March 25, 2009

Hear Again: The Raw & the Cooked.

The Fine Young Cannibals second and last original album, published twenty years ago, rapidly rips through four decades of pop - from the unmistakable funky groove of their greatest hit, She Drives Me Crazy, through American soul and British pop to modern European dance music. By far their most popular work, topping charts on both sides of the Atlantic, its title appears to reference Le Cru et le cuit, the first volume of centenarian French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss' Mythologiques, published in 1964.

Though apart from cataloguing the trappings of dance music trends, there's little anthropology present. The title simply seems to reference the manner in which the album was assembled. Rather than recorded in one dedicated session, it was compiled from a number of them spanning almost five years - explaining the contrast between its raw, retro-soul and "well done," mechanised pop.

New recordings mix with tracks recorded for Barry Levinson's 1987 movie Tin Men, while an alternate cut of the Buzzcocks' 1978 hit Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've), originally recorded by the FYC for Jonathan Demme's 1986 movie Something Wild, appends the album. However, if one considers, in the manner of the practically mythical monsieur Lévi-Strauss, myth to be a manner of legér de main, propping up a specific illusion or belief, then the title is quite apt. For though The Raw & the Cooked has sold in excess of 2 million copies worldwide, it's not widely considered an electronic pop album. Which is precisely what it is.

Though a thoroughly contemporary band, the FYC were steeped in myth, their music evoking bygone times as much as their name (inspired by All the Fine Young Cannibals, Michael Anderson's 1960 film adaptation of Rosamond Marshall's novel The Bixby Girls.) The Tin Men tracks - Good Thing, Tell Me What, As Hard As It Is - in particular emulating the dizzy heights of early 1960s pop charts, what with the film being somewhat of a period piece in which the FYC appear as a nightclub act. But regardless of how attuned to the past this album sounds, it was arranged and recorded in a manner typical of 1980s electronic pop albums.

Take the aforementioned She Drives Me Crazy. Its signature snare drum sound was created from two different sources: one was the processed sound of an actual snare whacked with a wooden ruler, the other a drum machine sample. Their combined sound was fed through a speaker placed on a snare drum, with a microphone picking up the rattle to provide further ambiance, the result recorded and processed further. An unconventional method, at the time more commonly associated with bands like Depeche Mode, yielding a unique and instantly recognisable sound.

The track's guitar parts received a similar treatment, with single staccato notes layered as many as six times, recorded then triggered manually from a sampler during playback and mixing. Some parts were even fed through an underwater pool speaker, lending them a muted quality no conventional processing unit could provide. Such an approach to recording may seem highly artificial, yet it produced efficient and precise music of handcrafted intricacy, requiring levels of skill and imagination too often lacking in more traditional musical production.

It's a process that ultimately saved this particular track, originally titled She's My Baby, from being discarded. The FYC were not particularly pleased with it, and it was only at the insistence of producer David "Z" Rivkin - who upon hearing the demo couldn't get the melody out of his head - that they set about rewriting it. Once Z had initiated the session in his usual manner, by setting up a basic groove on a drum machine, the tight electro funk counterpointed by edgy, rock guitars and Roland Gift's precisely placed falsetto scats fell into place all by itself.

Z's encouragement was precisely what the band needed. Having relocated from their native Birmingham to London, they were taking their time recording the follow-up to their eponymous, 1985 debut. Having requested that Prince produce it, and been told he wasn't into that kind of thing, they finally settled for their label's offer to work with Z - older brother of Bobby Z, drummer in Prince's band - who had produced the demo that initiated the career of the diminutive artiste. The deal also forced the FYC to relocate to Minneapolis, where there's little to do in wintertime except work, much to their label's delight.

The formula of tight electronic grooves overlaid with minimal electric guitar motifs and other acoustic scats was one guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele had employed since their days with The Beat, the 2 Tone Ska revival band they helped form almost exactly 30 years ago. They perfected it with the 1987 single Tired of Getting Pushed Around, released under the wordy moniker 2 Men A Drum Machine & A Trumpet. A singular effort echoed by the FYC's Pull the Sucker Off, which accompanied the single release of She Drives Me Crazy.

Lyrically, the songs on the album lament love tried by a life in which the weekends are too short and too far apart - appropriate enough for the eras the music attempts to approximate. But the cautious kind of social commentary many British pop acts of the 1980s dabbled in occasionally bleeds through the shiny surface. For example in Don't Let It Get You Down (one of the more worthwhile examples of Acid House, next to Paul Rutherford's ABC-penned Get Real), where Gift vents his frustration with Britain's rampant institutionalised racism:

There's a club / I can't get in
Every week / it's the same damn thing
I get mad / I want to cry
It's my skin / they don't like

Another example would be Social Security, recorded for the Tin Men movie and tucked away on the Good Thing single, perhaps the only ballad ever dedicated to a social insurance scheme. Vocally the greatest surprise comes in As Hard As It Is, where Gift drops his falsetto in favour of a remarkable baritone - a revelation rivaling the modal performance of Bronski Beat's Junk by Jimmy Sommerville, perhaps the most famous falsetto of 1980s pop.

The artwork features a composite image, created by Richard Baker with Quantel's Paintbox system - fashionable in a time before Photoshop, framed by Keith Breeden
's distinct, bold graphics. A classic example of its era, it hardly betrays the cryptic puzzle hiding within: an inner sleeve which reads like a map legend, presenting information in a manner that not only strains the inquisitive listeners patience, but also risks creating misconceptions. Like the one that Jerry Harrison co-produced the album.

While the former Talking Heads guitarist and keyboardist did in fact co-produce the FYC 's recording of Ever Fallen In Love, the version included on The Raw & the Cooked was remixed by Julian Mendelsohn. A fact that likely reduces Harrison's input to roughly one-fourtieth of the entire album. The same is true of practically every other contributor listed; like former Squeeze pianist Julian "Jools" Holland, let loose on Good Thing, they're mostly bit players.

Though the band's gratitude mightn't have been misplaced, and even the most minute effort may very well have deserved mention - including those of the directors of the films the album's tracks appeared in - Breeden's design suggests a myriad of people apart from the core trio were involved in crafting the music. Which really wasn't the case. It was mostly just Cox, Gift, Steele, and a drum machine.

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