Deacon Blue - Raintown
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.
The working class experience, as described in British pop music, is usually fragmented into two main paths: the “freedom for my people” creed of Wire / Bradfield, Lennon and Strummer or the “escape from the daily grind” of artists like the Gallagher brothers (via celebrity lifestyle) and Happy Mondays (via hedonism). Even artists purported to reflect working class life like Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker went through a period of hamming it up for the never-had-to-struggle-mummy-makes-my-bed-for-me music press of the Ivory IPC towers. But there is another, less travelled road where the minutiae of life as we all live it is discussed without agenda or mission statement.
Instead of representing their life experience with middle eights against the state, Deacon Blue's Raintown reflects the struggles of everyday life with songs about living, breathing inner city lives of those not lucky enough to be born into money, the possibility of job security or garden paradises by the sea. The lyrics remain grounded in the struggles that really keep people awake at night: love, bills, faith, relationships and work. The latter, or more accurately the lack of it, crops up as a recurring theme here and seems to be seen as both an end solution (“One day all of us will work”) and a burden (“You're on for three minutes trying hard to say ‘hello’ / I'm down here working on some dumb show”).
The band also manage to turn their hand to character pieces like “Dignity” and “Chocolate Girl”, which vocalist Ricky Ross fills with colloquialisms and little touches that add flesh to the song’s protagonists—like the man who “packs his lunch in a Sunblest (a cheap brand of bread) bag” or Alan who “only drinks in restaurants where the girls are fully covered”. It’s not often you hear a chorus as good as “he calls her the chocolate girl 'cause he thinks she melts when he touches her / And she knows she's the chocolate girl 'cause she's broken up and swallowed and wrapped in bits of silver” on daytime radio these days.
Despite Deacon Blue’s MOR reputation Raintown is anything but average, and while it may not offer sonic invention, it’s more than capable of holding its own because of superior songwriting. Beginning with the elegiac opening track “Born in a Storm”, Ross already sounds weary and beaten by the albatrosses of his past. The piano raindrops and looming storm FX give a glimpse of a life in pre-European City of Culture Glasgow that bleeds into the title track with its anthemic sweeps in a “rain soaked” city darkened by the shadows cast by Edinburgh’s festival lights.
It’s true that the vast majority of the album has a glossy 80s production dominated by grand sounding keyboard lines which, perhaps subconsciously, the band used to disassociate themselves from Scotland’s last important musical scene: the jangly output of the Postcard label. Instead of leaving the album sounding pompous and overblown, the production offers a widescreen cinematic feel. The bass playing is surprisingly lively driving the songs where they might have billowed, the guitar sticks to choppy rhythms and simple plucking (the solo on “Love's Great Fears” is stolen without shame from Nik Kershaw’s “Wouldn’t it be Good”) and the keyboards carry the song’s melodies and fill everything out broadening the songs into near epics. While no musician stands out as a particularly inventive, they ably handle lounge, country, pop, building rock and light atmospherics occupying the middle ground between Jackson Browne, The Waterboys and Prefab Sprout. On "Riches" they carry off a heartbreaking goodbye to a friend through a quirky synth while "He Looks like Spencer Tracy now" rests on the unlikely frame of chimes, bongos and 10CC ambience. The only time it feels like something is definitely out of place is on the gospel driven “When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring)” which suffers from the lack of a more human bed for the reaching vocals and sentiments of the song. Unfortunately it also features the album's worst lyric ("the wonder of it all is you"), leaving the track sounding spectacularly overdone and dispassionate.
Ricky Ross’ vocals dip between the soft slightly mild Scots accented whispers and the rasping looser near-shout of his more emotive moments. Never overstepping the mark he conveys the defeat and hope of everyday life while the band gives it a shiny coating of Pop-Soul (a symbol of their aspiration to escape their musical and personal past). Ross sums up the album's vision in the lyrical coda of "Town to be Blamed" where he repeats "work…rain…home…again.” The only place to escape on Raintown is into someone’s arms, trapped in the only place you’ve ever known; a town populated by the ghosts of missed chances and those never taken at all.
By: Scott McKeating
Published on: 2004-08-11