At least the curtains opened. Given that Prefab Sprout is fronted by a man (Paddy McAloon) with a professed interest in the lifestyle of Howard Hughes, and a woman (Wendy Smith) with perhaps the quietest voice in pop, the possibility lingered early on that the band might simply turn in a modest performance behind the drapes and then make their getaway. In fact, the concert went on to give those sorts of expectation an even more thorough overhaul. As the band closed by bouncing through ”The King of Rock and Roll”, we were presented with the disarming spectacle of McAloon, chased by a spotlight, wading around in the stalls and shaking hands with his people. Maybe even Howard Hughes hankered after the human touch.
McAloon’s final fling, it is fairly safe to assume, was intended to ape the conventions rather than fall in with them, although that might well have increased rather than diminished the amount of nerve it took. He had spent much of the preceding time peering into the attentive front rows as if unsure whether to be tantalised or plain terrified – the reaction of someone on foreign soil. The band has always trodden with considerably more swagger on vinyl, putting out, in conjunction with the producer Thomas Dolby, a sequence of three albums whose gloss and polish is continents away from the traditional kick and rush of live performance. But such are the costs of these confections that the band’s account with their label, CBS, would probably make the Brazilian economy look stable, and hence, to coincide with their spotless latest (Jordan the Comeback), the obligatory tour.
Many of McAloon’s eloquent fantasies derive their shine from an awe of stardom (”Just to think, Sinatra’s been here too”, he gasps during ”Hey, Manhattan”), so that there was something unsettling about seeing them rendered from a brightly-lit stage while mobile screens moved around in the roof, displaying sundry green projections. But, borne along on a generous downwind of irony and beefed up by the tightly networked drum and bass patterns which Neil Conti and Martin McAloon came out with, much of the material took on a toughness virtually compatible with the venue. They even managed (with ”Cruel” and ”I Couldn’t Bear to be Special”) to hark back briefly to the harder-edged, low-tech days of the first album, Swoon, recorded on a shoestring and apparently, in places, arranged for one.
The melodies regularly set McAloon’s voice some awesome targets: ”Wild Horses”, for instance, which called for a direct switch between glass-shattering falsetto and macho baritone no fewer than four times in the space of one chorus. He averaged three out of four, which is respectable by anyone’s standards: hence, presumably, the hearty handshakes from the audience.
Giles Smith, The Independent, October 26th 1990