It all begins with a song.
Not just this album, but an unlikely, sporadic musical relationship that has a number of truly special tracks to its credit. It's a song that has never sounded better than it does in this newly remastered incarnation, but which has never sounded less than excellent, whether played on a high-end stereo system or belting out of a tired portable radio. It's a song indebted to motown and the soaring string arrangements of The Walker Brothers. It's a song whose vocal melody was inspired by Judy Garland. It is one of the most gloriously upbeat, unashamedly joyous pieces of music ever committed to tape. A top ten hit at a time when a top ten hit still meant something but still, perhaps, not regarded quite as highly as it should be, 'Yes' announced the coming together of emerging solo artist David McAlmont and Bernard Butler, who had recently departed Suede in less than jovial circumstances.
Several weeks of sessions produced the songs that make up 'The Sound Of McAlmont & Butler', with only a couple of singles the original intention. Indeed, had that collaboration not occurred at the height of the Nineties obsession with multi-format releases, they may never have generated enough music to make this record possible. The two key tracks, 'Yes' and 'You Do', were released separately, each backed up by four additional songs. Along with the otherwise unreleased 'The Right Thing', they were subsequently realigned to form this compilation album. All of which makes a multi-disc 20th anniversary edition initially seem a rather odd decision.
However, there is a curious coherence to this set and, while nothing quite matches the majesty of its opening track, the quality is consistent. Achingly soulful laments like 'Although' and 'Tonight' perfectly demonstrate the very conscious decision to try and avoid an obvious indie sound, the former doffing its cap towards Bacharach and concluding with a gloriously chiming guitar part, while the latter is McAlmont's attempt at telling Butler's story. 'Don't Call It Soul', meanwhile, is a tribute to Marvin Gaye, hammered home by the lyric "I have to tell you what's been going on."
The slinky groove at the heart of 'What's The Excuse This Time?' has always been a delight and an additional new 2015 remix ramps up the rhythm section to fine effect. At the other end of the spectrum is a heart-meltingly delicate reading of Barbara Lynn's 'You'll Lose A Good Thing'. It is one of several songs which highlight the pair's ability to cover a lot of musical ground. The shimmering acoustic guitar swirl of 'How About You?' was significantly polished for the album from the rather raw version that initially appeared as a B-side, although the listener can make their own comparisons as the original is also included.
As well as two discs of music, plus further vinyl pleasures and a luxurious hardback book if you plump for the deluxe box set edition, an accompanying DVD does a fine job of tying together relevant footage, including three Top Of The Pops performances and two tracks recorded for Later. A spritely and raucous reading of 'Yes' captures Butler clearly lost in the music, with gangly leg kicks and emphatic thrusts only serving to underline the potency of the song. A trio of recently recorded acoustic efforts foreground McAlmont's utterly beguiling voice, but the true highlight is a lengthy reminiscence around a friend's dining table.
It almost feels like eavesdropping as the camera captures an intimate natter between the pair where each reveals details about the album's creation that neither had known in the twenty years since they had made it. Butler nonchalantly reveals that 'Yes' and 'You Do' were "two sides of the same coin," with identical chords in their choruses even though the former is rendered rather more rapidly than the latter. Such gaps in their collective knowledge capture the intermittent nature of their relationship. The first period of collaboration was already over before 'The Sound Of...' came out, while they eventually reconvened in the early-Noughties for another fine record, 'Bring It Back'. More than a decade later, several charity gigs brought about a return and a short UK tour will follow this reissue. Neither needs the other, but together they create something truly special. There is clear warmth between them, but palpable distance also.
There are those who will question the need for such an expansive retrospective for what was simply a compilation to tidy up loose ends but, whatever its origins, this album stands up twenty years on. The demos for both key tracks offer fascinating insights into the songwriting process. 'Yes' was seemingly born fully-formed and ready for Mike Hedges to give it the production it needed to truly soar, with the included full instrumental version allowing for the full spine-tingling sonic experience. 'You Do', meanwhile, evolves from a rough but beautiful start to the elongated delight it was to become via a demo take and an alternative mix.
A contemporary remix of 'Yes' by Butler and Nigel Godrich is presumably included for the sake of completism rather than enjoyment, but it is the only truly duff note on this set. The additional material will fascinate fans of the original release and the genuinely noticeable improvement in sonics brought about by Butler's remaster will ensure 'The Sound Of' casts a grand impression on those new to the party.
Words: Gareth James
- - -
- - -