British Band’s Trend-bucking, Playful Pop Paddy Mcaloon, Leader Of Prefab Sprout, Is Of The Hip-to-be-square School. His Band’s Sounds Evoke The ’50s, ’60s And ’70s.
NEW YORK — “I’ve abandoned hipness altogether,” says Paddy McAloon, lead singer and songwriter of the British group Prefab Sprout, shrugging. “And once I gave up the ghost, I was much happier.”
How’s that for a celebrity admission?
These days, it’s ho-hum news when a star talks about the struggles of overcoming drugs and drink. McAloon, whose band is a hit in England but unknown in America, has made a far rarer commitment. His decision to give up trying to play it cool is beyond post-modern. Quite literally, it’s post-hip.
For a British pop star, it’s also a good defensive posture. The British music press typically accords its critical darlings the lifespan of a fruit fly. Prefab Sprout gets it from the English critics coming and going – the group is lauded for its elegant, literate pop, and mocked for its gooey, somewhat precious aesthetic.
McAloon, 33, prefers to ignore the pop charts and focus on the artists whose music is remembered for years instead of weeks. When speaking of favorites, he cites the long-ago songs that Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote for Dionne Warwick and raves about Barbra Streisand’s The Broadway Album. Two recent quotes from the British press underscore McAloon’s iconoclasm:
“I find it strange that people who don’t like us beat us over the head with the fact that we don’t use three chords and distortion, when there’s a record called West Side Story, and it would be much easier to hurt me by saying, ‘That’s fabulous songwriting, why aren’t you as good as that?’ ”
Or, better still: “I used to like Stockhausen when I was a kid. But when I got older I realized I actually spent more time listening to Abba than Stockhausen.”
The allusion to Abba is hardly gratuitous. On the new Prefab Sprout album, Jordon: The Comeback (Epic), a song called “Ice Maiden” pays wry tribute to the Swedish quartet that sang phonetic English in front of densely crafted studio pop. During the ’70s, Abba had U.S. hits such as “Waterloo” and ”Dancing Queen,” but the group’s calculated style conspired against true U.S. stardom. Americans revere roots, even if they go no deeper than a house plant’s. Compared to Abba, an unabashed pop craftsman like Elton John sounded like Leadbelly.
Europeans embraced Abba because they had no problem with the notion that artifice was an essential part of the group’s art. After all, that was the case when the Rolling Stones sang the blues and the Beatles sang Motown, and so it is with Prefab Sprout. To be sure, McAloon’s songs are much artier in approach and intent than those of the now-disbanded Abba. What they share is a belief that the recording studio is not just a place to record the sound of music, but a stage on which to create music by artfully recording sounds.
“There is a bit of me that likes the artificial, those sounds that can exist only in the studio,” McAloon concedes. “The recording studio gives you access to a grammar of music that you just can’t write.”
McAloon’s most valuable collaborator in the studio has been producer Thomas Dolby, who recorded Jordon: The Comeback as well as the group’s stunning 1985 album, Two Wheels Good. (In England, Two Wheels Good was called Steve McQueen, a nonsensical title that nervous CBS lawyers convinced the group to scuttle.) These albums aren’t studio concoctions in the sense of contemporary dance music, with Svengali producers using singers, synthesizers and drum machines like so many chess pieces. Rather, they’re exquisitely recorded albums whose sumptuous sound serves as the frosting on an already musical cake.
McAloon recognizes that the precise pop of Prefab Sprout is at odds with the perception of rock as a wild, instinctual art. As if to emphasize that, a sequence of songs on Jordon: The Comeback deals with the myth of Elvis Presley in a style that has nothing at all to do with his music. The title song conjures a Howard Hughes-like Presley sequestered in a desert penthouse awaiting the song that will provide him with a fitting comeback. “Jesse James Symphony” and “Jesse James Bolero” suggest the kind of mythic lyric that might have appealed to Elvis. And “Moon Dog,” with its infectious chorus of ”Guess who’s on the moon?”, presumes that the King’s influence is so vast as to stretch into the solar system.
It makes perverse sense that when asked to name his favorite Presley song, McAloon came up with “American Trilogy.” No Sun Records epiphanies for McAloon; he liked Elvis after the good ol’ boy had walked through the looking glass to become the King. And as far as McAloon is concerned, Presley handled that extraordinary transition with uncommon grace.
“When you hear someone talking about their work, you typically find them making ludicrous comments,” says McAloon, who approaches reporters with the knowledge that he’s apt to stick his foot in his mouth. “But as I read old interviews with Elvis, it was impossible to find statements that didn’t ring true. They were simple, but somehow wise.”
McAloon rarely takes the simple route, but that doesn’t preclude a clear
vision: “Any music worth its salt is good for dancing,” he sings in “Paris Smith.” But, knowing that such elemental pleasures are not his forte, he’s quick to add, “but I’d rather be the Fred Astaire of words.”
Prefab Sprout’s musicians – McAloon, Martin McAloon, Wendy Smith and Neil Conti – are more like the sultans of sound. Taken as a whole, the nearly hour- long Jordon: The Comeback is like feasting on a banquet of equally rich desserts. But on repetition, individual songs reveal memorable distinctions. Note Paddy McAloon’s touching, Paul Simon-like vocal on “One of the Broken,” and Smith’s Abba-esque harmonies on “Ice Maiden.”
To some, Prefab Sprout might seem as pretentious as its purposefully silly name, but nobody can say that McAloon lacks ambition. Another of the album’s song cycles deals with nothing less than God, mercy and death. This segment concludes with the starkly beautiful “Doowop in Harlem,” in which voices are accompanied by a ghostly organ: “If there ain’t a heaven that holds you tonight/They never sang doowop in Harlem.”
Prefab Sprout doesn’t always pursue grandiose themes. “Wild Horses” is a romantic swoon that finds a male suitor frightened silly in front of the object of his affection. “Machine Gun Ibiza” conjures up the kind of rootsy artist that McAloon will never be. But unlike the group’s 1988 release, From Langley Park to Memphis, an equally diverse collection that never quite cohered, McAloon’s current fixation on God and Elvis artfully anchors Jordon: The Comeback.
At a time when pop acts seem cut from a limited number of generic models, Prefab Sprout sounds like nobody else. “Pop music has got to be more playful,” concludes McAloon, who clearly doesn’t think that such an attitude precludes serious intentions. “It’s got to breathe.”
And grow. If Two Wheels Good remains Prefab Sprout’s musical masterstroke, Jordon: The Comeback achieves a more democratic union between McAloon’s imagination and Dolby’s studio expertise. McAloon may have given up on hip, but the music he makes with Prefab Sprout is as cool as it comes.