Tuesday 4 March 2014

This is as good as it gets

Those of you who know me, or have read this blog for some time, might have expected me to have written about this already. The trouble is, contrary to how it may often appear, these posts don't just throw themselves together you know... and for this, I wanted to take the time to write something half decent. So here we go, better late than never: the Gene re-issues.

The Gene re-issues. Copyright © 2014 New Amusements.

First things first, I want to address the obvious issue. If you read Gene's Wikipedia page, this is what the first paragraph has to say:

Gene were an English alternative rock quartet that rose to prominence in the mid-1990s. Formed in 1993, they were popularly labelled as a Britpop band and often drew comparisons to The Smiths because of their Morrissey-esque lead singer, Martin Rossiter. Gene's music was influenced by The Jam, The Small Faces, The Style Council and The Clash.

So... Jam, Small Faces, Style Council, Clash... why is it then that the music press, now and back in the 1990s, could never really see beyond The Smiths? Yes, Gene were a drums/bass/guitar/voice four-piece with a literate, fey singer abnormally blessed with grace, wit and style. But musically? Really far less in common than you might think. Still, the music journo's of the day were so desperate to label someone as "The New Smiths" (see also Suede, The Stone Roses, even Marion) and with the Rozzer seeming a ready-made heir to Mozza... I guess it was all too easy. Back then, I remember reading copyist "proof" being the extra track on the 12" of The Smith's first single. Go on, look it up. More recently, I have seen a Gene track described as being similar to Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others... just because it fades in. Really, you have to laugh...

Anyway, that's my beef over. Though I may revisit this during the course of what follows. For now, twenty years on from their breakthrough, Gene's studio output has warranted a glorious re-issue from Edsel, part of the Demon Music Group, in beautiful casebound CD form. Each album has had a digital "light touch" remastering and comes with a second disc of bonus material, primarily live and session tracks, with a sprinkling of B-sides too. The extras get most interesting on Libertine, but before I get too far ahead of myself, let's review the albums in order.

Get yourself Olympian
Not to oversell it or anything but Olympian, for my money, is one of the finest debut albums of the last twenty years. The muscular opener, Haunted By You, was a real statement of intent. Tracks like Sleep Well Tonight and Olympian ticked the mandatory "anthemic" box with ease, especially when bellowed back at the band by their adoring fans at live shows. And of course songs like Truth, Rest Your Head satisfied everyone who was content to label the band Smiths copyists. Because this is where the problem is rooted: Olympian, more than anything else the band produced during their decade in - well, if not the sun then at least the dappled shade - this is what tattooed The Smiths badge on Gene's collective arm. Nothing they ever did thereafter was enough to act as laser surgery. I mean, just look at that sleeve - conceptually, it's not a million miles away from the artwork for Hand In Glove or This Charming Man. Stylistically, it's reminiscent of the entire Smiths back-catalogue, with that type face and the constrained, over-saturated palette. It looks like The Smiths, ergo they must be Smiths wannabes. QED, right? Well, not really, as I shall explain in the course of the next four reviews. Before I move on, let me just add that the re-issue is topped up with radio session tracks and two live sets, none of which are essential but all of which are soaked in nostalgia for fans of Gene and the era alike.

You need To See The Lights
Of course the whole Smiths debate was not helped by Gene's second album, To See The Lights. Eager not to short-change fans, the band used their next release to collate B-sides, alternate versions, live tracks, radio sessions - basically, it was Hatful Of Hollow... ergo.... QED... again. Except, to follow that argument to an extreme, you might as well say any band that ever released, let's say, a live album was a copyist too. But anyway, what of this album? Well, to me this is an essential purchase because it includes both versions, guitar and piano, of I Can't Help Myself, a song of such beauty (especially in piano-led form) that it ranks among Gene's finest recordings from any album. Actually, the latter is very much in the style of Martin Rossiter's current solo work, and it was nice to see it reprised as such at recent live shows. Even beyond this reviewer's personal affinity with the stand-out track here, any album that opens with the mighty Be My Light, Be My Guide and closes with For The Dead much surely be worth £9 of anyone's money. Throw in the bonus material - a radio session that was very much a signpost for their third album, and a live set from the Phoenix festival - and it's clear that you can't go wrong with Hatful of To See The Lights. What next for the NME's "Best New Act" of 1995?

Surely we are all Drawn To The Deep End?
What came next, after quite a long gestation, was Drawn To The Deep End, for my money their most cohesive album, and so good that I stole its title for my novel-in-progress. Polydor, determined to transform Gene's status as indie darlings, beloved of an enlightened minority, into mainstream success, beloved by everybody, meant that copious amounts of money and studio time were thrown at the traditionally "difficult" third album. And it wasn't all that easy - Gene's cavalier attitude to killer material, scooped up for To See The Lights, had left them a little short on songs, and the temptation to make the most of previously unavailable studio time was understandably hard to resist. Hence album opener New Amusements (a great title for a blog, I should think) which was unlike anything the band had previously released. Fighting Fit also stands out, albeit for sounding like a needy grasp for a hit single. At least it owed more to The Jam than The Smiths. Rossiter's lyrics - always bitter, rarely sweet - reached new heights on DTTDE though. Witness Where Are They Now? and Speak To Me, Someone if you need proof. And then there's the deceptively simple beauty of Long Sleeves For The Summer. Bonus material here includes a swathe of B-sides (covers of REM [Nightswimming], The Jam [Wasteland] and The Small Faces [Autumn Stone] were again indicative of the shortage of original material), the excellent Royal Albert Hall live set and a couple of radio sessions. To my mind, these extras would be worth buying on their own.

Revelations: great album, rubbish artwork
Ironically, Revelations was more or less the final chapter in Gene's association with Polydor, and far more of a "difficult album" than their third. Rossiter's severe new haircut was perhaps visual evidence of the depression he had been diagnosed with, but even if not the signs were there throughout this album: Love Won't Work, The British Disease, The Police Will Never Find You, You'll Never Walk Again... if these sound like bleak songs to you, you'd be right. There were moments of real beauty too though, no more so than on Little Child, penned by new father Rossiter and guaranteed to get something in the eye of any dad who listens to it. Also noteworthy is the contrast in recording methods found here - whereas Polydor had pumped serious resources into DTTDE, in the absence of the hoped-for mainstream breakthrough they subsequently pulled the rug from under Revelations before it even got going, hence a very quick and comparatively cheap recording. Troubles aside though, there were plenty of other highlights, as good as anything in the Gene canon, not least As Good As It Gets, In Love With Love and the aforementioned Love Won't Work. Bonus material here is the most varied of any of the re-issues: the B-sides are, to be honest, of a generally lower standard than those that graced earlier Gene singles. Then there's a contemporary set from Sound City 98 which, though long (16 tracks) is conspicuously light on tracks from Revelations, relying more on past glories. And then there's one more Jam cover, A Town Called Malice.

Libertine - the pick of the litter
All of which brings us nicely to Gene's last album, Libertine. And they really were liberated, free from Polydor - this was recorded on their own label, at their own pace and in their own style. The result, I think, is the band's finest achievement, and one of the great undiscovered albums of the 21st Century. Yes, I know that is high praise - it surprises me too, because I remember not being bowled over when it was first released. Back then, I wanted them to still be the Gene of Olympian... I struggled to let them move on. Seems I wasn't the only one either - despite great reviews, Libertine struggled at the time too, and floundered without Polydor's promotional muscle. However, like DTTDE before it, the band's swansong stands as a wonderfully cohesive piece of work, a fact not lessened by the re-issue embellishment it gets here. Does He Have A Name? contains, in my view, Rossiter's finest Gene lyric. The achingly sad Is It Over? seems terribly prescient too, for the band, whilst delighted with Libertine, would soon all know that the writing was on the wall. A shame for all concerned, because tracks like Somewhere In The World demonstrated that, even though they had changed, Gene were still at the peak of their powers. What's left, in Libertine, is an album that has aged well, and is perhaps more in tune with the ears and tastes of Gene fans now those fans are all 10+ years older. Also, somewhat brilliantly, Libertine's bonus materials are the richest of all: in addition to mopping up the B-sides of the era, there are some comparatively rare tracks (studio versions of Baby I'm Sorry and the excellent Rising For Sunset), plus lots and lots of demo versions. If you judge re-issues on the merits of their bonus materials, this is the one to buy first. What's more, it's the only one available on vinyl (the band, rather than Polydor, own the recording, so all avenues were open with Libertine).

So, some closing thoughts. Edsel have done a beautiful job - the casebound CDs, complete with colour-coded spines that look excellent all in a row on the shelf, are lovely to just hold, let alone listen to. Plus they are stuffed to the gills with old photographs, and excellent liner notes by Terry Saunders. Lewis Slade, who has almost single-handedly kept the Gene flame burning online since the band's demise, undoubtedly deserves some of the credit here too, I suspect. Criminally under-rated guitarist Steve Mason, bassist Kevin Miles and drummer Matt James were all heavily involved in these re-issues as well, contributing extensively to those liner notes and providing archive material. They also all turned up at the launch party in London last month, all of which makes it even more of a shame that Martin Rossiter chose not to be involved at all, beyond wishing the venture well. Not surprising really, given his recent thoughts on a Gene reunion. One other gripe - personally, I would have liked to have seen live album Rising For Sunset also given the casebound, remastered treatment, to complete the set. There's probably a good reason why it wasn't, but I'm blowed if I can think what it might be. Luckily for us all, you can still scoop it up for peanuts here.

The bottom line though is this - right now, I can't think of a better way to spend £45 of your hard-earned than on these re-issues. If you're a Gene fan already, you'll love the sound quality, the bonus tracks, the packaging and of course the inevitable nostalgia... and if you are new to Gene, prepare to be dazzled...

I leave you with this:

Footnote: a new Gene T-shirt has been produced to tie in with the re-issues. Grab that here.

1 comment:

  1. Like I needed convincing...!

    All I really need is some money! ;-)