Liverpool and Manchester. Two of England’s greatest cities, separated by a mere 35 miles, they have a rivalry that has festered for hundreds of years. The economic rivalry drove both cities to build huge Victorian edifices in their city centres. The football rivalry – the cities are responsible for the two most successful clubs in English football – regularly boils over into rancour with Manchester United fans singing about Hillsborough and Liverpool fans singing about the Munich Air Disaster1.
The musical rivalry, however, has been generally much friendlier. Indeed, Factory Records and Zoo Records used to do joint shows in places like Leigh. The musical heritage both cities have given the world are simply astonishing; with Liverpool generally being the more psychedelic. Since punk they have given us bands as diverse as The Smiths, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Doves, The Teardrop Explodes, 808 State, OMD, The Fall, The Coral, Stone Roses, Lightning Seeds and Happy Mondays. Oh, and Echo and The Bunnymen and New Order.
Which leads me onto the point of this post. Those last two bands have got albums out tomorrow. Well, Echo and the Bunnymen have, and Barney Sumner (with a guest appearance from Steven Morris on many tracks) is back as Bad Lieutenant2. Both bands were hugely influential back in the day, and now have to deal with the fact that so many other bands sound like them. And when so many people sound like them, how can they stand out from the mass? Worse, how can you stop sounding like the bands that you’ve influenced?
This second question strikes you on first listen to both records. With Bad Lieutenant’s “Never Cry Another Tear”, your first thought is “Doves!”; with EATB’s “The Fountain”, it’s “U2!”. Now, this might turn out to be a problem, but thankfully a few listens to each complicates things nicely. With Bad Lieutenant, the Doves-alike singing of Jake Evans tends to distract you from the fact that, on the stronger songs like “Summer Days on Holiday”, a mix of pure-bred Barney guitar-pop and the rather more grandiose Doves is actually a rather tasty one.
“Sail On Silver Water” is a lovely bit of dreamy pop, followed by “Love Vigilantes”, sorry, “Shine Like The Sun”, which does the whole soaring chorus, perfectly written to be played from the main stage at Glastonbury at about 7.55pm just as the sun is setting. “Falling Trees” polishes the album off nicely with the sweet line “We’ll use our love for a shelter”. Barney’s getting all soft on us in his old age.
In Echo’s weird U2 Feedback Loop, you begin to remember just how good they were at doing portentious, dramatic stadium rock without sinking into the over-egged tosh that U2 have a habit of falling into. Opener “Think I Need It Too” sets the scene marvellously, all echoey guitars and droll vocals, and the album keeps up the pace rather nicely. “Drivetime” makes a decent stab for the, errr, drivetime radio market. Nice move, chaps. Ian McCulloch’s voice is a begrizzled drawl, sounding like he’s been hanging out with Mark Lanegan (this is no bad thing, by the way).
There’s a couple of right shockers on both albums. BL’s “Poisonous Intent” is aptly titled, because you want to round everyone up involved in making the song and give them some Kool-Aid, and Echo’s “Life of 1,000 Crimes” seems to refer to the band’s crimes, of which this song counts for at least 476.
With both albums, I was left with a strange feeling of enjoying them rather more than expected, mixed with a sadness that Bad Lieutenant in particular could have done better. Maybe what they should do is meet up with Johnny Marr. After all, this is a guy who has constantly reinvented his style, from playing with The Pretenders to Modest Mouse and The Cribs. Maybe that old dog could teach these old dogs some new tricks.
But the Echo and the Bunnymen album is better. Ian McCulloch has gone on record to say that he thinks this is their best album since “Ocean Rain”. You know what, I think he might be right. Liverpool 1, Manchester 0.
1 You’ll never catch Arsenal fans being so coarse. We just sing songs about facial tics.
2 Funnily enough, EATB did the same thing as “Electrafixion”, back in the late 90’s.