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Written by Joe Marchese

September 20, 2012 at 15:23

Reviews: The Jimmy Somerville Reissues – Bronski Beat, The Communards and Solo Somerville

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The more things change…

The old adage has never been more shockingly true than when it comes to the music of Jimmy Somerville.  Throughout an uncompromising career, Somerville has deftly blurred the lines between politics and music, deploying his piercing falsetto to sing eloquently of social ills against a dance-pop backdrop.  Somerville came to prominence in 1984 as a member of Bronski Beat, a group of three young gay men who were determined to make their mark despite the social climate in Thatcher-era England.  After just one album, he then teamed with another kindred spirit, Richard Coles, to become half of The Communards.  That group thrived for two albums including a self-titled smash that took Europe by storm.  Never content to remain stagnant, however, Somerville embarked in 1989 on a solo career that continues to this day.  Demon Music Group’s Edsel label has rolled out the red carpet for Somerville via a series of 2-CD deluxe editions of his first five albums: one with Bronski Beat, two with The Communards and two solo.  All find Somerville reflecting on the same themes, finding new ways to express his most passionate beliefs through the medium of popular song.

Produced by Mike Thorne, Bronski Beat’s The Age of Consent draws fully on the experience of being a young, out gay man in a challenging time.  Though the band’s time with Somerville was short (Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek, then partners in life and music, carried on without their lead vocalist and primary songwriter), The Age of Consent packed a power that lasts to this day.  That the album isn’t heavy-handed is one of its greatest accomplishments.  It travelled far beyond the traditional confines of electropop and made its message of tolerance loud and clear.   The album’s title extended to an enclosed list of ages of consent around the world for “lawful homosexual relationships between men” (reprinted in full in the Edsel edition), and even the band’s logo was loaded with the iconography used in World War II Germany to identify homosexuals.

For Somerville, Bronski and Steinbachek, this wasn’t the love that dare not speak its name.  They proudly spoke it out loud.  Jimmy Somerville’s concerns in opening track “Why” are still, sadly, relevant today: “Contempt in your eyes when I turn to kiss his lips/Broken I lie, all my feelings denied/Blood on your fist/Can you tell me why?”  He fearlessly targeted the hypocrisy of homophobes, too: “You in your false securities/Tear up my life/condemning me/Name me an illness, you call me a sin/Never feel guilty, never give in!”  Set to a throbbing pulse of brass and electronics, Bronski Beat’s hi-NRG debut had plenty of danceable, joyful moments in its music.  But it’s the lyrics that are unforgettably direct, and Somerville’s scream was a shattering one.  (Even his voice was run through the Synclavier, also a favorite instrument of none other than Frank Zappa.)

“Screaming” catalogued the indignities suffered by the singer, and indeed, many gay men then and now: “My closet-ness, and pain/My lying, my deceiving/My rivers keep on crying…”  Another deeply personal, sad lyric put through a pop prism, “Smalltown Boy,” opened Side Two and defied all odds to become a hit for the group.  A striking music video starring Somerville brought to life the song’s realistic depiction of rejection and homophobia.  But Somerville’s effortless falsetto voice could handle a wide range of material and themes.  “No More War” is on the nose, but broadened the scope of the LP.  A cover of George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from the folk opera Porgy and Bess was hardly de rigeur in 1984, but Bronski Beat jumped into it with gusto.  Sure, the melody was given a glossy, modern sheen.  But a sinuous clarinet and jazz piano kept it rooted in the past even as the lyrics, questioning the veracity of certain Biblical tales, added the appropriate relevant dimension.  The musical invention continued with “Heat Wave.”  Though the song didn’t give the other, same-titled songs by Irving Berlin and Holland/Dozier/Holland a run for their money, it did feature a nifty tap dancing solo from future West End star Caroline O’Connor, plus more of Somerville’s vocal pyrotechnics and a slinky, inviting track.

Beginning a trend of Somerville disco covers is a doffing of the hat to Donna Summer with an over-the-top (heavenly chorus and all) rendition of “I Feel Love.”  Bronski Beat performed it as a medley with “Johnny Remember Me,” a 1961 western-sounding Joe Meek track originally recorded by John Leyton; Somerville was at his most mock-operatic.  Throughout these tracks, themes of love and lust, alienation and desperation, pathos and cruelty all are felt, but ultimately, Somerville is singing of dignity, too.

Each album in Edsel’s series includes an array of B-sides and extended mixes joining the album on the first CD and extending onto the second.  The deluxe Age of Consent includes an entire second album entitled Hundreds and Thousands.  That 1985 album includes both remixes of Consent songs as well as the planned single “Run from Love/Hard Rain.”  Of the fourteen other bonus tracks, “The Potato Fields” is a calm, shimmering instrumental, and “Cadillac Car” travels to Ventures-esque retro-rock territory.  (Alas, the “Smalltown Boy” B-side “Infatuation/Memories” is referred to in the booklet text as appearing on the set, but it hasn’t actually been included.)

After the jump: Somerville forms The Communards, and flies solo! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

September 20, 2012 at 15:20

Smalltown Boy Made Good: Edsel Preps Bronski Beat, Communards Expansions

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Edsel continues populating a busy release schedule with recently-announced expansions of three albums from two bands featuring Scottish pop singer Jimmy Somerville.

British pop fans might know Somerville today as the falsetto-voiced singer who crooned several hits in the ’80s and ’90s (including a chart-topping dance track in the U.S., “Heartbeat,” in 1995). But his first brushes with stardom happened with a pair of synthpop bands in the middle of the 1980s. First, there was his brief but notable tenure as lead singer of Bronski Beat from 1983 to 1985; Somerville and bandmates Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek all addressed the still-taboo topic of homosexuality in their music (all three were publicly out) but never sacrificed the music for the message. The catchy singles “Smalltown Boy” and “Why?” were Top 10 hits in 1984 and remain notable gay anthems to this day.

Somerville departed Bronski Beat amid personal and professional tensions, forming The Communards with classically-trained musician Richard Coles. Though Somerville remained a prominent gay icon, The Communards’ biggest hits were high-energy covers of soul classics. Their take on “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” performed by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and Thelma Houston, was England’s top-selling single of 1986, and a cover of The Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” was a Top 5 hit, too.

Edsel’s two-disc editions of Bronski Beat’s The Age of Consent and The Communards’ Communards and Red all come brimming with extras, including non-LP B-sides and single remixes, many of which are making their debuts on CD. The Age of Consent includes the remix album Hundreds & Thousands in its entirety, while Red features all of the live tracks from Storm Paris, a triple-12″ set released in 1988. Somerville contributed new notes to all three sets (Coles contributed to the Communards packages).

Look for these in U.K. shops on July 2 and hit the jump for the full breakdowns!

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Written by Mike Duquette

June 4, 2012 at 14:39