Paddy McAloon
I Trawl the Megahertz
(EMI 583910)

Slightly ridiculous, unflinchingly optimistic, characteristically wistful, and ultimately beautiful, Paddy McAloon's first true solo album pays off all the Gershwin-leaning laziness of the last couple Prefab Sprout records with a rather forward-thinking twist. Instead of trying to write a bunch of standards – which, quite frankly, neither he, Elvis Costello, or Andy Partridge is any good at no matter how hard they try – McAloon fuses his lush orchestral landscapes with spoken-word passages that evoke much more than his usual craftsmanlike lyrics.

The result is a weird hybrid of 90s Prefab, This American Life, and Glenn Gould's radio experiments … pretty fucking interesting music, actually.

The focal-point track, "I Trawl the Megahertz," is 22-minutes of this approach … as audacious an album opener as I know of. Strings, saxes, and a Mike-Oldfield-trying-to-learn-Mark-Knopfler electric guitar support occasional spoken passages – it's like NPR trying to produce an ambient album. Many of the interludes are so corny that you half expect a soft-focus Technicolor® Grace Kelly to walk into the room and smile at you in acknowledgement of the tender, off-screen sex you supposedly had between this scene and the last.

But that's one of the wonderful things about Paddy: his ability and willingness to go for emotions that more jaded writers would consider hopelessly outmoded. Romance is not dead in Paddy's fiercely self-constructed bubble world.

"Esprit de Corps" is entirely instrumental, sort of Copland-esque chamber music (that's Aaron Copland, not the Sylvester Stallone Copland) … "Appalachian Tubular Bells," if you will. The next few tracks get into some kind of Brubeck-tackling-Vaughan Williams space … we'll dub the middle of the album "A Swingin' Pastoral Symphony." Not since the glorious days of Chuck Mangione has flugelhorn figured so prominently on a pop record.

For me, the album hits its high point with "I'm 49," a wonderful pastiche of radio call-in soundbytes of people discussing various disappointments. "I'm 49, divorced," says one, while shortwave sound effects flutter over an almost Mangione-like midtempo groove. It's amazingly affecting.

"Sleeping Rough" brings in Paddy's ultra-comforting voice, singing "I'm lost … I'll grow a long and silver beard … and let it reach my knees." Hm, maybe this album isn't as optimistic as it seems.

The copy I heard was burned to cdr along with a 14-minute BBC radio interview with Paddy discussing his detached retinas … his temporary and almost total blindness is what inspired this album. I must say, that man's voice does for compressed microphones what Marilyn Monroe did for cameras.

Review by Van Vanish