Del Amitri - Del Amitri
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
PREFACE: I first heard Del Amitri, the Scottish quartet’s 1985 debut full-length, in 1991 during my sophomore year of college. By that time, I had heard a track or two by the band, then in their U2/Van Morrison/Big Music phase that I didn’t really care for much. “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” was the tune I remembered, and having not thought much of it, I never felt the need to go digging around about the band despite what I had heard about their intriguing past sound and major Orange Juice fetish (I heard no echoes of OJ there, to be sure).
Sometime that fall, however, I was playing Felt’s Forever Breathes The Lonely Word at a pretty high volume in my dorm room. My friend Daniel London, who lived a few doors down from me, stuck his head in my room and asked what it was. We chatted about it a bit and he asked to borrow the CD (I had just upgraded from my vinyl copy, hence the loud airing), to which I agreed. As this was all pre-CD burning, I’m pretty sure he went and taped it. In return, he let me borrow what he thought was a similar sounding album, which turned out to be Del Amitri. I recoiled at first, remembering the awful track mentioned above, but found the album pleasant enough (thought not really a bit like Felt), and gave it back to him after a cursory listen. To be honest, I don’t think I got through the whole thing.
I finally bought the reissued CD on an eBay whim in 2003, and now Danny is a film and TV star of some renown and has been in shit with Tom Cruise, Robin Williams, and, um, Tim Allen. I’m about 99% sure he isn’t going to remember this story at all.
If forced to describe Del Amitri in one word, it would be “restless.” Scarcely 16 bars ever go by without something significantly changing. Traditional verse-chorus-verse structures are rare, especially for such a plainly “pop” sounding record. It twists and turns manically at times, but never loses sight of the goal of perfect pop songcraft. It almost sounds as though the band wrote 40 songs or so (there are 10 on the original album, 14 on the reissued CD), tore them up stanza by stanza, and randomly reassembled the pages. I have never heard anything quite like it.
Singer Justin Currie (who turned 20 during the making of this album) describes the band’s philosophy at the time in the liner notes to the CD reissue: “No chords, no choruses, no distortion, no synthesizers and definitely no long hair. Melody was God. There are more tunes between the twin guitar parts and bass lines in one backing track from this era of Del Amitri than in every top-line melody I have written since. It was, of course, a crackpot idea…”
So crackpot, in fact, that it works. Brilliantly.
Simply put, these songs never stop moving, never stand still long enough to ever get stale. Even after repeat listens, I find myself surprised by some of the hairpin turns these songs make which, because of the fairly pedestrian instrumentation—electric and acoustic guitars, bass, drums, the odd piano and organ—amble by without notice on the first listen, perhaps even on the first few. But with closer examination, even the traditional “slow ballad” tracks don’t really follow a linear path (no mean feat if you think about it). How these ADD-afflicted teenagers under the spell of Orange Juice, the Fall, Fire Engines—all names that Currie drops in the liner notes—came up with the strategy is beyond me, but it pays off in spades.
As with most debut albums, the strongest tracks on Del Amitri were released as singles: “Sticks and Stones Girl” and “Hammering Heart”, both of which still sound remarkably fresh and clear today nearly two decades on. “Sticks and Stones” was the first single by the band and is a remarkably bold and sophisticated pop statement considering. Electric and acoustic lead guitar parts duel in the left and right channels through the intro before giving way to some jazz chords and an almost swinging beat, complete with a ride symbol that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Dean Martin side, then a breakdown of sorts, some teenage poetry (best line: “Whales start singing when I hear your name”; pure junior high school, but magic nonetheless), and finally, a hammering, distorted guitar riff, sending the band headlong into near-Stooges territory. Then it all starts again. The remarkable thing is that, for all the twists and turns and half-ideas thrown in, the song never loses its momentum, and perhaps more remarkably, never stops sounding like a pop single. It’s one thing to be an “experimental band”—it’s quite another to successfully experiment in the context of standard guitar-based quartet songwriting. “Hammering Heart” for its part is a far catchier tune, albeit one with more words than your average Hemingway story. Some of those words are utter garbage (“Her love is a swizz”) some are brilliant in that heartfelt-teenage-swooning kind of way (“…like a hammering moon pulling tides through her chest”), but the sheer quantity of them and the passion of their delivery practically makes you jump for the repeat button to see just what you might have missed. What you might have missed, of course, is the chorus, because there isn’t one.
Just to make it clear, though, this isn’t some clinical, math-rock sounding record—it’s actually quite loose and flowing to the point where if I hadn’t read the “concept” in the notes, I likely would never have noticed it (I sure didn’t when I played Dan London’s copy all those years ago). It can be enjoyed on multiple levels, including the most direct and simple ones, which are often the hardest to master.
I’ve never heard another Del Amitri album, and to be honest, I have no desire to. They could be great and I could really be missing out on something, I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, though, they got it right the first time.