Graded on a Curve:
New Order, Lost Sirens

They didn’t necessarily connect as such at the time, but New Order, an act that rose from the dissolution of one of the finest post-punk acts of the late-70s to seamlessly combine live instrumentation and smart songwriting with electronic elements and a fertile inclination toward dance music, were one of the great pop bands of the 1980s. They’ve just released Lost Sirens, a tidy group of songs dating from the sessions of their last studio album, and while not breathtaking it does offer a pleasant listen and more importantly another and very possibly final collection of songs with founding and departing bassist, Peter Hook.

In the US, New Order’s methodical progression from the melodic post-punk of their 1981 debut Movement to an energetic, lean and precise sound that thrilled denizens of the dance floor without turning off listeners that were less, um, physically active hit its apex with the issue of 1987’s 2LP/2CD Substance, a truly brilliant and enduring compilation (though one that did feature some new recordings and different versions of some of their most loved songs) that has easily transcended its initial conception as a collection of previously available material to become for many of their fans the quintessential New Order release.

During that decade New Order was categorized as an Alternative act, and while MTV was quite open to their music (particularly due to their distinctive videos), they spent most of the ‘80s defined as the sort of band that people who didn’t want to listen to pop listened to. Those of us who found their formative years in suburbs and smaller cities and towns given a partial soundtrack by the band couldn’t help but feel we’d been offered access to a sound that, unlike the dominant pop titans of the era Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince, wasn’t made for everybody.

But as the ‘90s loomed closer, it became clear that limiting New Order to the status of outsiders wasn’t really appropriate. Seeing them headline a packed outdoor show in July of ’89 at Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion with Public Image Limited and The Sugarcubes made it quite clear to this writer (then just a fresh-faced lad only a month out of high school) just how popular a group New Order actually was. If their music was too ahead of the curve to dominate the American charts of the time, they were still a widely loved band, one that could draw thousands of people to a show near any large city in the US, and in so doing they provided a sharp lesson in the superficiality of Marketing-based categories.

Pop music isn’t defined by sales figures of course. It’s a form, and that’s where New Order excelled; the music they made in the ‘80s has stood the test of time superbly well. This is especially laudable due to their use of electronics. What was once so unique that it became a signature sound still sounds vital and in good taste right up to the present. This is in sharp contrast to much of the techno-inclined pop stuff of the decade, music that now suffers from sounding stilted or dated. For evidence, just compare the edginess of “Blue Monday” to the rather corny strains of nostalgia-ringer “The Safety Dance.” Furthermore, the band’s production, while often slick, was never sterile.

On top of the achievements of the first ten years, New Order made a better progression into their second decade than did most of their ‘80s-Alt contemporaries, though it also included a long breakup after the release of ‘93’s Republic. The relative smoothness of this transition was greatly assisted by their sound being partly based in organic instrumentation; Peter Hook’s bass, Bernard Sumner’s guitar, and Steven Morris’ drums combining with synths and programming, much of it from the hands of Gillian Gilbert (who notably played guitar as well). This element allowed them to integrate with fresh electronic developments and twists in techno-based genres while still sounding like New Order, though another huge aspect in this state of affairs was the distinctiveness of Sumner’s voice.

In 2005 New Order offered up Waiting for the Siren’s Call, a quite solid if minor entry in their late discography. Since then, Hook has left the band under less than pleasant terms. Lost Sirens, a new release of material dating from the Waiting sessions, reinforces the dubiousness of the bassist reconciling with Sumner and Morris anytime soon.

In 2011 Gilbert rejoined the fold with new bassist Tom Chapman for performances and a live CD, adding further probability to Lost Sirens being the last studio efforts we’ll hear from Hook, Sumner, and Morris, a musical union that spans all the way back to a little Manchester band called Warsaw.

The verdict on Lost Sirens is that it’s sort of a mixed bag, but it’s one that’s ultimately positive (even as it calls attention to the bum trip of Hook’s subsequent departure). Along the way, it’s not hard to see why much of this material was left off Waiting for the Siren’s Call, but on the plus side nothing here really feels like lukewarm leftovers. That they didn’t dig out and dolly up some dregs in service of draining their hardcore fan base of some extra spending cash is admirable, but New Order’s relationship with their fans has consistently been a good one.

Spirited opener “I’ll Stay with You” should prove a highly pleasurable ride for folks that have stuck with the band’s blend of sturdy rock elements and techno-pop savvy over the decades. The first fifteen seconds of the song establish the electro framework. The arrival of the hard charging guitar makes for a big advance. And when Sumner starts to sing it becomes immediately clear who is responsible.

And this is interesting, since the song, like so much of their later work, makes no attempt to recapture the trailblazing sound of their ‘80s material. The chances that even a handful of the group’s longtime fans will proclaim “I’ll Stay with You” as their favorite New Order song (and by extension, Lost Sirens as their favorite album) are extremely slim, but as the group has gotten older, so has their supporters. That means less clubbing and more parent-teacher conferences.

As Lost Sirens progresses, the music connects as being far less interested in tapping a fresh audience than it is in retaining ties with the folks that have been with them for up to (and even over) thirty years. For many groups, this sort of attitude can prove a surefire path to irrelevancy, but in this case it largely works. Even when it doesn’t, it’s far preferable to finding them desperately latching onto current trends or conversely, calculatedly rehashing the vibe of their classic material onto new songs and hoping that folks won’t notice the difference.

It might sound like I’m inferring that New Order, once a main mover and (tail feather) shaker in the whole Youth Music shebang, has entered a late period of making records for old(er) people, but that’s not my intention and it’s not really accurate. The band’s transition to a more grounded, guitar oriented sound began over a decade ago with their reunion release, ‘01’s Get Ready. The music included here, recorded roughly four years later, finds them in a general state of comfort.

‘Tis true that comfortable rarely equals great, but Lost Sirens’ second track “Sugarcane” is hyper enough in its delivery to get plenty of people gyrating in response. The song is not without its minor problems; for instance, it overplays both the brittle funk of its guitar line and its chorus, but over the years New Order’s music has been about the crossroads of ingenuity and energy, and if less inventive, none of the resuscitated material found here feels like a band that’s going through the motions.

And in this they escape predictability. “Recoil”’s mid-tempo largely sidesteps the guitar for much of its duration, emphasizing keyboards/synths and a fine vocal turn from Sumner, providing the record with one of its strongest numbers. This is followed by “Californian Grass” (which is, I’m guessing, a Beatles reference), a song positively loaded with glistening, and in a nicely surprising solo turn, roaring string work. The proceedings do slip a bit with “Hellbent” however, which feels stuffed to the gills with attempted diversity, though at its core it’s a solid tune.

In some ways “Shake it Up” follows the same general pattern as “Hellbent”, the track burdened by seemingly including every musical element at their disposal, but due to equal parts velocity and the quality of songwriting (though it’s chorus, in a manner similar to “Sugarcane,” also presents a nagging issue) it proves a modest success. “I’ve Got a Feeling” is the closest Lost Siren’s comes to outright filler, though it’s still catchy, likeable affair, and the record culminates quite strongly with the “Crazy World Mix” of “I Told You So,” the only song to previously appear on Waiting for the Siren’s Call.

If this is indeed the last we’ll hear of the three original members of New Order (Gilbert joined a little after their first single “Ceremony,” which was subsequently re-recorded by the solidified lineup), it shapes up as an enjoyable final statement. Since Gilbert’s return, New Order has issued Live at the London Troxy, a document of a performance from December 2011, its songs spanning the entirety of their catalog (even including an encore of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”), but including no new material.

This seems a very sensible tack to take. From this corner, any temptation to record additional music sans Hook under the moniker New Order would be a very questionable maneuver, one that could inflict much harm to a very impressive legacy. Nothing great lasts forever, and for this band Lost Sirens would serve as a more than agreeable final chapter.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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