Friday, May 11, 2007

Jesus Jones - Perverse (Food/EMI, 1993)

"This time, we'll split the world once more, there's those that have and those that don't in information wars"

Barring Aztec Camera, and the odd overture to the The Housemartins and The Smiths, Jesus Jones were really the first 'indie' band that a major label saw mass market sales potential in. The band had barely been together for a couple of months when a demo tape of their arresting futurist take on the genre, blending angular guitar sounds with elements of hip-hop, sampling and house music, caught the attention of EMI, who duly signed the band to their 'alternative' imprint Food, also home at various times to Blur, Shampoo, Dubstar, Octopus and Diesel Park West.

Fronted by the mouthy and ambitious Mike Edwards, Jesus Jones had no trouble attracting 'indie' and mainstream attention with their somewhat radical but chart-friendly sound, with their debut album Liquidiser and its attendant singles (some of which were drawn directly from that original demo tape) troubling the lower reaches of the top forty during 1989. The unashamed adoption of a slicker and more commercial (but still drenched in ear-worrying guitar effects) sound for second album Doubt saw them break the top ten singles and albums charts, while the band themselves jabbered enthusiastically in interviews about the future of music and how much they hated New Kids On The Block (leading to a flood of angry letters to Smash Hits, who to their credit seemed to enjoy writing about Mike Edwards and company far more than they did NKOTB) and for a time it looked almost certain that, against all odds, Jesus Jones would break through to megastardom.

Doubt was released early in 1991, but had been 'in the can' for some time already by then; indeed, the Big First Single Real Real Real had been released almost a year earlier. The band and their label had always intended holding off until they had another big hit to launch the album on the back of, which was exactly what they got with International Bright Young Thing, but what nobody had bargained for was the ensuing slow-burning international success of the album. Almost twelve months after it had fleetingly nudged into the UK top forty, the fantastic Right Here Right Now suddenly took off in America and slowly but surely climbed to the top of the charts, with EMF's Unbelieveable in hot pursuit. The Second British Invasion (Of Shouty Blokes With Techno Rhythms) was apparently on its way, and EMI's promotional campaign to take full advantage of this inevitably stretched out to the end of 1991 and beyond.

The band had in fact started work on their next album shortly after Doubt was released, and by the summer of 1992 had most of the tracks finished and ready for release (and even played a couple of them during the short-lived regular 'Works In Progress' feature on BBC Radio 1's The Evening Session), but such was the mechanics of ongoing record company hoo-hah that a convenient slot in the overbooked diary could not be found before January 1993.

Doubt had contained a song (well, some people would class it as that) called Stripped, a deliberately atonal blast of rage ("everyone is hungry, everyone needs to know") built entirely around electronically generated samples with no 'real' instruments featured on it whatsoever, and was quite possibly the reason why the album contained a warning that it could damage loudspeaker equipment if played at high volumes. Mike Edwards was clearly quite taken with this new way of working with music, as for Perverse he effectively dispensed with real instruments altogether. The album was indeed originally recorded in one quick session with the full band playing, but after this he spent several months tinkering with computerised approximations of the individual instruments to create angular artificial tones to suit his musical vision. Absolutely nothing of recognisable traditional guitar group sounds remained on the completed tracks, and when the album was finally released, the other members of the band were simply credited according to the sonic frequencies that their 'sounds' spanned.

At the time of release, the overall sound of Perverse took some adjusting to, even for loyal Jesus Jones fans with some peripheral knowledge of pop music's technologically avant-garde fringe. More than a few early plays of the album - in some cases, possibly the only play it ever got - were met with cries of "turn it off!" halfway through, with the harsh virtual tones serving to perplex rather than excite.

It is one of popular culture's cruel ironies, though, that nothing dates faster than something that was ahead of its time (and what's most amazing is that initial work on the album had started as early as 1991), and where Perverse once sounded, well, perverse in its futuristicness, it now resembles nothing more than it does the sort of pop sounds that the likes of Christina Aguilera were making almost eight years ago. Albeit with slightly more ambitious lyrical concepts.

For no readily obvious reason, the cover art of Perverse features repeated shot-within-shot images of a pair of identical masked American wrestlers; elsewhere are feature film-style credits for 'The Virtual Players', and, in lieu of anything useful like song lyrics or information about how the album was put together, a set of standard issue Jesus Jones song-by-song sleevenotes penned by Mike Edwards. These range from the really rather thought provoking ("Nothing. No, more malevolent than that... a vacuum" for Spiral), to a load of meaningless twaddle about how the modern political lanscape looks disconcertingly different when viewed through the wrapper off a bottle of Lucozade, or something.

Opening with a zappy intro that sounds somewhat akin to a robot wasp chewing a late 1980s Pet Shop Boys single, Zeroes And Ones sets out the album's agenda in no uncertain terms, proclaiming "this time the revolution will be computerised" and boasting that "zeroes and ones will take us there". Back in 1993 the average indie kid was inclined to view computers and everything associated with them with some degree of suspicion (as they were, after all, a tool of 'the man'), but there's a confidence and assurance in Mike Edwards' words that suggests that maybe they aren't so much of a cornerstone of Orwellian nightmares after all. Then again, it's quite possible that the leverage of new technology into 'alternative' culture provided by Zeroes And Ones ultimately indirectly led to the overwhelming flood of not-particularly-good would-be 'indie' bands with their own flickering and badly-designed MySpace page. Sometimes, you just can't win.

Anyway, rightly or wrongly, there's no denying that the tie-dyed megalomaniac's vision of the future was absolutely spot on, and in fact it's not the only time he manages to pull that off on this album. Unfortunately, though, the message is somewhat undermined by some of the supporting rhetoric, most notably a Think Of A Number-standard explanation of how computers communicate with each other, and far too much cheerleading for so-called 'virtual reality'. In fact, the lyrics to Zeroes And Ones are the most dated thing about the whole album; while the sense of optimism and enthusiasm still strikes a chord, most of the terminology now seems embarrassingly primitive and more than a little redolent of Channel 4's attempts to 'explain' the internet with the aid of none-more-1990s 'glamour model' Jo Guest.

When you're presented with a song as fantastic - not to mention hard-rocking, without featuring a single recognisable guitar sound - as Zeroes And Ones, such technological naivety is easy to forgive. An obvious first single that was released second, it stalled undeservedly low in the charts but still sounds great now.

The Devil You Know, the not even slightly obvious first single that was released first, takes an entirely different approach to the techno assault of the opening track, slowly sauntering in with a moebius strip-like jangly pattern that slowly builds up to the intense and hammering song proper. Nothing to do with Kylie Minogue's original hotpant-accompanied pop anthem, and less still to do with Sonia's jaw-droppingly irritating Eurovision entry of around the same time, the lyrics bemoan popular culture's insistence on recycling its own past instead of striving for new and innovative ideas, summing it up beautifully with the line "look at you now, look at you then, see how you will be".

Nobody in their right mind could ever accuse Jesus Jones of not having tried to do anything 'new', especially with this particular album, but while the sentiments are easy to sympathise with, the precise targets of the lyrical ire are more obscure. If anything, they're more than a little offbeam for coming in the immediate aftermath of a number of bands (Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets etc, all of whom Mike Edwards was keen to stress his enthusiasm for in interviews), comedians (well, Vic Reeves, at any rate) and assorted other artistic types achieving so much by mining the ideas of the past and combining them with modern and forward-looking approaches. And yet, as a cruel quirk of fate would have it, when Jesus Jones disappeared for the best part of four years post-Perverse, they were comprehensively sidelined by the steamrollering runaway success of a band who actually seemed to take some warped sense of pride in the mindless and artless revivalism of the sounds of yesteryear.

Anyway, irrespective of all that, the lyrics to The Devil You Know are top notch and deal with a difficult and abstract subject highly effectively, and the moody and powerful backing still sounds great too. In this track and Zeroes And Ones, Perverse has a brace of barnstorming openers that go a long way towards proving that Mike Edwards' vision of the 'Virtual Players' had something in it after all. The unfortunately titled Get A Good Thing, however, undermines this by proving that such an approach is best used sparingly. Not that there's anything wrong with the song itself, just that it's not exactly well served by its somewhat tinny and abrasive backing where the Jesus Jones of a couple of years earlier would have had neat synth sounds and a hefty bassline. Actually, just a discernible bassline would have been nice.

Seeing as its lyrics refer obliquely but heavily to the Gulf War of early 1991, From Love To War somewhat gives away how long the album took to make it to release. Sung in a croaky whisper over an ominous burbling backing melody, the song starts off as a straightfoward admonishment of unspecified but easily guessed world leaders, and turns in the middle eight into a quite remarkable rant on the impotent fury associated with making such statements in an apathetic and unheeding world, delivered with such venom that you can almost hear him "throw myself at the walls" in frustration. Although that might just be one of those swanky new electronically generated sound thingys.

From Love To War seuges virtually seamlessly into Yellow Brown, which replaces Week-Ending-swallows-a-dictionary style satire with something far more musically and lyrically ominous. Over a suitably smoggy and choked backing, Edwards sings with evident disquiet of how "a colour now spells our end", charting the global progress of a massed pollutant ("in the city air, in all our seas, you can see every other colour bleed into Yellow Brown"). Free of pretentiousness, self-righteousness and hand-wringing, and all the more direct and alarming for it, Yellow Brown simply states that pollution is here and increasing, that public and politicians alike are not doing anything about it ("and I won't do, and you won't do, cause we know there's nothing they will do about Yellow Brown"), and that they haven't got forever in which to stand around not doing anything about it ("there is no time to spend, concerned that this is just a trend"). Although the song was scoffed at by some reviewers on the album's release, in this age of the stable door being closed after the global warming has bolted, it's hard not to picture Mike Edwards wryly noting that he told everyone so. And what's more, told them so in straight language without any hyperbole.

Magazine ("all of life in fun size!") on the other hand, is a rather patronising swipe at those stupid, stupid fools who spend their time leafing through loosely bound collections of pages. The lyrics make no distinction between different types of magazines or different types of readers, and therefore appears to be focusing its ire as much on Private Eye, New Scientist and The Listener as it is on What's On TV. This is something of a hypocritical stance for someone who at the time was regularly to be seen on the front of various music magazines talking up their band with headline-friendly soundbites, not to mention a rather daft attitude to have if you're also hailing the burgeoning information revolution of the internet in the same breath. On top of all that, it's not even a particularly good song.

Thankfully, obvious first single that was released third The Right Decision is on hand to lift proceedings slightly. Underpinned by some neat wooshing/thudding guitar-esque noises and zingy high-pitched synth melodies, as well as what appears to be some cunningly disguised sampled Arabic singing, on face value it would appear to be little more than a string of Rory Bremner-esque observations of Life's Great Ironies, somewhat akin to Leonard Nimoy's Highly Illogical, or Alanis Morrissette's Ironic if she actually had some semblance of an understanding of what the word might have meant. The recurrence of those wry observations on the Gulf War don't exactly help matters much either.

However, this is not the work of someone who thinks that rain on your wedding day constitutes irony, nor indeed a Vulcan perplexed by our primitive human notions of parking spaces. Instead it's a collection of wry musings on the legality of tobacco and marijuana, police brutality, and the worry that "the problem with success is you become what you detest". So which new Kid On The Block did Mike Edwards become, then?

It may have wildly underperformed as a single but The Right Decision is in all other respects probably the most successful track on Perverse. It achieves a perfect balance between the familiar Jesus Jones sound and the scary new world of virtual music, and has a catchy hook to boot, and if this had been released as the first single (and if the various record companies had got their act together and got it released straight away while the band was still at its peak of popularity), things could have turned out very different indeed.

Your Crusade starts out with a rattle of Adam Ant-liked drumming, then diverts straight into what sounds like a backing track of an unreleased Doubt track being played through one of those massive alert loudspeakers from a 1960s spy film, full of wooshing buzzsaw guitar (well, virtual guitar) sounds and dramatic synth sweeps with a bit more of that sampled World Music vocalisation thrown in for good measure. Despite the awful opening line "include me out", this is one of the most lyrically arresting songs on the album, a pointed rejoinder to those who would seek to hijack the Jesus Jones 'cause' to further their own personal political agendas ("don't need your approval, your safety in numbers, you stay in your team, I don't care enough to share your dream").

Your Crusade is easily one of the best songs that Jesus Jones ever recorded, and it can only be hoped that it succeeded in shaking loose whoever it was that was trying to use avant-garde indie-techno as some sort of sample-friendly stepping stone to something or other. Its only weak point is the inclusion of a sort of 'character jumping in ZX Spectrum game' sound at seemingly random moments, which sounds not only of out place but also plain daft.

Although the release of Perverse tied in very neatly with the transmission of the brilliant fourth series of One Foot In The Grave, Don't Believe It doesn't appear to be any form of tribute to Richard Wilson, rather a vague continuation of the theme of Your Crusade. This time, over a slightly more jaunty backing, the lyrical bile is confined to someone who "came at the right time, filled the right space" and seemingly then spent most of their time putting down the Jones boys in public. There's some nice turns of phrase ("you're evil personified come to avenge, our perfect enemy out for revenge"), particularly the cunningly self-referential "you'll get no excuse in this song", and it's a decent enough tune too, but the song overall seems a little too subdued for its purposes and doesn't really quite have the impact that it perhaps ought to. And anyway, it's impossible to listen to without thinking of Victor Meldrew.

A similar Coincidental Comedy Conundrum surrounds Tongue Tied, which most would surely identify as a fantastic pastiche Motown number originally heard in a second series episode of Red Dwarf, which proved so enduringly popular that it was released as a single (in a noticeably inferior arrangement) early in 1993, rather than a humble Jesus Jones album track. Starting off promisingly as a weird Eastern drone created from wholly unnatural sounds, with Mike Edwards doing his own non-sampled World Music-style singing over the top for once. Then it gets a bit more uptempo and rock-ish, albeit still with a pleasingly wailing atonal edge to the melody. The lyrics aren't really much worth dwelling on, although given that their theme is inarticulacy perhaps this was entirely intentional.

Your Crusade, Don't Believe It and Tongue Tied all seem to occupy common thematic ground, presenting a bullish and self-assured defiance towards detractors and doubts. This is hardly surprising given that in interviews around the time of the album's release, Mike Edwards suggested that most of the album was written in the throes of an attack of depression that followed the band's commercial breakthrough. Despite this, they're also all on the musically pleasant side of the virtual fence.

Spiral, however, kicks off with a harsh and abrasive zapping sound, giving way to a subdued cacophony of buzzing, humming, and ominously rumbling basslines. This is the darker side to the preceding tracks both musically and lyrically, charting the breakdown of order, method and indeed 'right time' and 'right place', phrases that crop up numerous times elsewhere on the album. "Catch the light a different way and all the bullshit falls away and I stare into a heart of darkness, there is no good no evil, only me", runs the oh-so-cheerful chorus, and while it makes for entertaining listening it's probably best not to ruminate on which dark corners of the mind this might have been dredged up from.

Idiot Stare doesn't exactly serve to lighten the mood, referring as it does to "a shadow that hugs me", "the corruption between us" and being "caught in an idiot stare". It is, however, the point where everything about this album falls into place, where the disorientating new sounds stop being treated as a Perrey & Kingsley-Go-Digital style gimmick and are shaped into a cohesive and thrilling rock sound with a seamless segue into an orchestral breakdown, and where a solid melody is finally called into service. It's one of the album's highpoints, and fittingly was the only non-single Perverse-era track to be included on the band's greatest hits collection Never Enough. The problem is that as this is the last track on an album that even at a mere twelve tracks already seems too long, it's come along a bit too late.

Incredible as it may seem, Perverse was very nearly even longer (and not just in Japan, where so-so b-sides Phoenix and Caricature were slotted in as extra tracks). Another song named Hang On Every Word was seemingly removed at literally the very last minute, having been talked up by Mike Edwards in pre-album interviews and even making it as far as the first batch of promo copies. This was something of a shame, as it featured both an impressive Zeroes & Ones-like arrangement built around a vocal sample and lyrics that tackled the slightly less culturally ephemeral subject of jargon designed to confuse and alienate. If this had been included and one or two other tracks taken out, and the whole tracklisting shuffled around a bit, the result could well have been an album that was sifnificantly easier to listen to in one sitting.

Mike Edwards was a rarity among indie musicians in that instead of drawing influence from the past he looked almost exclusively to the future. Unfortunately, it was a future that didn't necessarily view his band with mutual enthusiasm. The by now standard record company jitters saw the following Jesus Jones album - ironically titled Already - repeatedly pushed back in the schedules until it ended up coming out early in 1997. By that time Britpop and its ensuing descent into tedious Noel Gallagher-endorsed post-Britpop had put paid to any chances of a Jesus Jones revival, even EMF having long since thrown in the towel, and the band became the constant target of sneering music press jokes at their expense from writers determined to prove how 'down' they were with the latest new bands. The album's inevitable failure to generate any interest in this atmosphere pretty much put paid Jesus Jones' future career prospects. A sad and wholly undeserved fanfareless fade-out for one of the most promising bands of recent times, if we're being honest about it.

Along with the rest of Jesus Jones' albums, Perverse is still available to buy on CD, and perhaps more appropriately as a digital download. Although it might not quite have been in line with what he was thinking of at the time he wrote the lyrics, in a sense Zeroes & Ones really have taken Mike Edwards and his oft-overlooked music 'there'.