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