The Secret of Association
I've heard the Seventies called the Decade That Taste Forgot, but I think I'd rather vote for the Eighties. Sure, the Seventies may have been wearing daisy-pattern bell-bottoms, but at least their drummer sounded like he was playing in the same room as the rest of the band, as opposed to an empty football stadium.
The horrible production gimmicks that budded circa '82 and didn't really die until Nevermind hounded more than one otherwise talented soul into mediocrity (anyone have cherished memories of Press to Play out there?), but Paul Young mostly manages to redeem this album through sheer vocal integrity. He's got a sweet tenor with more than a touch of soul but also gobs of Celtic authority, and he's almost always got an intelligent phrasing for these songs, regardless of how intelligently written they are. What I like best is that, unlike so many singers who aspire to soulfulness, he knows the key to putting a song across lies in delivering real emotion, not melismatic overkill.
The big hit here is "Every Time You Go Away," and it's as good as you remember it from your junior prom. Not surprisingly, it's a Daryl Hall composition, and its gently peaking melody, cogent bittersweet lyric, and gentle (except for that snare drum) accompaniment make it a wonderful tune for snuggling. Young's delivery, slightly behind the beat and with some understated "whoa-whoa"s, is a model of restraint and good taste.
In a slightly odd mood for the mid-80's, Young seems to have a taste for exploring the past - both "I Was in Chains" and "Soldier's Things" have an air of British history. The first is sensational, with a guitar playing a bagpipe-style obbligato and some moody vocals, but the latter is typically boring Tom Waits fare.
Some places, Young loses the fight against the crappy synths and massive reverb - "Bite The Hand That Feeds" and "Tear Your Playhouse Down" are both undistinctive performances overshadowed by fake strings going "zing zing zing zing zing" in the world's biggest echo chamber. "Hot Fun" has an acceptable, if stiff arrangement, but seems entirely pointless.
Still, I love this voice, and I'm willing to bet his later albums are genuinely fine music.
Paul's sounding much more natural this time, but there are still some of those gated drums hounding him. Overall, the production has a largely acoustic feel, with lots of real drums and guitars, and it's a much better fit for his vocal style. He does a bang-up job on the two old soul covers here, "Oh Girl" and "Stop On By", even if the latter runs a bit long.
The most interesting song choice is Free's "A Little Bit of Love"; if you've ever found Paul Rodgers' white-soul emoting just a bit much, you can at least appreciate his minimalistic songwriting with the more restrained work of Mr. Young.
Of course, Paul Young did enjoy the middle of the road, and he spends time there as well. "Our Time Has Come" may be the worst offender with its schmaltzy lyric and bombastic orchestration, but "Heaven Can Wait" and "Together" don't stray too far toward actually meaning anything either.
The closing track, though, is a whopper. "Calling You" has an outlandish melody styled after a coyote's howl, and Paul delivers it in his raspiest voice. It's totally unexpected, but sends chills up my spine. That's the beauty of a fine vocal stylist working in new territory; when he was challenged, Paul Young could always come through with some awesomely human vocals, despite being surrounded by machines.
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