Friday, February 27, 2015

'This side of the truth where no sun shines'

Manic Street Preachers - 'Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of Manic Street Preachers' (2002)

What to make of an album of B-sides? What to make of an album of cover versions? Can you tell much about an artist or a band from either? Of course you can; whole careers have been jeopardised on cover albums alone (*cough!DuranDurancough!*), but B-Sides are quite a different kettle of fish.
There exist some bands for whom the B-Side is a serious attraction. If an act is large or popular enough, fans will follow them to the ends of all second-tier 45 fillers, but for the most part, it seems to me the best-regarded B-Sides come from bands who simply haven't treated their non-A-Side works as lesser cast-offs. The Smiths, for example, command a discography in which many Bs and album tracks at east are not so much indistinguishable, but equals, and Oasis, apparently, did the business with their own collection Stop the Clocks (of which I must admit I’ve only heard one B-Side, the highly commendable 'Acquiesce'. On the other hand, from my own collections Blur and Iron Maiden are largely the less on the flip-side, while The Darkness vary depending on how silly they felt on the day of recording. It’s a broad church.

Lipstick Traces, a Secret History of Manic Street Preachers attempts to have a go at both tacks, presenting two discs of B-sides, one entirely original compositions and one entirely cover versions. It’s a lot of songs – long enough to rival National Treasures, and at $6.00 (I think) from our local JB Hi-Fi I definitely felt I was getting more than my money’s worth.

The original songs are pretty well chosen, though omit some fan favourites such as Are Mothers Saints. Nevertheless the spread of singles and years presented here offers as much a potted history of the band as this set’s contemporary best of. Here’s 'Desolation Alley' from the Manics’ very early days, through to the titular 'Forever Delayed' (oddly left off the Best Of that bears its name – I find it more interesting and engaging than 'Door to the River') and This Is My Truth drop-out 'Prologue to History', perhaps the best B-Side of the band in its second generation. Certainly, the first half of this disc is well worth your time, with some great variety of style and composition thrown in.

Highlights are many – the aforementioned tracks of course, plus would-be Judge Dredd track 'Judge Yrself', the Radiohead-esque 'Donkeys' and rabble rouser 'Socialist Serenade'. For the expected Richey tribute track there’s 'Sepia', another sound piece. What comes out of this collection is not so much a secret history as an alternative history of Manic Street Preachers; indicative of the band in its various guises, but arranged in such a way as to keep you guessing what might be around the corner next. Fans would (and did) complain that there’s a lot left off this anthology, and perhaps the missing tracks and remixes will be visited in time by the band or label, but in the mean-time this is tidy, still luxurious in length, and varied enough to not get samey.

And so to the covers. This blog has already nodded in the direction of Manics covers a couple of times (here and here and also here), so we’re traversing familiar territory. But something should be said of the choice of covers here – from the obvious early influences (The Clash’s 'Train in Vain', GnR’s 'It’s So Easy') to the more obscure, like Campervan Beethoven and, yes, Mike Batt/Art Garfunkel. That the likes of Strummer and Slash speak across both discs though cover and pastiche is one thing, but adding the likes of Bacharach and Linden ('Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head') to that list – informing to my ears original B-Sides like the lovely instrumental 'Horses Under Starlight', says to me that these are genuine influences, and not throwaway dress-ups. There’s a bawling enthusiasm in 'Rock and Roll Music', and even 'Can’t Take My Eyes Off You' that would surely beckon audience participation, and may well speak for their origins here as set-fillers . More recently Manics have covered contemporary songs with a straight face, giving their own interpretation to the likes of Rihanna’s 'Umbrella', while on here there’s a similar gravity to an old Robeson standard:

So on reflection it’s an interesting set of cover versions, and in places a strong one. Worthwhile, even.

As mentioned above, there’s easily space for a Lipstick Traces vol 2, though I suspect this will be more in the hands of fans than the group itself, and fair enough. For the most part, such histories are an intimate thing, a matter between artist and enthusiast, and something removed from the initiation of a singles collection. This is a set I visit infrequently, and only once entirely in one sitting, but on pretty much every hearing there’s been a new discovery, and that’s no bad thing at all.

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