As Elastica's wonderfully derivative "Waking Up" reminded everyone back
in 1995, the Stranglers, of all the late `70s "punk" bands, have perhaps
left the most enduring musical (as opposed to sociological) legacy of
that era -- in part because in at least one sense, they weren't punks at
all but experienced pub-rock vets who knew how to play their instruments
right from the get-go, as evidenced on their debut album Rattus
Norvegicus onwards through misanthropic classics like No More
Heroes and Black And White.
Attitudinally, however, the band may have well outdone the rest; there's
no doubt that, no matter how big his mouth may have been, John "Rotten"
Lydon would have have never actually messed with the likes of the rugged
Stranglers' main men, singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell (never mind his
Ph.D in biochemistry) and his second-in-command, bassist and karate
black-belt Jean Jacques Burnel. As various music journalists found out
at the time, to do so was to invite some very real, physical
repercussions (somewhere, Tricky and Marilyn Manson were taking notes).
Nevertheless, despite the band's brutal sonic attack and gutter-rat
imagery on raunch-rockers like "Down In The Sewer" and "Bring On The
Nubiles," a pop sensibility, heard on their brilliant
psychedelic cover of Bacharach and David's "Walk On By," was also in
evidence. And as they made their way into the '80s, while most of their
less imaginative punk contemporaries vanished or lapsed into
self-parody, the Stranglers miraculously morphed from psychedelic thugs
into a mystical pop band -- the "Meninblack" -- creating moody gems like
"Duchess," "Golden Brown" (a thinly-veiled ode to smack, the possession
of which Cornwell was jailed for in 1980) and "Strange Little Girl,"
tracks that sound as fresh today as when they were first recorded.
By the dawn of the current decade, however, the band had run out of gas,
reduced to covering "96 Tears" and "All Day and All of the Night" to
fill out uninspired albums. Cornwell departed in a cloud of acrimony,
and while a shell of a unit that calls itself the Stranglers still
lumbers around the U.K., this new solo release by the Head Strangler
marks a return to the pop-rock he perfected on albums such as
Feline (1982) and Aural Sculpture (1984); in fact, the
latter's producer, Laurie Latham, is tellingly back on board here. From
its title -- Black Hair, Black Eyes, Black Suit -- onward, this
is an album that evokes Cornwell's golden pop songwriting period with
his former band.
"Snapper," for example, is a cleverly constructed piece of melodic
pop-rock that sticks in your head -- it cleverly celebrates the joys of
eating fish while also inviting itself to be read in a more Freudian
context (we're talking pussy, not fish, you see). Likewise, "Hot Head"
couches another double entendre in a memorable pop hook, while the
jagged, Stranglers-esque title track (with Dave Greenfield's signature
keys deftly imitated) makes reference to those mysterious black-clad
figures that Cornwell's old band once dedicated an entire album to.
"Long Dead Train," meanwhile, the album's hardest rocker (Cornwell has
returned to playing his rather unique brand of lead guitar, enlivening
the album as a whole), addresses the singer's split from his old musical
mates, adopting a Zen attitude toward it all:
Sometimes you're gonna have to get lost
Sometimes the dice are already tossed
Don't worry there's no hurry
Somedays there's some love to be found
Some nights you gotta sleep on the ground
Don't worry there's no hurry
I just got off a long gone dead train
In other words, don't look for that Stranglers reunion any time soon.
And if Cornwell can continue to come up with the goods as he does here
on standout tracks such as "Torture Garden" and "House Of Sorrow" --
which might best be generically described as "psychedelic dark-wave" --
and avoid obvious commercial filler such as "Nerves Of Steel" and the
trite "Endless Day Endless Night" (whose backing vocals seemed mainly
designed to piss off ex-bandmate Burnel, being an exact simulacra of the
latter's style), perhaps he can avoid the fate that's befallen everyone.