Monday, June 26, 2006

Kate Bush and The Smiths "Under Review"

Since my earlier coverage of the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart releases in the series, I've been continuing to follow Sexy Intellectual's "Under Review" titles with keen interest. The latest two I've seen are devoted to the recording careers of Kate Bush and The Smiths. As an American admirer of these artists, one of the most gratifying things about these "Under Review" discs is that they present me with an opportunity to see these artists, who were never very big in America, through the eyes of observers who knew them as the chart-topping celebrities they were in Britain. I've always followed their work, liking pretty much all of it, but without any particular insight as to how their respective careers were affected by the ways in which their various singles and albums managed to hit or miss.

Before getting into the two new releases, I should stop for a moment and correct a common misconception about this series, which seems to be needlessly upsetting some people. The "Under Review" discs are not video compilations, so don't expect complete songs or state-of-the-art quality where video clips are concerned. If that's what you're looking for, you're bound to be disappointed. These discs are, as plainly labelled, "An Independent Critical Analysis"; that is, a visual presentation of music criticism and pop cultural history -- and, as such, I find them very interesting. But I read and like rock criticism.

Of the two new discs, I found the KATE BUSH - UNDER REVIEW most satisfying; in fact, its coverage of her innovations as a video artist and dancer inspired me to spend some money at eBay to acquire someone's (fairly decent) homemade compilation of her videos and various television appearances. The clips on view throughout the program (including some rarities) are mostly of conspicuously better quality than those of the VU and Beefheart releases, which is a definite plus, but the program's greatest value is that the commentators -- including series regular Paul Morley and, in this case especially, BBC Radio 1 DJ Paul Gambaccini -- are so insightful and articulate about Bush's work and its (and her) enduring appeal. Their annotation of all her music, from the uncanny perfection of her debut "Wuthering Heights" single to her recent comeback album AERIAL, I found not only hard to argue with, but often embellishing of my own ideas, and therefore gratifying. The magical quality of Bush's work as a music video artist, dancer, choreographer and director shines through even in short glimpses, and makes the need for a proper, official, DVD release of her work seem essential.

THE SMITHS UNDER REVIEW (which streets tomorrow, June 27) is also of interest, but harder to recommend. It benefits from having access to Smiths producers John Porter and Stephen Street, and also Smiths second guitarist Craig Gannon, all of whom offer more of an insider's perspective of the group's sessions and inter-personal dynamics. However, the program loses some of its integrity because the opinions of the various commentators are so often diffuse and contradictory. I was pleased that at least one participant challenged the common view by arguing that STRANGEWAYS, HERE WE COME was actually their finest album, and even more pleased that the disc had no intention of being "Morrissey - Under Review" in disguise. The contributions of brilliant guitarist-composer Johnny Marr are given at least equal time to Morrissey's, and Andy Rourke's suave and often melodic playing is also accorded proper respect. The clip quality here may be the most consistently good I've seen in this series overall, but the availability of so many TOP OF THE POPS clips and so forth may have inspired the filmmakers to take a more singles-oriented approach to documenting The Smiths' story. In England, The Smiths were widely known as a singles band, but their albums are their great legacy. The posthumously released live album, RANK, is not mentioned at all and the participants monologize on Morrissey and Marr's subsequent solo careers in a bonus featurette.

My feelings about THE SMITHS UNDER REVIEW can basically be boiled down to a single question: "How can I recommend a Smiths career overview that doesn't even mention 'There is a Light That Never Goes Out'?"

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