arger-than-life characters returned Liverpool to the pop spotlight during the late 1970s: fluffy-haired Ian McCulloch and his bunnymen; erudite shaman Julian Cope, frequent acid muncher and later, antiquarian; and the singular Pete Wylie, prone to impromptu recitations from On The Road. Other eccentrics bound for stardom played lesser roles: Ian Broudie, the flamboyant Holly Johnson, Bill Drummond, the bones-as-barrettes Pete Burns, even a barmy expatriate named Courtney Love.
Lost among these luminaries and the Scouse swagger is Icicle Works, a trio led by exuberant romantic Ian McNabb. Icicle Works never garnered the same acclaim as Merseyside contemporaries, perhaps in part to McNabb's lack of connections within Liverpool's incestuous music scene (hello, Crucial Three), or the group's proclivity for sheepishly toeing the line between new wave earnestness and post-punk frigidity.
Beggars Banquet's reissue of Icicle Works' eponymous 1984 album showcases the group’s fickleness—there’s a consistent wavering here between the arctic meanderings of Magazine's Secondhand Daylight and the incandescent guitar sound of Echo & The Bunnymen, between the melodic gloominess of early Comsat Angels and the winking playfulness of Happy Birthday-era Altered Images. McNabb is the one that keeps the house of calling cards from collapsing in on itself: he never overindulges when it comes to his textured songwriting, always wearing his Liverpudlian heart on his sleeve.
The swirling “In the Cauldron of Love,” replete with Chameleons-like guitars, finds McNabb crooning, “Beneath a grapefruit moon we would roll in the grass / You said these times must never pass,” before seeking release in the chorus, his voice nearly breaking with the strain. The blustery opening of “Love Is a Wonderful Colour” gives way to a dripping thaw on the verses, before warming over completely with a tempered, radiant chorus: “When love calls me I will be running swiftly / To find out just what all the fuss is all about.”
On “Chop the Tree” and “Reaping the Rich Harvest,” Icicle Works eschew passionate missives for pounding rhythms, as Chris Sharrock’s driving drum assault gives the tracks a decidedly post-punk bent.
The bonus disc also has its share of highlights: a remix of the anthemic “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream),” Icicle Works’ only smash in the US, hitting No. 37 on the charts; “When Winter Lasted Forever,” a song so frosty you can picture McNabb rubbing warmth into his hands between lines; the echo-laden ballad “Ragweed Campaign” with its brittle guitar parts; and a nine-minute live version of the band’s self-described pagan love song, “Nirvana.”
Subsequent recordings by Icicle Works found the group abandoning its unique post-punk/new wave hybrid and dabbling in more conventional pop. (Case in point: the fittingly titled If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song.) Nab this lost 1980s gem to hear the Liverpool trio before its charm and color were regretfully sapped.
Reviewed by: Ryan Foley
Reviewed on: 2006-11-30