05. Marillion (part two of two)


Clutching at Straws (1987)

Last time, we heard Marillion's Misplaced Childhood (1985), and we were not impressed.  This time we continue with part two of our efforts to like this band.  This album title - Clutching at Straws - is so ripe for roasting.  Certainly the band must have been thinking about their own shortcomings when they selected it.  Most of the song titles leave themselves wide open for abuse too.  Whether I end up liking these songs or not, I'm gonna roast every song title before the music even starts.  

As always, I did no research into his record before listening.  I just played it and let my immediate impressions flow in real-time.  The only editing to my comments was for spelling and clarity.

"Hotel Hobbies"
Is this about a guy in a Motel Six with five fingers wrapped around his four-incher at three in the morning?  The noodley bass and ambient guitar intro give that impression.  The vibraphone is fun.  But like the synth marimba in the song "Waterhole" on the previous album, it's too repetitive.  At least the fake marimba in a reasonable place in the mix (unlike the one in "Waterhole").  Ok, the song launches, and the mix on this one is already a bit better than anything on Misplaced Childhood.  That's something.  From the get-go, the band sound better here than they did on Misplaced Childhood.  That said, when the song kicks into gear the arrangements are still kind of murky.  The players are all getting in each other's way.

"Warm Wet Circles"
Speaking of hotel hobbies, this song is probably about coffee stains or something, but honestly my first thought was that it's about a mess in the bed from the Motel Six guy.  Not sure if that says more about me or about Marillion's lyricist.  Or the proclivities of the average Marillion fan.  As was the case on their previous album, the songs are blending together.  In more ways than one.  This song picks up from the last one.  Are we into another suite thing here?  This is 1987.  Aren't we a decade past the expiration date for this sort of thing?  Well like your old expired aspirin, you can still consume the stuff without danger, but it just loses potency.  No, maybe listening to Marillion is dangerous.  The jury is still out.  OK, the song: better drumming for sure.  The lyrics are still trite but trying to be deep.  They're trying to express a certain melancholy, but they're just mawkish.  Oh, the "circle" is a kiss "like a mother's kiss on your first broken heart".  Gag.  Song picks up a bit toward the end.  Vocalist lets loose a little.  He sounds ok here.  Well, he sounds a bit like a constipated Phil Collins.  But that's actually an improvement for him.

"That Time of the Night (The Short Straw)"
Short straw?  How about a short song.  That would improve it.  Shorter the better.  That time of the night when the Marillion record is over.  Hell yeah.  But there's like another half hour of this record yet.  Y'know I've only heard this guitarist chug out power chords a few times (and that was on the previous record).  He's more into melodic stuff, with some slides and delays and stuff.  Its nice (in theory) that he isn't just a riffin' rawk god.  But the number of memorable things I've heard from him so far is pretty small.  He makes nice wallpaper.  Also, I have still yet to hear any Marillion song with a good memorable hook.  Sometimes they bump the dynamics up or down a bit to give contrast to various sections, but there isn't one moment of their music that has stuck with me yet.  It's like MOR with arty aspirations, but no one remembered to bring the art.  It just rambles on from one half-baked song to the next, using the suite format to disguise the fact that none of the songs are fully-formed creations. "How do we end the song?  I don't know... ah, fuck it, let's just segue right into the next!"  The end of this one does have some nice moments though, with flanged guitar and a sort of breathy female vocal.  See, when there's a nice feel to the outro of a song - and that's all that stands out to me - there's a big big problem with the songwriting.

"Going Under"
Oh, how I wish I were listening to the Devo song with the same title right now.  There was a pause after the previous song before this one kicked in.  They broke up the side one suite!  Tense dark intro that seems to be wanting to go somewhere.  Maybe this is gonna be progress?  No, the short song just does the same thing for 2:48.  It never evolves.  It's almost an interesting mood piece they've made here, but it stagnates and then fades.  Another unfinished idea.

"Just for the Record"
I wish this song wasn't for any record.  No, wait, stop the presses, oh wow, these guys are grooving a little.  I didn't think they were allowed to do that.  The old drummer had no clue, and even with the new drummer it took until song #5 on this album to make it seem like these guys were playing together in a room instead of (probably) layering their tracks one person at a time in the studio.  This tune is a mid-tempo thing with a chorus that drops to a quieter dynamic than the verse, which can be a nice switch-up.  There's a little synth lick that goes into a bridge then a nice solo.  The keyboard player needed to have been doing more of this on the last record instead of just playing pads which were turned up to eleven and drowning everyone else out.  This piece feels a bit more like a complete song instead of a bunch of fragments strung together in a futile effort to be arty.  I don't love it but it's the best they've done so far.

"White Russian"
A white Russian is a lousy cocktail.  I don't care if "The Dude" Lebowski drinks them.  I mean, that character is supposed to be a loser and he drinks a loser cocktail.  It's a crappy drink.  And this song?  "Where do we go from here" is repeated a bunch of times in the intro.  Well, please go anywhere I am not, dude.  This song gets a little tense, singing of "Uzis on a street corner".  Singer sounds a little angry.  Not used to hearing that from him.  He normally sounds more... asleep.  "The more I see, the more I hear, the more I find fewer answers".  These lyrics.  Like a 15 year old wrote them.  Or maybe: they're for a 15 year old.  I guess I'll give them the benefit of the doubt there.  But "the more I find fewer answers"; that's just horrible writing.  It reads like some kind of bad double-negative reality inversion.  There are a couple of odd time signatures here.  They've done that a bit in other places, but it seems to be relevant to the song in this one, they're not just doing it to do it.  The last two minutes of this 6m 28s song are just boring.  They're supposed to be wide-screen and technicolor, but I was just waiting for any band member to do anything that didn't sound like the song was the result of some A.I. algorithm programed to spew out classic rock tracks ad nauseam.

That was that status of the band's efforts to fire their first drummer, but he wouldn't get the message.  This one begins with chimey arpeggios.  Oh, listen to this: fast synth arpeggios, and a driving groove.  Yeah, this drummer is way better than the old one.  The chorus is just the singer guy repeating the title a bunch of times.  Barely even singing it.  Almost speaking.  Low effort, melodically.  Oh, and there's our guitarist's power chords, but way in the background.  Well this song's got some spunk anyway.  Another adequate synth solo.  Interesting arrangement change-up on the next chorus, and then into a new bridge/outro.  This song is not great, but it proves that at least they can write a competent song when they want to get away from aimless meandering for a while.

"Torch Song"
Someone should torch this song.  Ambient guitar arpeggios and the sound of someone popping a champagne cork.  Mid tempo ballad.  Breaks down into ambience with people's voices discussing someone who met a young end.  Then the big reverberant power ballad drums.  Another song showing a real lack of inspiration.  And no melody.  Maybe that's this band's problem.  Their melodic sense is pretty stunted.

"Slainte Mhath"
This one links into the previous one.  Another suite to take us out of side two?  No, it's just that they have songs that go nowhere, so they have to link them up to make them seem like something other than fragments.  Picked guitar with delays give it a very contemporary sound.  More bland and uninspired MOR.  Completely unmemorable.

"Sugar Mice"
I'd rather eat mice without sugar than hear more of this band.  No suite here.  There was just the two connected songs on this side of the record.  But this song still sounds and feels just like the last one.  Who listens to this band?  Yeah, this singer has no sense of melody.  Ambient quiet vocals and keys, and then the requisite big drums and soaring guitar solo comes in exactly where you'd expect.  This shit is tedious.

"The Last Straw"
This song is appropriately titled.  I can't deal with this any more.  This is just a bit of mid-tempo filler.  If this song had never existed, no one would miss it.  Come on Marillion, surprise me.  You've got less than three minutes left in this 5m 29s song.  It's the last one on the record.  Do something surprising.  Please.  Go for it.  Now.  I'm waiting.  Yes, whenever you're ready.  Ah, big drums and guitar solo come crashing in.  Again.  That's not surprising.  Nothing could be less surprising.  I mean, I asked nicely.  Just one surprising moment.  That's all I wanted from you.  Back to a mellow verse.  Zzzzz..... Oh, here we go: a black lady all of a sudden shows up on backing vocals.  At the end of the last song on the album.  With like 90 seconds left.  Where the fuck did she come from?  Well, I guess that counts as a surprise, sort of like a D student getting a B- on a quiz but still failing the course.  And that's it.  This record is a wrap.  

I fucking hate this band. 

Selection for the IFHTB mix tape: Seriously? Fuck you.
Ok, fine.  "Just for the Record".

But wait, we're gonna torture ourselves with just a little more.

Brave (1994)

This is supposedly the best of their later records.
But I just couldn't.  Really.  I'm not that brave.  Life is too short to listen to three Marillion albums. It made me kind of tense and unhappy to even consider it.


Friends (2007)

This record was recorded live and consists of sixteen cover versions.  I listened to five songs that I thought would be amusing:

"Six Months in a Leaky Boat" (Split Enz)
The original version of this song is a favorite of mine.  It's ostensibly about a bad relationship, but the maritime metaphors work on a surface level too.  It has become a theme song for my global explorations (I've traveled a lot).  Marillion give us a pretty straightforward cover, fairly close to the original.  It's a little loose.  Maybe they didn't rehearse it a lot.  The vocals are all over the place.  Seriously, give this guy a real melody to sing and he can't handle it.  He's struggling on a few lines.  But it shows you what power a great song has.  The song has still got a lot of its spirit, even in Marillion's questionable hands.

"Good Morning, Good Morning" (Beatles)
Gotta hear what these fellas will do with a Beatles song.
Interesting choice.  Is this anyone's fave Beatles song?  The keyboard horns sound cheesy as hell.  Marillion sounds like a garage band here.  Really different from the two albums I suffered though.  Like a bunch of reasonably competent middle aged dads just having a laugh.  But they're putting some energy into this anyway.  Sounds like they're on a pretty small stage, and actually having fun.

"Accidents Will Happen" (Elvis Costello)
Another fairly straightforward cover, played a bit loosely.  These guys are really pointing out deficiencies in their songwriting by covering these songs.  Marillion playing casual off-the-cuff covers live are sounding better than Marillion on polished records.  Why?  The material is better.

"Toxic" (Britney Spears)
Thought it would be amusing to see how they translated this.
Well, most of the songs they're covering are better than their own.  And this one, of course, is not as straight a cover.  The other three were arranged pretty close to how the original records sounded.  This one is played with a more rock arrangement.  This was wise; these lads would have just sounded wrong if they tried to do Britney's original synth-pop arrangement.  The performances are not as spirited as they were on the first three songs, although they build up the energy toward the end.  But the track is at least 90 seconds longer than any of the others, and wears out its welcome eventually.

"Blackberry Way" (The Move)
Pre-Jeff Lynne material from Lynne's pre-E.L.O. band.
This is The Move's answer to The Beatles's "Penny Lane".  Marillion do another competent straightforward cover.  This song was performed late in the concert and the band are tightening up a bit.  I'll be damned if Marillion don't inject a little more energy into this one than The Move did.  Well, this is a high point, they actually sound pretty good here, so it's a good place to permanently leave behind all desire to listen to this band. 

Next: Fleetwood Mac, part one (of two) coming July 01, 2021

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