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coverpic flag Scotland - Full Moon 245 - 08/18/16

The Associates
Fourth Drawer Down [Deluxe Edition]

Associates from Dundee, Scotland was a groundbreaking duo that might be associated (pun intended) with the new wave of synthesizer-dominated bands from the late 1970s/early 1980s in the creative wake of the punk revolution, along with Ultravox, Human League, Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode and others. They all went their separate ways, the others to more commercial success than Associates. And Associates was a bit different. The duo format (well, they were helped out by bassist Michael Dempsey, also of The Cure, and others now and again) wasn't that usual at the time. In addition to synthesizers and drum machines, multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine played guitar that gave some of the Associates songs a more organic sound. The voice of vocalist Billy MacKenzie was one of a kind, quite high-pitched most of the time, somewhat theatrical and dramatic. In late May the three first Associates albums The Affectionate Punch (the simple guitar dominated pop album from 1980), Fourth Drawer Down (the experimental more synth-oriented collection, 1981) and Sulk (the commercial keyboard-oriented pop album, 1982) was repackaged, expanded and released as three two-disc deluxe editions that followed a new two disc compilation the previous moonth, The Very Best Of Associates.

Of the three original albums, Fourth Drawer Down used to be my favourite back in the days. Well, even then it wasn't a new album as such. The eight tracks of the original LP were taken from five singles Associates released on independent Situation Two, one of the sublabels of Beggars Banquet, and a split single with the "band" 39 Lyon Street (that seemed to be the members of Associates backing a female vocalist) on the well-established at the time RSO label. The album includes a mixture of commercial and more experimental songs. "White Car In Germany" is undoubtedly the one that ought to have been a hit, had it been supported by a more well-funded company. With swirling synths, soaring guitars and vocals reaching for the sky. "Tell Me Easter's On Friday" and "A Girl Named Property" are also catchy and haunting offerings, respectively, with merry synth bleeps and gloomy guitar of the former and sharp and monotonous guitar riffs of the latter. But the somewhat experimental production and MacKenzie's unconventional and to some extent stilted vocals probably made them less accessible. The title "Message Oblique Speech" suggests inspiration from Brian Eno's oblique strategies, and yes, it sounds a bit like what Eno was up to on his albums with vocals soon after he'd left Roxy Music. Only Associates had recorded in more humble surroundings, probably. The song is treated with Rankine's playful experimental urges, and best remembered for the merry strange sounding guitar. The band's title track, so to speak, "The Associate", is a merry synth-dominated instrumental augmented with growls and howls from MacKenzie that escalates into noisy chaos towards the end. The remaining tracks of the original album include even more playful experimental instrumentation or production. Just check out "An Even Whiter Car", an instrumental remix of "White Car In Germany". The second disc of the Deluxe Edition includes the remaining tracks from the Situation Two singles that wasn't included on the original LP, a couple of demos and a few more recordings from about the same time. These are mainly more guitar oriented than the tracks of disc one, with "The Tree That Never Sang" as a hypnotizing synth-dominated exception. "Blue Soap" is just Billy singing, reputedly in the bath, improvising the "song", only accompanied by some discreet background noises, and either recorded with a very cheap microphone or treated in a way that makes it sound as if it was recorded from an old-fashioned long-wave radio station. Maybe from the other side of the bathroom door? They don't release recordings like this anymore ...

With the following album Sulk, Associates went in a more well-produced and commercial direction. The first single predating the album, "Party Fears Two", was a hit and pulled Sulk to no. 10 on the British album lists. The second single from the album, "Club Country", did well on the hit lists as well. Only a few moonths after Sulk had been released, on the eve before the Sulk tour was to start, Alan left and Billy eventually continued the band as a solo project for a while, to less success despite desperate attempts.

It was strange to listen to Fourth Drawer Down again for the first time in several decades. At first it sounded quite obscure. It took some time to get into it again. Once in, it was a pleasant reencounter. It's a great example of the spirit, energies and willingness to experiment with modest means in the early 1980s. Some might be put off by Billy's affected voice. If you listen more carefully to some of the songs, you might realize where Björk has found inspiration to some of her vocal expressions.

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