Jeopardy (1980) ****1/2
Quite nearly a five-star LP, and upon initial listen there are no qualms about it, but after a while I get the sense that something vital is missing. It's not so much that the Sound aren't breaking any new ground, coming a mite bit too late to seminate as pioneers of angsty post-punk - it really seems churlish to fault a band that if they'd released their debut a mere year earlier would be on the cutting edge; they have their own distinct personality and identity, and that's what matters, not inventing new spokes on the wheel. Heavily influenced by Joy Division and Magazine, the Sound actually come closest in spirit and vision to another post-punky band that released their debut that year: this comes across at points like an early, English U2 with keyboards. In terms of musical complexity, lyrics, taste, and overall sound they beat those Dubliners on all counts, but I'd still rank Boy higher as Bono and cohorts seemed to have a soaringly driving sonic passion that thrust early U2 songs into rapturously intense overdrive. Not that the Sound do not possess in spades all of the above ingredients - passion, drive, intensity - just not in such concentrated dose; perhaps that's the difference between Irish flamboyance and tasteful English reticence. No, when you get down to it, the subtle flaw is that like their forebears the Jam the Sound have mild problem with the memorable hook: these songs sound like small songs written large, rather simple melodic and structural compositions puffed into grandiosity. Not that that's a bad thing. Like all four of the bands I've mentioned as influences so far in this review (and I'll quit the namedropping now), the Sound also seem to entirely lack a sense of humor. Not a fatal lack, of course; and besides, who cares? Humor is ridiculously overrated in music, and not just that most musicians aren't funny - when's the last time you listened to a novelty record more than twice?
But they do have a near-perfect sound (hard to avoid unintentional puns with a name like the Sound, so I won't even try). As the frontman, Adrian Borland's vocals mark themselves as the strongest presence, with his brooding baritone yelp situating the precise mid-point between Bono's tenor and Ian Curtis' low register. The other musicians don't so much stand out as aquit themselves well; they play to serve the songs, not flash around, which isn't to say there aren't plenty of delectable moments of rock musicianship on display, such as the squalling clipped guitar and thudding drum/bass clipped stop-start rhythm on the opener, "I Can't Escape Myself." The ingenious stuttering hook isn't immediately apparent, as the atmospherics overshadow, but after a few listens it sinks in as the stuttering and pent-up explosions make the song one big hook. The Sound weren't above frontloading their album with their strongest material, and "Heartland," with its soaring keyboard drive, is the most immediately grabbing track, if ultimately more insubstantial than "I Can't Escape Myself." From there on we encounter an extremely consistent dose of eleven tracks, all of which have something to recommend them; even the weaker cuts ("Words Fail Me," "Night Versus Day,") are strong - not a bum track in the bunch. Their turn of the '80s sound, which effortlessly combines rock dynamics with forward-looking techno sheen, goes down easy; this must have been what the future of rock sounded like to most people back in the New Wave day. I can't really imagine many people not enjoying this kind of music, unless you have an allergic reaction to the intense Ingmar Bergman-esque melodrama of young adulthood. With one exception (the crackling Midnight Oil style poli-sci rocker, "Missiles," which burns with the patented build-slowly-and-explode tension beloved by melodramatics), the lyrics are Joy Division lite: Borland (who eventually took his own life, but much later - in 1999, after two decades of failure in the music biz, so that doesn't concern the youthful Adrian of 1980) is certainly an angsty young man, but his problems, while weighty and ponderous, don't seem to overwhelm him into utter despair. This music hardly ever approaches goth: melancholy not darkness, exemplified on "Unwritten Law," a moody, mid-tempo synth-ballad that contains a mildly haunting melody that's the loveliest on the record.