Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Big Country

Big Country's problem was the problem a lot of bands have. When they burst on the scene it was with a sound, a musical idea, that was fully formed and dramatically different from anything that anybody had heard before. But when the novelty wore off, it became apparent (to a lot of listeners, anyway) that they didn't have much else to offer.

So, that sound. Obviously, it's the bagpipe thing. Using the e-bow, among other things, to make their guitars sound like bagpipes, and then writing twin-guitar melodies that sounded like they could have been stolen from old Highland hymns. These they laid atop rhythms that conjured up images of bekilted regiments alternately marching and pogoing. The whole announced the band as unabashedly, not to say self-consciously, Scottish in an era when British pop was opening itself up to contributions from border nations. In other words, since Ireland had coughed up U2, it fell to Big Country to represent Scotland, and the Alarm to hold up the Welsh end.

I know the band remained big in Europe more or less through the '90s, but really, it was all over for them after their first couple of years, as far as I can tell. The tricks started to sound old, but when they moved away from them, it became apparent that they didn't have any other musical ideas: everything I've heard from their second album and beyond is either a retread of ideas from their first, or else sub-U2 heartland-rock empty bombast.

But for an album and maybe a half - from 1983 into 1984 - Big Country managed to wring an amazing amount of awesome from their one idea. Everybody knows their two big singles, "In A Big Country" and "Fields Of Fire." But their whole first album, The Crossing, is brilliant - consistently satisfying, despite consisting mainly of different twists on the rock'n'roll fife-and-drum-corps sound. And they managed to survive on the artistic momentum from that album for a little while: a splendidly re-recorded version of "Chance" from the album, a decent non-album single, "Wonderland," and a handful of nice b-sides (including "The Crossing," a belated title track for the first album, and a good farewell to their golden youth) all complement that remarkable debut. Add in a few highlights from the second album, and you have a perfect Big Country disc, all you'd ever need.

Things I love about Big Country, then. When Stuart yells "shock" or "shot" or whatever the hell it is he yells over the intro to the album version of "In A Big Country" (the drum section in our high school marching band used to warm up with this, and of course they all yelled "shock." Us dopey clarinet players lived for that). That pugnacious, anthemic bass couplet at the beginning of "Fields Of Fire," way up on the neck. The crazy buoyancy of "Harvest Home," somehow sounding both old as the hills and new as the sunrise. The brooding, inscrutable "The Storm," which is basically a couple of Walter Scott novels set to Fairport Convention music. Their surprisingly affecting take on "Tracks Of My Tears."

I respect punk. But I think the most interesting music to emerge from the movement came when the punks started to outgrow punk and (re)discover other kinds of music.

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