Andromeda Heights (Kitchenware KWCD30)
Review originally published in Rainsound magazine
The scenes conjure almost too well, though perhaps I'm a bit sardonic: Paddy McAloon stares out a lone portal window, knocking out lines like "I feel like Yuri Gugarin" from his orbiting Andromeda Heights studio/skylab miles above the musical world. Cue the Euro-TV news broadcast-like opening of "Prisoner of the Past" as the spaceman and crew listen in on their handheld portable. Such are typical scenarios from the latest transmission from the Prefab satellite: an album that has the daunting task of soothing the seven year ache created by the near-perfect Jordan: The Comeback.
Once again, Paddy has flown in the likes of Sondheim and Webb up for a visit to the station, though this time around, topics like God, Elvis, and the history of Earth hit the showers and make way for (on your marks, cynics) romance. For a time-capsuled Sprout fan who hasn't listened to anything McAloon's done since 1984's Swoon (an album which, curiously, sounds progressively more indie as time passes), much of the content on Andromeda Heights seems like it simply could not have been penned by the same hand.
Lyrics such as "Life's a miracle/it's a summer's day/It's a passing moment/Enjoy the sky/be a brilliant butterfly" might not even register as more than Hallmark greetings to such a poor soul, who would be left to ponder "What has happened to the snappy lad I once thought I knew?" McAloon's newfound self-satisfaction in simplicity certainly has the Prefab fan camp sharply divided.
Therein, however, lies the audacity, insularity, and, at times, total brilliance of the album; simply put, nearly no one, much less a pop band, was recording music like this in 1997, much less four years on. Paddy and crew, who have rarely played by the rules anyway, have here almost completely cut the umbilical cord to mother earth, for better or for worse. In both music and lyrics, the record is simultaneously ultra-modern and completely anachronistic. Lush synthetic orchestras, vibes, and annoying "X-Files"/Kitaro synth whistles shake hands with saxophones which haven't seen the light of day since "Baker Street" and Billy Joel's The Stranger.
Theatrical lyrics containing numerous references to "love" and "stars," showing McAloon's gradual maturity, sophistication, or possibly senility. The opening track "Electric Guitars," with the musicality of a good sitcom theme, subtly refuses to take the rock star dreams of its young McCartney-esque protagonist too seriously, thanks to a wonderfully obnoxious synthesized lead guitar in the chorus. Harpsichord guides the listener through the majesty and idealism of the title track, a piece that would have fit just as comfortably at the end of Jordan.
Vocoder and bass sounds that could have been easily lifted from a Roger/Zapp record set the stage for "Weightless," which is not a 70s throwback funk piece at all but another dreamy ballad. Such examples as these definitely support the argument that Paddy's in control of the ship.
Such ultimate power might slowly be undermining the band itself. Andromeda Heights seems much more a Paddy McAloon solo work than past Prefab efforts, and despite the fact that Protest Songs was also self-produced, it at least bore more of a band stamp. There's an affliction that lone songwriters/musicians (see Prince, occasionally Costello, etc.) have been known to suffer, where by wearing too many hats in the studio (paired with a lack of collaboration) can result in the music falling short of its potential.
In the past, Thomas Dolby played the perfect role as producer/foil to McAloon's ideas on Prefab's albums. This time it's Paddy sitting in front of a sequencer and a small army of samplers, fine-tuning his arranging skills, with brother Martin and singer Wendy Smith playing more perfunctory roles. For prime A/B tests, drag out your copy of Steve McQueen and dig the bass lines on "Horsin' Around" or the mesmerizing vox on "Hallelujah," and compare immediately to any track on AH.
Also, due to financial constraints stemming from Prefab's "we're strictly a studio band" stance, drummer Neil Conti has been let go, and his snap-tight drums are now sorely missed. Sentimental echoes of Brian Wilson's mid-to-late 60s control freak glory period might be much more warmly embraced if the occasional transmission from the Newcastle space station would turn into a steady stream of new Prefab music. We all anxiously await with baited breath; hopefully the next album won't be another near-decade coming.
It's the dire truth that the Sprouts are not getting the recognition they duly deserve. Case in point: their American label counterpart opting not to release Heights in the States, not only a misjustice to Prefab and their label Kitchenware, but also a prime example of the sad state of affairs commericial major-label music is in over here.
While lady luck has shone kindly on McAloon with the success of Jimmy Nail's Crocodile Shoes I & II, perhaps the best situation that could evolve would be one similar to Randy Newman's. With such fabled projects as "Zorro the Fox" waiting indefinitely in the wings, perhaps cult status and commissioned work is the golden ticket to the wide acclaim and acceptance he and the band so richly deserve.
The music on AH is many steps ahead and to the side of what the average listener is accustomed. Nevertheless, for those of us fortunate to be in the know, we can listen to its overall beauty and feel oh so lucky.
Review by Ryan Bassler