Graded on a Curve:
The Style Council,
Café Bleu

Said “Modfather” Paul Weller in 1990 about his post-Jam outfit The Style Council, “We created some great music in our time, the effects of which won’t be appreciated for some time.” Well, decades have passed, and while many have a deep-seated affection for The Style Council and their inveterate eclecticism, I’m not one of them. Sure, Weller and fellow counselors multi-keyboardist Mick Talbot and drummer Steve White produced a small handful of solid blue-eyed soul numbers. But they didn’t stop there.

Instead they spent much of their time dabbling in other genres, and by so doing laid waste to their powers. They couldn’t decide if they wanted to be a soul band or a sophisticated European lounge band or a jazz band or even a rap band, god help us, so they tried to be all things to all people—generally, and unfortunately, on the same album. And what you ended up with, as is the case with most incorrigible dilettantes, was a slew of admittedly enthusiastic genre exercises that were strictly amateur hour. Take their forays into, say, jazz. They’re nice enough, but why listen to second-rate bop when there’s a whole world of first-rate bop out there?

Why someone like Weller would walk away from a band that produced some of the best New Wave, mod-revivalist music ever recorded to futz around in the rarified realms of more sophisticated sounds is above my pay grade. Or maybe not. It’s a familiar story—artist feels trapped in stylistic prison of his own making and decides to break out. And it certainly can’t be said that The Style Council was just another stylistic prison—the band’s determination to go in any direction it felt inclined to at the moment is as close as you get to complete freedom. But such freedom comes at a cost, and in The Style Council’s case the cost was albums—and this is particularly true in the case of their 1984 debut Café Bleu—that don’t cohere, but are instead disparate collections of songs spanning a dog’s breakfast of styles. “My Ever Changing Moods” indeed.

Café Bleu opens with the instrumental “Mick’s Blessing,” a sprightly but negligible jazz piano turn by Mick Talbot. It’s a happy number, and likeable enough, but it’s hardly for the ages, and not exactly a shot across the bow on the Style Council’s part. It’s followed by the stripped down “The Whole Point of No Return,” a sophistipop slice of blue-eyed soul that holds up but won’t exactly set your hair on fire. But what it might have done is establish a mood. You know, “Here we are, this is what we do best, and here’s more.”

Instead The Style Council takes an arbitrary turn into lounge jazz territory with the snazzy but ultimately derivative “Me Ship Came In!” Talbot holds up his end on the piano—not bad for a rock guy—but why you’d want to listen to him instead of any of a list of hundreds (easy) of real jazz pianists is beyond me. And the same goes for the horns of Billy Chapman (saxophone) and Barbara Snow (trumpet). They play enthusiastically, but they don’t play particularly well. Bottom line: Paul Weller opted for sophistication, and no one had the guts to hold an intervention.

And from there The Style Council gallivant ever more exotic-wards with the easy listening instrumental “Blue Café,” which reminds me of the string-drenched Muzak my mom used to play while during her vacuuming. I would have to listen to stuff like this on days when I was home sick from school, and I spent most of my time wishing the vacuum cleaner was louder. After a while I gave up and went to school no how sick I was—better to succumb to the mumps in math class than suffer shite like this. They then turn to Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl to play chanteuse on the piano and snare torch ballad “Paris Match.” She acquits herself well. But how utterly European, I think as I listen to it. Boy, is Weller the Cosmopolitan, I think as I listen to it. I’ll bet you he knows at least 100 words in French, I think as I listen to it. Boy do I miss the Jam, I think as I listen to it.

On follow-up “My Ever Changing Moods” Weller finally gets down to the business of writing timeless pop songs instead of further indulging in his penchant for sophisticated slumming. It’s a simple but irresistibly catchy number, just Weller sounding soulful to the accompaniment of Talbot’s piano. If I wanted to be a dick about it I could say it sounds like the Squeeze to me and they did it better, but I would never say that even if I just did. And this would be the perfect time for Weller to toss off another timeless pop song, right? Just to prove the first one wasn’t a fluke?

Wrong. Instead The Style Council drops the Blue Note Records-school bop number “Dropping Bombs on the Whitehouse” (sic) on us, and need I say it again? It sounds like the gang are having a swell time, but speaking just for myself when I want to hear jazz I go to the folks who know what they’re doing. Enthusiasm is great, and things could have been worse—I applaud The Style Council for having the style to not go the jazz fusion route. But it’s vaguely disconcerting to buy a pop album only to find myself wishing I’d bought a better jazz album.

But pedestrian bebop is a minor sin compared to “A Gospel.” Which isn’t a gospel number, but a rap song—and one of the worst I’ve ever laid ears on. Come back, Vanilla Ice–all is forgiven! “A Gospel” staggers across the vinyl like it has a peg leg; it’s a panacea to the rhythm impaired. The song’s title isn’t totally inappropriate—one “Dizzi Heights” raps us up a sermon written by Weller, whose taste in devotional reading obviously runs to the fire and brimstone portions of the Old Testament. The world is rotten (big news there), the government is corrupt (gasp!), and we’re all “eating propaganda and shit spoon fed.” But worry not, because Paul Weller is pissed and he’s in a lynching frame of mind:

“Hand us down before it’s too late
The strength and wisdom to change our state
Governed by evil and all it will bring
I can’t wait for the day they do the lamppost swing
And no mercy should they be shown
For you cannot reason with the devil’s own.”

Personally I think Weller should have scrapped the wretched rap (did NO ONE call him out on this?) and written a scathing and vindictive piece of agit-pop along the lines of “That’s Entertainment” called “The Lamppost Swing” instead, but what’s a guy to do? I can’t make a legend who’s lost the plot return my phone calls.

And things go from worse to merely bad on follow-up “Strength of Your Nature,” a driving synth-dance track with programmed drums that smells like bad Depeche Mode to me. Better another jazzercise number along the lines of “Dropping Bombs on the Whitehouse” than this fetid attempt at keeping up with the times. It’s redeemed only by Talbot’s Hammond organ, which believe me isn’t enough to save the track from derivative mediocrity. Better Talbot had tried to distract Weller from putting this one to tape, perhaps by saying, “Hey, wanna hear my Thelonious Monk imitation?”

It’s only at this point, halfway into the b-side, that The Style Council get down to doing what they’re best at—writing commercial pop songs of the type I suspect the early Weller would have disdained. “You’re the Best Thing” is a slinky blue-eyed soul number in which Weller pours out his soul. Great mid-tempo beat, fantastic chorus—this is The Style Council at their best, and I can only put down The Style Council’s refusal to pack the album with like-minded songs instead of flitting from style to style like a butterfly with ADD to sheer polymorphous perversity. What’s the old saying? Stick to the knitting? The Style Council were too busy rushing around trying on different fashions to focus on the prize—producing winning pop songs that sound great on the radio.

But The Style Council surprise here. Instead of doing what they usually do, namely rushing off to try their hand at something else–ska, a po-faced Black Sabbath impersonation, or a Gregorian chant maybe—they actually do the smart thing and follow “You’re the Best Thing” with another solid pop soul number, “Here’s One That Got Away.” It’s not as good as its predecessor but it works, in large part to the coloration provided by Bobby Valentino’s ever-present violin. The relative minimalism serves them well–horns or other addendum would have only dragged the song down. And they continue doing what they do best with the fantastic “Headstart for Happiness,” a peppy number supplemented by some perky horns that do work. This is happy-making music, bubbly soul that proves Weller’s turn from punk wasn’t completely misguided. I’ll never like The Style Council—I’m a rock guy through and through—but there’s no gainsaying the fact that they were, when all is said and done, a value-added proposition. But at what cost?

The band closes things out with another organ-driven instrumental showcase, “Council Meetin’,” a jazzed-up Squeeze-school number that may not add much to the annals of music but is pleasant enough for what it is—an entertaining little throwaway. Not bad, but what to make of a band that opens and closes its debut album with entertaining little throwaways? Weller has always seemed like an ambitious geezer, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he hides his best songs on Café Bleu in the last places you’d look for them.

The Style Council achieved significant success, and even played the UK side of Live Aid, before the populace ultimately tired of their gadfly shtick and stopped buying their albums. Things came to a head when Polydor Records passed on yet another Quixotic stylistic turn of the screw, 1988’s acid house-inspired Modernism: A New Decade. The LP would finally escape limbo but it killed the band, which was already in a world of hurt due to the lukewarm response to that same year’s Confessions of a Pop Group.

Curiosity kills cats, and Weller is a cat whose curiosity has probably done him more harm than good. A few bands have made Catholicism work for them, but The Style Council isn’t one of them. Weller would have been better served by sitting himself in a corner with the intention of churning out a bevvy of catchy pop hits, after first instructing a lackey to taser him every time he said something like, “You know what? I think I’ll try my hand at country music.” Which, given “A Gospel,” isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.

A quick word on the grade. Every bone in my body screamed D+—”A Gospel” alone is enough to torpedo far sounder ships, and both “Strength of Your Nature” and “Blue Café” leave me queasy—but four excellent soul pop tunes is nothing to sneeze at, and the open and closer are pleasant enough. So I’ve given the LP a…

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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