Album review: BIG COUNTRY – Reissues

Big Country - Steeltown

Universal Music [Release dates 03.08.14 and 27.09.14]

Stuart Adamson may have died too soon, but his Big Country legacy seems to be in safe hands, whether it be surviving members continuing to tour under the name and even making a new album last year with the help of Mike Peters, or the reissue of their original material.

After the 30th anniversary deluxe reissue a couple of years ago of The Crossing album that propelled the Dunfermline band to fame, Universal Records now give their next four albums the same treatment. As usual with these re-releases, the main interest for fanatics and collectors is the bonus material, yet this should not be allowed to overshadow the merits of the original main body of work.

This particular trilogy in four parts (?) begins with their sophomore effort Steeltown (1984), which despite being their only UK No 1 album was a controversial album at the time. Much darker than The Crossing, Stuart Adamson was in bleak lyrical mode and in the year of the miner’s strike the likes of the stirring title track reflected his concerns at the human cost of the destruction of our manufacturing base.

However the hooks, even on lead off single East of Eden lack the impact of those on the debut and revisiting the album it fades away with some forgettable songs in the latter half. Nevertheless, it contains two of their finest ever songs, Where The Rose is Sown and Just a Shadow, both with aggressive clashing guitars from Stuart and Bruce Watson and poignant lyrics about the human impact of war and unemployment .

Bonuses include the stand alone hit single Wonderland, which would surely have been too cheery for the album and a series of rough mixes and demos for those that did make it.  *** ½

In contrast The Seer (1986) has a bright, upbeat feel  epitomised by lead off cut Look Away which became their biggest ever hit UK single. Even more than the debut, it has the most celtic feel of all Big Country’s albums.

The likes of the title track, with Kate Bush (natch) proving counterpoint vocals,  and Eiledon, tap into the gaelic folk-influenced world of the likes of Runrig and even Clannad, and more up tempo numbers such as I Walk the Hill (despite a worrying similarity to Slade’s own BC influenced Run Run Away) and One Great Thing take the rhythms of an Irish jig and marry them to rock guitars in the mode of Thin Lizzy or Gary Moore’s material at the time. Probably their most consistently satisfying album.

The bonus material includes the entire soundtrack to the Restless Natives soundtrack, although this gets rather repetitive after a while and is largely instrumental, plus a series of songs that remind us that wretched 1980’s period piece,  the extended 12 inch single, should be condemned to a musical Room 101. **** 1/2

By now celtic contemporaries U2 and Simple Minds had become huge and 1988’s Peace In Our Time was a blatant attempt to break into their stadium rock market, with a rockier image and more spacious sound. It was another controversial move, diluting their trademark sound and dividing their loyal following, although it was on this tour I finally plucked up the courage as a long haired rocker to go and see them.

Peter Wolf’s eighties pop production now sounds very dated and sterile and King of Emotion was a rather telegraphed opener, but the album still has some of Stuart Adamson’s strongest lyrics and songwriting on the likes of Thousand Yard Stare and the title track. River of Hope anticipated the rockier direction they would take in the nineties, and In This Place and I could be Happy Here are great ballads.

This is the album that probably has most for the collector with a whole disc of what are known as the REL sessions from 1987. Although some songs ended up on the album- in some cases lyrics being taken and set to new music- the musical feel is completely different, harking back to a more indie, almost jangly sound, suggesting that they went about a complete volte face within 12 months. ****

Ironically the album was not a commercial success by the standards of their first three and by the time of No Place Like Home (1991), they were beginning to flounder and drummer Mark Brzezecki now only a session musician. By now Stuart Adamson was looking towards America and the subject matter of the first single Republican Party Reptile, American humorist PJ O’Rourke was a rather esoteric one, contributing to it being the first of their albums not to feature a top 40 single.

Musically the trademark sound of the chiming guitars is almost totally absent in a mellow set of songs that see the band dipping into bluegrass and Americana at times. Once again though, the album is not without merit with thought-provoking songs such as The Hostage Speaks. For the second successive album, the passion of their best work is diluted by a flat production.

Once again there is a generous collection of B sides and unreleased material which sees them going in even more diverse musical directions, with Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys even a foray into James Brown style funk.   They also include demos of many songs that made it onto the album, which are significantly rawer, suggesting that it was the production rather than the songs that let down this album.

Indeed two of the best cuts We’re not in Kansas and Ships were re-recorded for the Buffalo Skinners album , but that takes us away from this period that saw Big Country develop and diversify but fall from their peak.  *** 1/2

Review by Andy Nathan


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