Tom Bailey’s first vocal pop album since 1996’s Ether brings this writer out of blogging semi-retirement.
TOM BAILEY – Science Fiction (Mikrokosmos)
Evidently an inveterate escape artist, Tom Bailey‘s habitually painted himself into corners as a means of aesthetic expression. From binning the safety-in-guitars first iteration of Thompson Twins and recording the resultant hit-bound album on a single synthesizer, to trading out the tattered-but-still-marketable Twins banner for an obscure new name while making his best record in a decade, to a post-millennial drift through largely voxless crypto-ambient dub and world music of increasingly vivid melodicism, his restive cycles have become canon. Tom’s car is always revving in the drive, and he’s always tracking different colours on the map.
That Bailey’s parked back on planet pop is fan manna, and his new vehicle – a tour-plus-album model – is a resounding gift to one of pop’s great forsaken fan bases. Thompson Twins fans never resigned, they just lost a cause to rally around, creating a fascinating socio- and musicological profile of people with formidable knowledge of the work and the environment in which it thrived, but scant interest in either the work’s spiritual descendants or today’s simpatico alternative/indie music community. Without the artiste’s involvement in upholding, promoting or refining the brand, the band’s possibly had fewer champions than any major act I can think of from the past quarter century. Or put it this way: Thompson Twins fans descended upon Bailey’s 2014’s pop tour like a pack of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidts.
This goes a way towards explaining why Tom Bailey concert crowds are so cozily convivial. I’ve seen shows in a half-dozen different towns the past four years and the vibe’s always like a high school reunion, only without the tension. Oh, and if the Bailey Unbreakables are looking for a new cause to rally around, it leaps off the grooves of Science Fiction, a charming and inventive “adult alternative” album (I think that’s what they call them) that’s also among the best synthpop records in ages.
Whether by necessity or bloodymindedness, Science Fiction was evidently stitched together by humble means – a laptop, some plug-ins, a place to sit – which contributes mightily to the tight weave informing each of its 10 tracks. With Bailey playing every note and singing most of them too, Fiction approaches the kind of performance unity once reserved for early Prince albums or Pete Townshend Who demos. There’s a propriety in the performances that borders on the academic (no Steve Stevens guitar rampages, in other words), while also revealing the build quality to be first-rate: the transitions are just fantastic, with beautifully organic, song-serving sequences pitched way above the I.Q. of current chart pop, which often seems frenzied and pushy. Indeed, Fiction glides in like it’s already cased the joint and knows where all the goodies are buried.
And the goodies! Classic Thompson Twins records were deep on details, and Fiction‘s more of the same.
Bailey thinks like an orchestra percussionist regardless of the instrument he’s playing – watch his hands in concert- with no hard stabs of sound; instead, he offers angular dabs of rhythmic texture (the chatty synths in What Kind Of World, the aqueous bass taps in If You Need Someone, the slack guitar grounding Bring Back Yesterday’s verses) which creates bursts of momentum without disturbing the volume. There’s a lot of movement within the arrangements, too, as he seldom lets a new verse or chorus go by without fillips: on the hypnotic Feels Like Love To Me, Science Fiction’s prettiest song, quiet dub patterns turn choppy, a promising flourish of guitar chords appears but once, the marathon outro toys with all sorts of open vowel sounds (“WHOAA-ooh-whooaah, whooah-oh-aaah” is my favourite – and no, I’m not kidding). Layered momentum helped Thompsons singles really work as dance remixes: even his melodies have a heartbeat.
The vocals also experiment with cadence and texture. Again, Feels Like Love To Me shines: a two-bar rest between the verses’ first couplet disappears in the second pair, while an unpaired fifth line tumbles out just before the chorus. Ship Of Fools works a similar temporal feint with mere two-line verses. Lead single What Kind Of World deploys a Spanish-language hook as a recurring rhythmic motif. (In a passage of meta Bailey bliss, the Spanish hook locks into a brief stepwise dance with the chatty synth from the intro, but Tom plays alternate notes as he’ll often do in concert solos. The effect is mesmerizing). The beguiled hopeful in Shooting Star sings in a softened, higher pitch that even briefly resembles Chris Martin; the vexed lover in Blue sounds twice as old, as Bailey reveals a heretofore unheard huskiness at the bottom of his range. Coupled with the descending piano line, Blue recalls a Bowiesque brand of glam.
And the “whoa” is to Tom Bailey as “yeah” is to Paul Buchanan or “hee” is to Michael Jackson. They appear everywhere, and they are welcome to stay awhile.
Science Fiction’s loaded with upper-echelon Bailey songs, and each has something memorable: the glorious chord switcheroo under Science Fiction’s middle-eight (“I’d like to make you mine, but you’re travelling in time…science fiction” – is that my favourite passage on the record?); the massive klaxon-like guitar swell in What Kind Of World’s later breaks (is this an AmpliTube plug-in, Tom?); Shooting Star’s grinding, upward momentum after the last round of choruses; the sunny ring modulation effect on Feels Like Love To Me’s backing vocals; Blue’s resigned “sleep all day, lie awake all night” reality check (my favourite couplet); Ship Of Fools’ nods to Storm On The Sea’s sway and Alannah Currie’s percussion fills. There’s so much to dig in these tracks, and the work is all play.
If You Need Someone merits special attention, as a delightfully unexpected dive into the zeitgeist from around the dawn of the Thompsons’ recording career. One of the best things about watching old episodes of CHiPs on DVD is listening to Alan Silvestri’s disco-based scores. With its unusually long title sequences, Silvestri was tasked with composing proper song-length themes to run along sun-drenched establishing shots of kids, dames or Ponch ‘n’ Jon rollerskatin’, skydivin’, windsurfin’ or cruisin’. If You Need Someone is that kind of song. It’s also the kind of song Alan Palomo was making at the time of his 2009 debut as Neon Indian (Psychic Chasms), gloriously bent synthpop that sounded like theme music for an early ‘80s Saturday morning kids’ science program. If You Need Someone’s hopscotch skipping melody is among the friendliest puppies Bailey’s ever raised, featuring another obscenely facile transition into chorus, a glorious and obviously necessary (!) walking bassline, a Latin percussion break in case Bobby Orlando’s listening at the console with remix notes, and the breeziest Bailey lead vocal this side of Rock This Boat. The result’s so breezy you wonder whether he’s being disingenuous, because a lot of Fiction’s lyric themes deal with anxiety and uncertainty, although I think this one is simply a balm for wishful souls. I don’t think it’s my favourite song on the record (at least not today; the list changes daily), but it’s the one I wanted to write about the most.
Science Fiction would have made a great follow-up to 1985’s Here’s To Future Days. Stylistically it hews closest to the post-Joe Leeway Twins period of Nothing In Common through the more sedate Queer tracks, fine work which lost a little lustre after Babble’s scorched-earth effect on the catalogue. Fiction thus avoids the big-tent MTV panorama of the Alex Sadkin-Nile Rodgers albums, which have rightfully ascended to iconography even as some of their accoutrements would seem like pastiche were they deployed today. Given its laptop origins, Fiction’s tunes have been buffed up for concerts (tellingly, the first three Fiction songs to graduate to the 2018 setlist have Alice Offley on electric bass for dynamic heft), which begs the question of what Fiction might sound like with a modern-but-simpatico figure like Paul Epworth in the co-producer’s chair (I fantasized about Tony Visconti, briefly considered Mark Ronson, shuddered at Greg Kurstin). One might even wish for an occasional surge of sinister audacity, along the lines of 1991’s The Saint or 1993’s Drive, because that’s sort of where things trailed off 22 years ago. I think that’d be too much ground to cover for this particular survey. In the final analysis, he’s given us a great pop record. It’s anyone’s guess where Tom Bailey heads next, but remember this: the car is always revving in the drive.