Review Summary: Album recipe: 1 solid pop base (polish first); two spoons of sweet vocal harmonies; a hearty dollop of sarcasm (but not too much); and a pinch of the blues. Served warm
Sick of snide comments about the flora and fauna up there in the north of England, The Beautiful South started as they meant to go on by giving themselves a sarcastic name. Sarcasm comes easily to Paul Heaton. The group's songs have contained his bitterly sardonic ponderings since its conception, but are deftly cloaked in extremely easy-on-the-ear music that keeps it simple with a standard guitar, bass and drums set-up, although there are
occasional forays into wind or string instrumentation, keyboards, piano; anything is an option, really. This unusual blend results in most songs having a softly pleasant feeling until you find yourself singing along to lyrics that deal with subjects you wouldn't expect from the approach.
Blue Is The Colour
is probably the defining BS album, and is also one
of the contenders for their best. 'Don't Marry Her'
sets the tone right away; a dreamy, catchy pop song that's great to sing along to in the car on a sunny day. Just make sure no-one's listening. You see, melodic and accessible as this group is, it's the lyrics that gives them their appeal. It's astonishing how easily words that are usually hissed in spite can be sung in a soft, innocent manner; take this little sample -
'I'll never grow so old and flabby/That could never be/Don't marry her, **** me
Jacqueline Abbott is on top form on this album - such a shame she only takes the lead on three tracks. But there's no way she could have managed the growling, guttural sound of the self-deluded drunk on 'Liars Bar'
, a comical look at the characters in your average dark, dingy, smoke-filled backstreet dive, full of errant husbands, alcoholic stressed-out businessmen, and rough, smelly, broken-down old men, and all hoarsely mumbled to a slow, bluesy beat -
"Well sitting in a bar alone, where no-one knows your name/Is like laying in a graveyard wide awake/You're scared that if you cough or yawn, you might wake up the dead/So pretend to read a paper, or just drink instead"
The bulk of this album, though, is full of melodic-enough numbers that sound just a little melancholy, but the lyrics vary widely in theme (if not the sarcastic approach). 'Little Blue'
is a sweet song about the temperament of a baby, while 'Blackbird On The Wire'
is a teary-eyed weepie about unrequited love, admirably sang with real emotion; he almost bursts into tears at the end. Even sadder, 'Artificial Flowers'
is a heartbreaking song about a poor little girl called Anne whose parents have died, leaving her to eke out an existence by making a few pennies from the flowers for "...ladies of high fashion to wear..."
. I won't tell you what happens to her.
Elsewhere, though, these sad lyrics are given the lively, up-tempo treatment. 'Rotterdam'
was the big single from this album, a jaunty trip into loneliness that refers to where Paul Heaton used to travel to in order to escape Hull (understandable). 'Foundations'
is even livelier, all brass squeals, cymbals and possibly even a hammond organ in there somewhere. Again, listen to the pessimistic lyrics and you'll find them to be at odds with the music - "Build your dream castle out of sand/It's bound to get washed up anyway/Dream your dreams out of last week/They're bound to have come up yesterday"
. 'The Sound Of North America'
is the best song here, with its laid-back verses, moody trumpet, and terrific lyrics involving a homeless Greta Garbo, a crippled Mohammed Ali and Elvis himself (with ginger hair).
These poetic trips into sarcasm, selfishness and the nature of human weakness may not suit the taste of people who just like nice simple songs about love, sex et al
. But if eclectic themes and a scowling, semi-humourous delivery sounds like a great change, you'll be pleased to know that it's all encased in pretty-enough musical wrapping (no, not that kind). This album is the point where the group got the balance right. Its successor, Quench
, takes the moodiness a little too far, to the point of plain sulkiness and alcoholic bitterness. Blue Is The Colour
knows when it's had enough and it's time to go home. In fact, occasional mediocre track aside, there really isn't a bad song here until you get to the end, 'Alone'
. You can guess the lyrics, but the mistake made is to suit the music to the words. It sounds flat and unmelodious, and ends the album on a weak note.
Still, the rest is a solid production. BS are getting rather frustrating nowadays as they seem to be afraid to experiment musically, producing samey songs that you've heard again and again. However, you can't really accuse them of that here as this is from 1996. A few songs here and there that miss the musical mark and a downright stinker at the end prevent this from being a classic that everyone will want. Also, this is a group that you'll appreciate far more for their words than how they present them. But as an introduction to this oh-so-English of groups (eccentric, pessimistic, sarcastic, self-deprecating, booze-fuelled, intelligent, very occasionally brilliant), you can't go far wrong. I'll leave you with another of their lyrical gems, about the rise of consumerism in our shallow world -
"And the answers fall easier from the barrel of a gun/Than it does from the lips of the beautiful and the dumb/The world won't end in darkness, it'll end in family fun/With Coca-Cola clouds behind a Big Mac sun"
Beautiful South is the name. Blue is the colour. Excellent is the verdict.