Graded on a Curve:
Love and Rockets,
Express

Bauhaus was so “Goth” even vampires wouldn’t listen to ‘em–they found ‘em “too depressing.” Take my vampy pal Vlrich. We were at this lame art school party in Philly one night when somebody put on “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Vlrich just sighed, turned to me and said, “Jesus, what does an undead guy have to do around here to hear some Foghat? Seriously, this song makes me want to walk into direct sunlight.”

Love and Rockets, different story. Once they’d parted ways with Peter Murphy (Bauhaus’ resident Count Dracula and architect of their patented “more embalmed than thou” sound) Daniel Ash, David J, and Kevin Haskins decided to risk sudden death (or at the very least skin cancer) by venturing intrepidly into the sun, and its glorious rays so boosted their collective mood they settled upon a “revamped” (sorry) sound–one that was brighter and psychedelia-tinged and didn’t induce suicidal ideation in people who are already dead.

Indeed, the first time Vlrich, who spent a perfectly happy adolescence in the Hanseatic League port city of Rostock, heard “Yin and Yang (The Flowerpot Man)” he exclaimed, “This song makes me want to party like it’s 1549!”

Vlrich’s favorite Love and Rockets LP (and mine!) is 1986’s Express. The band’s sophomore long-player boasts a diverse set of songs not one of which sounds like it was recorded in a Transylvanian castle during a violent electrical storm. It’s got some creamy dream pop and a Temptations’ cover and one tune that’s all snaky Arabian and another tune that reminds me of Pink Floyd and is so good they do it twice and yet another tune about a train or maybe LSD–who can tell with these guys?

Back in the day The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau observed that guitarist Daniel Ash “writes a good dumb ditty at fast or medium tempo,” and he has a point–none of these songs are going to win scholarships to Oxford University. When Murphy split he didn’t just take his coffin with him–he took the band’s art house pretensions too. But the songs on Express are catchy and happy-making enough, and guess what? You don’t need to study art history abroad to understand ‘em!

Take “Kundalini Express.” It’s not as smarty-pants a train song as D. Bowie’s “Station to Station” or Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express,” but it’s got real steel-wheels propulsion, to say nothing of a nasty guitar riff that most definitely ain’t steam-powered–and some friendly “Woo! Woos!” And talking about trains, “Yin and Yang (The Flowerpot Man)” is the sound of the Moody Blues on board the Orient Express, with drummer Haskins stoking the engine while Ash takes you places with his guitar that you can ordinarily only get to through the use of quality hallucinogens.

“It Could Be Sunshine” isn’t exactly fine arts major stuff either. Ash’s snake-charming saxophone is pure cheese, ditto the plinky percussion, and to make matters worse this baby reminds me of every single video I hated on MTV in the mid-eighties. But it somehow manages to leap every hurdle it throws in its own way, and it’s as catching as, well, a vampire bite.

And so it goes. These lads are more articulate than, say, Oasis, but not by much. The glossy and kick-drum-propelled “Life in Laralay” purports to be a gimlet-eyed glance at Tinseltown but lacks the bite of, say, the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane.” The fetching “Love Me” opens with some sonic guitar zoom and is smooth as butter, but is all sound and glory signifying nothing.

The cover of Motown classic “Ball of Confusion” don’t have much soul but brims with attitude; Love and Rockets employs a lumbering bottom and loads of feedback to let you know the beat goes on, while Ash tosses in some chukka-chukka ax fills and valiantly does his best to keep the ball rolling vocally. It certainly ain’t as good (or weird) as the Temptations’ version, but its got brass.

Which brings us to “All in My Mind.” The acoustic version kinda reminds me of “Dust in the Wind” as performed by Pink Floyd, which ought to be awful–but isn’t! The “regular” version commences on a moody note but perks up, and I can’t hear it without wanting to do a stupid dance. It’s good clean fun, kids!

Express takes me back to a time when I didn’t like a single solitary thing coming out of England, and I still listen to stuff like this with suspicion and an atavistic sense of aesthetic distaste. But I’ve mellowed enough to appreciate–and even enjoy–Love and Rockets on their modest merits. It’s wonderful when vampires cheer up.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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