Graded on a Curve: Crime & The City Solution,
American Twilight

Simon Bonney has sprung forth with a fresh version of Crime & the City Solution, and anyone thinking he’s simply trying to pad his bank account on the fumes of a reignited reputation should definitely reconsider that stance. The man’s got some things on his mind, his group is loaded with vets that are rearing to go, and American Twilight is stuffed with well-executed ideas. Dark and sometimes angry, it’s never mired in cynicism, and it’s an early standout for 2013.

It’s been twenty-three years since Crime & The City Solution last recorded a studio album, but it doesn’t really feel right to describe American Twilight as any kind of reunion move. This is partially because the group was never all that popular in the first place. Sure, they were signed to the UK label Mute and due to the association benefited from a pretty large profile, but it seems accurate to describe the fruits of their ’85 to ’90 run as the recordings of a cult band.

During this period and even for a good while after the group’s ’91 breakup, the synopsis on Crime & The City Solution was quite often “recommended if you like Nick Cave.” Not an inappropriate thing to say, for the band’s initial work featured Mick Harvey and the late Rowland S. Howard, both former members of The Birthday Party.

Due to the participation of this wily pair (to say nothing of the ex-Swell Maps drummer/pianist Epic Soundtracks, also sadly deceased), a number of folks persist in rating those early documents as the group’s finest. Others (like this writer) would disagree, in large part because Crime & The City Solution are correctly identified as the creative labors of vocalist Simon Bonney.

Way back in 1977, the first band to fall under his long-serving moniker was formed in his native Australia. Initially based in Sydney, Bonney relocated to Melbourne in ’79 and commenced a second version of the group. While there he connected with The Boys Next Door, the group that would shortly evolve into The Birthday Party.

Neither of those first two Crime & The City Solution lineups produced any recordings, which is a drag since the descriptions of their live dates sound very enticing. In 1983 Bonney moved to London where he again hooked up with The Birthday Party. Two years later came the first recordings from the revived outfit, Mick, Rowland, and his brother Harry Howard filling out the four songs collected on “The Dangling Man” EP. The equally strong six-song release Just South of Heaven appeared later in the same year.

Epic Soundtracks and violinist/backing vocalist/Bonney’s domestic mate Bronwyn Adams joined for the massive ’86 LP Room of Lights. That album was recorded in Berlin, where Crime & The City Solution based operations until their dissolution in ’91.

After Room of Lights, Soundtracks and the Howard brothers departed to form the very cool These Immortal Souls, and Bonney recruited bassist Thomas Stern, synthesizer specialist Chrislo Haas (formerly of notable Neue Deutsche Welle groups D.A.F. and Liaisons Dangereuses), and guitarist Alexander Hacke (member of German industrial monsters Einstürzende Neubauten) to take their place.

This group released the amazing Shine in 1988, an even better record than its full length predecessor, and while Harvey remained on drums, it was pretty clear to unbiased ears that the main reason for Crime & The City Solution’s success derived from the pen and throat of Bonney.

And while in this reviewer’s estimation Shine remains the high-point of the group’s Berlin-era, both ‘89’s The Bride Ship and ‘90’s Paradise Discotheque, if more refined in their considerable ambitions, are still highly worthy of purchase. Serious fans of the band likely picked up their very swank and formerly posthumous ’93 live record The Adversary way back when.

If Bonney decided to retire the name that had brought him his cultish notoriety, he didn’t stop working; two solo albums appeared shortly thereafter, ‘92’s Forever and ‘94’s Everyman, the artist having relocated to Los Angeles. I haven’t heard either record in a long-ass time, but since they’re both available for easy streaming the fault is purely my own.

Somewhere along the way Bonney and Adams packed up and moved to Detroit, which frankly seems a locale much more conducive to the bluesy post-punk of Crime & The City Solution. And in 2011 a new incarnation of the band was formed. Along with the married pair, Hacke is the only other holdover from the Berlin period.

Last year Mute issued A History of Crime – Berlin 1987-1991 as part of their artist-compiled An Introduction to… series. Its title indicates that it lacks any of the work with Soundtracks and the Howards, but no matter; it still provides a sweet educational avenue into a band that should’ve been a whole lot bigger during their half-decade of activity.

But the sustained high quality of American Twilight is an even better turn of events. If this was a standard reunion as money-grab, the fact that the group’s current majority consists of new members would be an added discomfiting circumstance. But in this case it simply underlines that the main creative engine in Crime & The City Solution belongs to Bonney, and he surrounds himself on this album with some very credible players.

In addition to his wife and Hacke, there is David Eugene Edwards of Wovenhand and formerly of 16 Horsepower on guitar, Troy Gregory of The Witches and ex of Motor City kingpins The Dirtbombs (and a serious assortment of other groups) on bass and cello, Matthew Smith of Outrageous Cherry on keyboards and synths, artist/filmmaker Danielle de Picciotto on autoharp and “visuals”, and the prolific Jim White, most notable for his membership in the crucial instrumental trio the Dirty Three, on drums.

Everyone but White contributes backing vocals. If Bonney is again firmly secured as the leader of this new millennium rekindling of Crime & The City Solution, American Twilight benefits from a strong spirit of collaboration. The record starts strongly with “Goddess,” the song radiating a Native American vibe that’s sorta miraculous in not sounding cheesy.

Instead, Adams’ violin bonds with Gregory’s cello to give the tune thickness and subtle depth. The guitars provide the post-punk grit, and Bonney leads the vocals with substantial vigor, making it plain that he’s as bothered by the shape of the world as ever. White is spot-on in the drum chair, and he’s especially driving on “Riven Man,” a track that weds gospel flavor with noisy racket and Smith’s horn-like synth shards.

What’s delivered is a rumbling, spiky groove, and without it Bonney’s lyrical commentary, at one point finding him aping the clichéd solemnity of a speechifying “just-folks”-styled politician (it’s not hard to pinpoint who he’s mocking), would likely register as unremarkable, either heavy-handed or merely an excursion into grandstanding. But Bonney and his cohorts clearly realize that musical inventiveness and heft help greatly when delivering a prickly and at times unsubtle message.

And Bonney is no stranger to the political. Paradise Discotheque dealt with the severe ugliness of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, and as this new record’s title indicates, it’s very much a concept album about the current state of the American union. If sometimes bleak and occasionally dyspeptic, the LP never overdoses on the didactic, with thoughts and music kept in deft balance.

“My Love Takes Me There” contains flashes of Stooges-descended roar, a presence that underscores the disc’s Aussie-to-Detroit connection with aplomb, alternating it with a sound that’s perhaps best tagged as foreboding Americana, the atmosphere sweetened by achy mariachi flavor and swells of backing vocals.

The spacious “Domina” continues this progression, slowing the tempo and packing in all sorts of twists and turns. There’s some desert blues, hearty doses of choir-like testifying, loads of beautiful string action from Adams, White working out that snare like a champion, and holding it all together is Bonney’s vocals, weary and highly cinematic.

“The Colonel (Doesn’t Call Anymore)” is post-punk blues par excellence, slowly rising in its aggression and falling into tense moodiness, the track a fine showcase for the communicative skills of Bonney and Adams. The vocalist is anything but timid in his leadership role, but he’s also nothing of a showboat, consistently surrounding himself with first-rate musicians, not for the purposes of backing his ego, but instead in search of the strengths to be found in creative interaction.

The guitars burn with intensity all over this LP, and when they let loose in “The Colonel” it’s with stellar effect. But they can also deliver moments of appreciable beauty, as in “Beyond Good and Evil,” which starts out as a gorgeous expression of melancholy only to find Bonney attaining heights of C&W-informed catharsis. It’s maybe American Twilight’s finest moment.

The title-track returns to stomping mode to deliver its most strident exploration of the USA’s less admirable tendencies. The intent isn’t to bum-out the listener or to wallow in decline, but rather to acknowledge the bad to get with the good; as Bonney says in the spoken introduction, “without love and without hope, there can be no future.” What follows is a blast of passion in service of potential regeneration. That it holds ample passages of Smith’s superb, almost psyche-rock organ is truly a bonus.

“Streets of West Memphis” is the closer, starting off all pretty like but then developing into a galvanizing emotional surge. At times it almost sounds like a disheveled Kurt Wagner (he of Lambchop) fronting the late-‘80s Mekons. So Adams falls securely into the role of Sally Timms.

It’s a very choice ending to a terrific LP, one that’s fully in keeping with the past achievements of a much underrated band. Hopefully the fifth lineup of Crime & The City Solution will stick around for a little while, for it is immediately apparent that Bonney hasn’t lost a thing.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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