College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #413 to #411

413. Gang of Four, Songs of the Free (1982)

According to Hugo Burnham, the drummer for Gang of Four, the band was striving for a slicker, more commercial product when they made their third album, Songs of the Free. But they couldn’t quite bring themselves to fully and directly admit it to their new producer, Mike Howlett.

“Anyway, we were down in the country in Surrey with chefs and everything in this live-in place, And Mike Howlett, whom I loved, a really lovely guy, we didn’t tell him we needed to soften our sound, but I think we said in so many words that we wanted a more professional-sounding record,” Burnham recalled. “He used all this new computer technology, which was interesting, but I felt it was a bit cold at the time. It was all a bit too pleasant — the surroundings, everything.”

Gang of Four was only going to be so pleasant, though. Known for the jagged paddlewheel assault of their first two albums, the band is unmistakably in different zone on Songs of the Free. The unlikely feat of the album is the way their maintain their fierce, barbed personality while adapting their post-punk to suit the needs of some mythic grindhouse move theater that was transformed into a dance hall meant to serve the same clientele. “It Is Not Enough” has a thumping, burbling fervor, and “We Live as We Dream, Alone” is similar to the dramatic, post-disco dance assaults producer Trevor Horn would soon svengali up with the likes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Art of Noise. “Call Me Up” proceeds with a deliberate, robotic grind, highlighting lyrics of pointed, ironic commentary: “We are all in competition/ Better move fast gobble up your dinner.”

If their influence was broader at the time, Gang of Four’s work on Songs of the Free could be reasonably interpreted in retrospect as pace-setting for the big, booming rock that would soon emerge as a force on AOR radio stations. “Muscle for Brains” has an effusive rock groove that aligns with the likes of Simple Minds and the Call, and “I Will Be a Good Boy” is one of a few tracks that finds lead singer Andy Gill coming close to the casual cool of David Bowie from the same era. Whether others drew from the album, it has an unmistakable punch and potency that marks it as clearly of its time and yet enduringly satisfying.

412. Oingo Boingo, Good for Your Soul (1983)

Presumably, Oingo Boingo were looking to get funky when they opted to employ producer Robert Margouleff on their third studio album, Good for Your Soul. Best known for his extensive work with Stevie Wonder across the artist’s legendary albums of the nineteen-seventies, Margouleff knew how to bend instrumentation and studio tools to suit a groove. That skill aligned with the ambitions of Danny Elfman, Oingo Boingo’s frontman and chief songwriter, to make raucous pop peppered with oddities and ironies. What seemed a fine match on paper, though, didn’t guarantee a success on record.

As is often the case with Oingo Boingo records, Good for Your Soul has a handful of pretty basic ideas that are made to seem more impressive than they are, like a juggler with only two balls who hopes that performing in the middle of a house of mirrors will make them appear to be an unparalleled master of the craft. “Who Do You Want to Be” opens the album with prominent horns and an eager funk burn, as if Fishbone had skill but no soul. “Pictures of You” stalks along with phony gloom. “No Spill Blood” is just dopey, and “Little Guns” is all fussy, rubbery weirdness. At its worst, the album indulges in empty experimentalism, such as “Cry of the Vatos” which obnoxiously deploys synthesized tomfoolery and backwards vocals, winding up sounding like a jungle where the monkeys were all sent through Seth Brundle‘s teleportation machine with a stowaway Pac-Man. The single “Nothing Bad Ever Happens” is a little more interesting, adopting the loping pop oped pose of Britpop acts such as Madness and the Jam to rail against apathy for the plights of others in a civilized society: “Every time I look around this place/ I see them scream but I hear no sound/ And the terrible things happen down the road/ To somebody else that I don’t even know.”

Good for Your Soul represented an endpoint for the first phase of Oingo Boingo. Not long after the album’s release, bassist Kerry Hatch and keyboardist Richard Gibbs left the group, evidently dissatisfied with the lack of crossover success. The band was effectively on an unannounced hiatus, with Elfman tinkering with other creative outlets, including the album that would be his first with solo billing and the proper launch of his career as a composer of film scores. It would be a couple years before Oingo Boingo officially reemerged, and it would turn out to be a very splashy comeback.

411. Joan Armatrading, Sleight of Hand (1986)

After producer Mike Howlett worked with Joan Armatrading on her 1985 album, Secret Secrets, he suggested that the critically adored and commercially undervalued performer didn’t really require studio assistance from him or anybody. Armatrading was starting to suspect the same thing, and she angled to take on all production duties for her next album, anticipating reluctance from her longtime label, A&M Records. Armatrading recruited her usual touring band to play with her in the studio (she usually opted for different session musicians when recording) and begin slowly, surely going through the new material she’d written, taking preliminary passes at the songs so she had a clear strategy when it came time to push toward a final effort.

Sleight of Hand definitely doesn’t sound like the tentative work of a first-time solo producer. It has the heavy coat of studio varnish that was exceedingly commonplace during the nineteen-eighties. In particular, single “Kind Words (And a Real Good Heart)” seems like a concerted attempt to adopt the big, slick sound that completely revived the career of Tina Turner at about that time. What was unbearably cheesy employed but others is largely redeemed by Armatrading’s songwriting skill and performing panache. “Reach Out” has bluesy spine that’s more enticing than the echoing vocals on the chorus, and “Angel Man” somehow manages to sound like John Parr if John Parr was kinda cool.

The album’s strongest tracks are the result of Armatrading powerhouse vocals. “Russian Roulette” is highly potent, and “Figure of Speech” has an emotive authority that matches lyrics of quiet intensity (“So don’t be surprised/ When he talks of love/ But his deeds can break you”) similar to what Marianne Faithfull was up to on her best records from the same era. “One More Chance” takes Armatrading’s singing to another level, reverberating with a power that could fell the sturdiest studio walls.

Whatever worries might have been in play, Sleight of Hand performed roughly as well as any other Armatrading album, which means well with critics and not all that impressively on the charts. But Armatrading assertion of her own creative authority stuck. Across a long career, Armatrading produced every subsequent album she made.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

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