Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Crocodiles, Heaven Up Here, Porcupine, Ocean Rain, Echo & the Bunnymen

Posted By on Wed, Apr 21, 2004 at 12:00 AM

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of Echo & The Bunnymen’s 1978 performing debut; in commemoration, European Warner Brothers issued remastered/expanded versions of the group’s first five albums. Now available Stateside, those platters of Bunnydom tell quite vividly, in both words (courtesy journalist Max Bell’s outstanding liner notes) and music, the story of the band’s initial, and storied, decade-long run.

Crocodiles (1980; included are 10 bonus cuts) is the sound of fresh-faced, lysergically-fueled enthusiasm, so heady a slice of post-punk nu-psychedelia that the only other record of the era coming close to matching its innate vibrancy is Joy Division’s Closer — and where that LP is a meditation on death and eternity, Crocodiles is a celebration of life, liberty and the pursuit of madness. From first track, "Going Up," which actually spirals down from the skies on a parachute of billowing chords while Ian McCulloch plays the part of Bowie’s Major Tom, back on Earth but agog at the changed landscape, through closing number "Happy Death Man," whose off-kilter rhythms, dissonant melody, avant-garde swipes of keyboards and willfully lunatic vocals suggest a wild dust-up between the Velvet Underground and the Doors, there’s nothing remotely flop-eared and fluffy about these Bunnies. Mid-album there’s also a brilliant Velvets-styled churning rocker "Villiers Terrace," whose delightfully surreal acid-trip lyrics ("People rolling ‘round on the carpet/ Biting wool and pulling string") would make Jim Morrison proud. Bonus material-wise, not only do you get singles (such as "Do It Clean," a rousing variation on "I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone") and unreleased songs not included on 2001’s Bunnymen box Crystal Days, the 1981 four-song EP Shine So Hard provides a crucial early glimpse of the lads flexing their live muscles.

Heaven Up Here (1981; five bonus cuts) is a headlong dive into pure sonic apocalypso, an ominous, edgy vibe set maintained for 45 minutes. Guitarist Will Sergeant excels, one moment peeling off fractured funk licks a la Talking Heads ("With A Hip"), the next spraying echoey/reverby shards of psych (monstrous anthem "Over The Wall") and the next coaxing out 12-string plangency (the trancey, tribal rhythm’d "All My Colours"). In fact, the entire band is on a high, particularly the elastic-yet-machine-precision rhythm section of bassist Les Pattinson and drummer Pete De Frietas, and the record’s widescreen sonics are done justice by the fresh remastering. More bonus tracks follow, including four recorded on tour in Australia in ‘81.

After that white-hot peak the band was bound to stumble. While Porcupine (1982; seven bonus cuts) isn’t lacking in tunes — both "The Cutter," with its clarion-call electric violin riff (courtesy Shankar) and the buoyantly slashing "Heads Will Roll" rank among Bunnydom’s best bets — it’s marred by an unfortunate one-dimensional mix that, compared to its cinematic predecessors, is like a numbing drug crash. The inclusion of 1983 single "Never Stop (Discotheque)," with its nods to Bowie and New Order, ups the bonus material’s "intrigue" quotient, however.

Bunnybuffs like to point to Ocean Rain (1984; eight bonus cuts) as a "comeback." While it’s true that the ringing guitars, swooping strings and "la-la-la-la" McCulloch vocals of "Silver" are joyful enough, and that the dramatically filmic, cloaked-in-atmosphere "The Killing Moon" marks a welcome return to the band’s widescreen persona, the album all but jettisons any notions of the Bunnymen being a "rock" band. McCulloch is in frequent crooner mode here, and the arrangements (strings, brushed drums, acoustic guitars) seem overly reined-in. It’s still a fine, eminently listenable (and downright romantic) album, and the extra cuts make the CD a must-purchase. If "unplugged" versions of Crocodiles songs don’t charm your bunny slippers off you, the sitar-and-cello cover of the Beatles’ "All You Need Is Love" will definitely have you hopping in the carrot patch.

This, then, is the end, beautiful friends, the end: Echo & The Bunnymen (1987; seven bonus cuts), a record whose monochromatic sleeve art is mirrored by the drab musical performances within. Actually, that’s not completely fair; hit single "Lips Like Sugar" is sturdily anthemic and "Bedbugs And Ballyhoo," with hipster McCulloch vox and guest Ray Manzarek on Doorsian keys, is kinetically danceable fun. (Ditto the bonus tracks, which include an actual Doors cover, "Soul Kitchen.") But as a whole the album is too glossy, heavy on the sequencers and even heavier on the compression, and could charitably be described as "eighties-sounding."

McCulloch bolted from the Bunny hutch in ’88, leaving the others to plod along for a spell as the Echo-less Bunnymen. Improbably enough, however, the band — minus drummer De Frietas, who died in ‘89 in a motorcycle accident — reconvened in 1996 and continues to this day. And while any group’s "glory days" are prone to nostalgic revisionism, in the case of Echo & The Bunnymen, most of those days weren’t merely glorious — they were cut from pure, precious crystal.

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