The graphic provided by DooYoo when I requested a new product for "Sugar Tax" is for the oddly bundled Sugar Tax/Junk Culture double album pack which is currently out of print. This review is of "Sugar Tax" only.
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (OMD) are a band born of an age, and for most, belong in the age in which they were born. As a stalwarts of the Eighties New Wave electro-pop movement with iconic compositions such as "Enola Gay", "Talking Loud and Clear", and "Electricity" they seemingly lacked the musical depth and adaptability that saw some of their most immediate contemporaries (Erasure, Depeche Mode, The Pet Shop Boys and The Cure come to mind) continue producing records well into the next century.
However, to label them solely as eighties-has beens would be something of a mistake. Although their music is indelibly associated with Brat Pack movies like the 1986 John Hughes classic "Pretty in Pink" (the iconic "If You Leave" still gets a fair bit of airplay these days), as a band, they still had a fair bit to offer the dedicated and discerning listener.
Although OMD's full moniker would win a fair few awards for most pretentious band name ever, their music deserves serious consideration. Founding members Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys grew up together on Merseyside and provided the creative nucleus of the band until the original line-up split in late 1988.
A successful American tour supporting Depeche Mode, which culminated with a warm-up performance in front of the 90,000 sell out of the Pasadena Rose Bowl (the inspiration for Depeche Mode's 101 album) served to be their undoing. Humphreys, disenchanted that their musical direction was being dictated by their commercial success and not their founding influences (which counted pioneers such as Kraftwerk and Gary Numan amongst their number) left McCluskey to continue, essentially as a solo artist, using the OMD name.
Like many of their previously defunct contemporaries, OMD's original line-up decided to reform and started touring in 2007. However, unlike some of their peers who are just looking to cash in on their once iconic status for one last retirement pay day, the band are actually working on some new material, and an album, with a working title of "History of Modern" is scheduled for release sometime in 2011. Whether it's any good remains to be seen.
McCluskey produced three albums in the nineties, the first of which was "Sugar Tax" released in May 1991. The album was a moderate chart success, spawning a number of decently charting singles, the best two of which (commercially at least) were "Sailing on the Seven Seas" (UK No.3) and "Pandora's Box" (UK No.7). Sugar Tax proved to be the high point of McCluskey's solo success, and even though two albums followed ("Liberator" in 1993 and "Universal" in 1996), neither could match their predecessor's success.
PRICE & AVAILABILITY
The album is currently available for £6.98 in CD form on Amazon, but you can get it as a digital download for much less (£3.98 at last check). The CD insert does not have much to commend it (credits and fan club information but no lyrics).
As a long-standing fan of the group, I was concerned that Humphreys departure would affect the OMD "sound". The transition from duo to solo act with a rotating line-up of musicians seemed, on the surface at least, practically seamless. However, Humphreys was valued for his skill at writing strong melodies - most obvious on classic OMD hits such as "Souvenir" and "(Forever) Live and Die" - and to be fair to him, some of the musical depth is absent from the songs on Sugar Tax. However, it is a strong album with a number of very-OMD-sounding pieces mixed in with some experimentation and a dollop of more dance-orientated pieces.
> Sailing on the Seven Seas
This was the most commercially successful of the four singles released from the album and it's not difficult to see why. It grabs you from the off with a pounding bass-line, overlaid by cutesy, tinkling bells and complementing McCluskey's unmistakeable and distinct vocals. It has a nice hook and a toe-tapping beat which makes it an idea dance number. The lyrics aren't going to win any writing awards, and in my view at least, come across as a bit vague and ambiguous.
"Sick and tired and I don't know why. Skin and bone won't touch the sky. Sex and lies can't bring me down, because I've sold my soul all over town."
> Pandora's Box (It's a Long, Long Way)
A brilliant little biographical number that tells the story of a naïve innocent who leaves Kansas to find fame and fortune in New York, only to find that what she craved is not what she actually wants. She searches for meaning in material things, not realising that what she is looking for comes from inside her. The song is a tribute to silent movie actress Louise Brooks, whose most famous and endearing work gives the song its title (1929's Pandora's Box). The song has a touch of vaudeville about it that evokes the era from which Brooks hailed. A catchy song with a lovely chorus.
"And all the stars you kissed could never ease the pain, still the grace remains, and though the face has changed, you're still the same. And it's a long long way from where you want to be. And it's a long long road, but you're too blind to see..."
> Then You Turn Away
OMD were known for their ballads, and McCluskey's voice seems well suited to expressions of longing, pathos and angst. This is one of two such numbers on the album and is one of my favourites. It's a tale of unrequited love. The singer is clearly a man in love yet he denies it, to himself, to onlookers and to the object of his affection. McCluskey infuses the song with a sense of desperation that borders on the manic. Whatever he tries, whatever he does is wrong and his frustration is obvious. There is an orchestral quality to the underlying melody that gives the song a plaintive quality that complements the lyrics very well.
"So many things I do, so many things I say give you the wrong idea. So many things I do, so many things I say just make a fool of me. Then you turn away..."
> Was It Something I Said?
The second ode to angst on the album is the better of the two. The beginning, with its layered synths and understated beat, is reminiscent of classic OMD tracks like "Talking Loud and Clear" and "Forever Live and Die". It's a flowery and somewhat ostentatious start that is eventually toned down to accommodate McCluskey's subtle vocals, which build in intensity throughout the track. He ratchets up the emotional intensity masterfully, starting with doubt and disbelief and working himself up through irritation, anger and then suppressed rage - all tinged with dollops of regret and raw honesty. The music fades away at the end to leave just McCluskey and his voice. It's a stunning song in my book - as much for the delivery as the musical composition and simple but effective lyrics.
"Don't you come round here no more, don't you waste my time, don't you dare to phone me, don't you even have me on your mind..."
> Apollo XI
This "song" is something of an enigma on the album and is the most experimental of all of the tracks. An instrumental which sets the American commentary of the Apollo XI moon landing against a boppy, compelling dance track, this will either be considered by the listener as a work of genius or a bit of schmaltz. I'll leave you to make up your own minds, but, for me, it's an innovative diversion from the rest of the album.
"It looks beautiful from here..."
Sugar Tax is a real mixed bag. Although each of the tracks have something to commend them, the album seems a bit thrown together with no common thread of theme. The parts paradoxically work better than the whole. This is not the type of album that lends itself to a front to back listen, as there seem to be too many variations and changes of pace to foster any sense of cohesion.
Sugar Tax is an album with multiple personality disorder. Each one of the manifestations is pleasant in of itself, but put them all in the room together and they don't get along very well. There are some excellent tracks, but also some instantly forgettable ones. For instance, "All that Glitters" and "Neon Lights" - the two tracks that close out the album seem particularly weak. That said, it is well worth a listen as there are some splendid songs. Just don't expect any sort of consistency.
FULL TRACK LISTING
Sailing On The Seven Seas (3:46)
Pandora's Box (4:09)
Then You Turn Away (4:17)
Speed of Light (4:29)
Was It Something I Said (4:29)
Big Town (4:20)
Call My Name (4:23)
Apollo XI (4:13)
Walking On Air (4:50)
Walk Tall (3:55)
Neon Lights (4:20)
All That Glitters (4:06)
© Hishyeness 2009
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Sailing On The Seven Seas
2 Pandora's Box
3 Then You Turn Away
4 Speed Of Light
5 Was It Something I Said
6 Big Town
7 Call My Name
8 Apollo XI
9 Walking On Air
10 Walk Tall
11 Neon Lights
12 All That Matters
13 Junk Culture
14 Tesla Girls
17 Never Turn Away
18 Love And Violence
19 Hard Day
20 All Wrapped Up
21 White Trash
22 Talking Loud And Clea