Black Box Recorder
Back in the days when Britpop was new, it referred not to a roll-call of mod-worshipping boys clubs, but to a bunch of dandies with an interest in all things kinky and English. Amongst these 90's pioneers resided The Auteurs who, supporting Suede on an early tour, gathered a troupe of supporters in second-hand jackets for whom they recorded four wonderful albums (particularly debut New Wave) before calling it a day.
Luke Haines, the Auteurs' backbone, had a back-up plan in the shape of Black Box Recorder. Their third album Passionoia is partly a culmination of familiar Haines output and something of an evolution too, his infamous line in sunny-side-down cynicism having flowered into something faintly upbeat and funny. It's a far cry from bile-ridden debut England Made Me, a sweetly sinister affair based around the concept that England is on its last legs, choked by an artifice only sparse lounge-music can address. It provoked considerable critical approval but had problems with quality control, though the highlights, including a sublime bare-bones cover of Donna and Althea's "Up town top ranking", and the morbidly pleasing "Kidnapping an heiress", won the album extra stars. Follow-up The Facts of Life was a step in a pop direction that seemed to work, earning slots in several 'Album of the year' lists and a Top 20 single.
Passionoia runs with this baton. Louche camp is the order of the day as Sarah Nixey chants posh-girl vocals over shiny instrumentation. Behind the glitz of the delivery, Passionoia maintains a baroque underbelly. The album cover captures the concept exactly: poolside tuxedos, champagne bottles, and a corpse in the water. (In BBR's world there's always a corpse in the water). "The New Diana", potential blasphemy to Dianaphiles, yearns for a life spent "lying on a yacht reading photo magazines". In a perfect world it would be both an edgy first single (instead of the fairly trite 'These are the things') and an ideal way to close the album, with its gorgeous tune and dose of irony, over the meandering "I ran all the way home" which does the job instead. It suggests BBR have trouble playing to their strengths. If somebody doesn't let them know that with a half-decent remix they have a diamond club-hit on their hands in the shape of techno-pop spectacular "Andrew Ridgeley", I'll kick myself lame. No matter. The first four tracks here are gems, repeat listening rewards you with humorously glib lyrics and addictive melodic turns. Elsewhere "When Britain refused to sing" is a dystopian tale of silence and melancholy, but the formula wobbles again on "Girl's guide to the modern diva", a blandish filler where the content is more interesting than the delivery.
Understatement occasionally comes over as pretentiousness, and BBR do have off-putting traits (annoying tempo changes for example). Plus, after listening to Nixey's ultra-sweet vocals for forty minutes you might feel like hearing Sepultura for a while. (I said might). They do touch on moments of absolute class however, and at the very least have enough good material behind them to make their fourth album a seriously must-have Best Of. There could even be another evolution waiting in the wings.