girl rather than man-woman stuff but unashamedly and indeed blissfully so. The tune is actually a rip-off of Mtume's '80s classic "Juicy Fruit" but the melodic rather than the sensual quality has been stressed. It is one of those items that you immediately feel you know so well and is both absolutely of its moment and timeless in its appeal.
Downhill from there really, but there are compensations in the shape of some perky dancers ("I Missed" is the best and least synth-spoiled) and a few mid-tempo goodies. One of these, "Hold on to Love", features the sublime Regina Belle's clever reworking of "Happy" in the refrain. "Can We Spend Some Time" is a classy smoocher and could find a place in the hearts of the cosier end of the Modern Soul scene, if the right DJs revived it. The rest is a mixture of the overly syrupy and the synthetically shiny, although the vocals are generally impressive and the slick but naive arrangements have what can only be termed period charm.
Those who need every piece of the soul music jigsaw and those who came of age at the time of these songs' initial release will, in different ways, get a lot out of the 14 tracks gathered together here. I can't see younger audiences making much sense of the whole project. However, it is probably as dated as it is ever going to sound and may become less so in the near future. That has happened to much disco material recently, something nobody would have predicted. Everybody needs "Happy" in their collection, if only to remind them that Urban music wasn't always about guns and hos, but apart from absolute obsessives that will do. Surface are a moderately interesting footnote to black music's proud career. This package is not going to do much to change that.