Reviewed on this page:
U.K. Squeeze - Cool For Cats - Argybargy - Sweets From A Stranger -
Difford & Tilbrook -
Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti - Frank -
Groove Approved -
World Of His Own
Squeeze is a guilty pleasure. Talented and tuneful they may be, but I don't think they have ever made a really innovative album.
The Difford & Tilbrook songwriting team is almost always mired in inoffensive romance themes and mid-tempo pop production values. As a result, most of the tunes just don't stand out; there's always a refrain in there somewhere, but the second it's over you can't remember what it was...
Still, though, a lot of their records are worth listening to, and a couple are downright fun.
They always reach for an elaborate palette of instrumentation and an endless bagful of striking lyrical imagery, and once in a while they deliver a genuinely catchy hook.
Plus lead singer Glenn Tilbrook's ultra-slick, blue-eyed soul tenor really grows on you after a while. Just stay away from the widely-available discs that date from their synth-drenched mid-80s slump.
Along with louder acts like Elvis Costello, the Jam, the Police, and XTC, Squeeze belongs to the British New Wave Class of '77 (okay, so their first album was in 1978). But they never had a definite punk or reggae influence, instead aiming for a blend of Stax-Volt soul and McCartney-esque soft rock that's always easy on the ears. Their band history is one long series of personnel changes, mostly involving keyboard players and bassists (they've had at least three of each).
But with no slowdown in their output and with frontmen Difford and Tilbrook always solidly in control of the songwriting, that seems to have had little to do with their ups and downs on the pop singles charts - their commercial success tailed off after the mid-80s, but since then they've occasionally scored with records like "Hourglass" and "Third Rail."
An interesting sidelight to the Squeeze story is the solo career of fleet-fingered pianist Jools Holland, who cut several eclectic solo albums during the 80s and 90s. Holland's replacement, the smooth-singing Paul Carrack, also had a solo career both before and after his Squeeze tenure, and unlike Holland was a significant commercial success. I have a couple of those records, and I've listed the others that I know about.
I have everything Squeeze ever released on CD other than a live album and a couple of greatest hits packages, but I'm planning to review them slowly, so don't be too taken aback by the glib one-liners I offer in several places.
There's a pretty decent fan-run Jools Holland web site. (JA)
Chris Difford (guitar, vocals), Julian "Jools" Holland (keyboards, vocals), Harry Kakoulli (bass), Gilson Lavis (drums, some backing vocals), Glenn Tilbrook (guitar, lead vocals, some keyboards). Kakoulli replaced by John Hentley (bass, backing vocals), about 1980. Holland replaced by Paul Carrack (keyboards), 1981. Carrack replaced by Don Snow (keyboards, backing vocals), 1982.
Group temporarily disbanded, reformed 1985 with Difford, Holland, Lavis, Tilbrook, and Keith Wilkinson (bass, backing vocals). Holland left by 1991, not replaced at first; Carrack rejoined, Lavis replaced by Pete Thomas (drums), by 1993. Carrack left, Thomas replaced by Kevin Wilkinson, by 1995.
U.K. Squeeze (1978)
With remarkable serendipity, Squeeze got off to a start with a disco novelty song that turned into a moderate hit single: "Take Me I'm Yours," which is driven by a really annoying, robotic synth line that would have been worthy of the Cars.
After cutting another single ("Bang Bang") they were ushered into the studio with legendary producer John Cale and knocked off an album.
The disc shows their true colors as traditional rockers, even if it's impossible to hear any connection with the contemporary punk movement.
They already have their harmony arrangements figured out, but the rhythm section kicks hard, and Tilbrook lays on the most unrestrained guitar solos you'll hear anywhere in their catalog.
So when "Take Me" crops up, it sounds totally out of place.
Unfortunately, the songwriting is thin: there's an instrumental with random overdubbed noises ("Wild Sewerage Tickles Brazil"), tbere's some random jamming on "The Call," and a lot of the tunes run on too long (like Difford's competent ballad spotlight "Strong In Reason") or are lyrically gimmicky ("Model"; Difford's rap on "Hesitation (Rool Brittania)").
There's also not a lot of variety, outside of "Take Me" and one loud electric blues ("First Thing Wrong"), but at least it's energetic: "Sex Master" and "Get Smart" have some genuine boogie woogie energy, "Out Of Control" and "Remember What" are respectable Elvis Costello-style head-bangers, and "Bang Bang" has a demented chorus and an interesting, foot-stomping beat.
Not an essential record even for fans, but a respectable debut. (JA)
Cool For Cats (1979)
Their commercial break-through album, with two singles that each climbed to #2 on the British charts: "Up The Junction" and the title track.
The band's sound is much more fleshed out, and the production is more deliberate and refined.
Unfortunately, none of that is a recommendation.
"Cool For Cats" is just another gimmick tune, this one delivering a really irritating white-boy disco beat and a jokey Cockney rap by Difford that only an Anglophile could find interesting.
"Up The Junction" is better, a 50's sock hop-style ballad with a pretty keyboard hook and some witty word play.
Elsewhere there's yet more dumb, mechanical disco ("Slap & Tickle"), another foolish Difford joke tune ("It's Not Cricket," with tons of synth voicings and a melodic tag that won't go away), an interesting synth ballad ("Goodbye Girl"), and a bunch of sporadically enjoyable Costello-style rock songs ("Touching Me, Touching You"; "It's So Dirty"; "Hard To Find"; "Slightly Drunk").
They're obviously trying really hard, but it just doesn't add up to much.
The key problems are the surfeit of lead vocals by Difford ("The Knack"), and the endless layers of up-to-date sounding, but distracting synth lines.
They mostly avoided the first mistake on all their later records, but not the second.
As always everything's dominated by Difford and Tilbrook, but Holland does get in a spotlight number that hints at the boogie-woogie jazz he later obsessed with ("Hop Skip & Jump").
Co-produced by the band and John Wood. (JA)
Third time's the charm, I guess.
With the 70s over, Squeeze finally figured out a sound that wasn't just commercial, but tasteful and sophisticated.
The record starts out with two of their best A-sides: "Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)," a memorable soul ballad, and "Another Nail In My Heart," a comparatively up-tempo number with an interesting marimba part and a smooth 50's-style dance beat.
Amazingly, neither of them were major hits.
But the rest is just as solid. New bassist John Bentley has the subtle, swooping melodicism of a Bruce Thomas (he's brilliant on the MG's-inspired "There At The Top"); Holland's contribution is a peppy, nicely done 50's dance number ("Wrong Side Of The Moon"); nerdy synth noises are kept to a minimum; and there are inspired hooks and unexpected transitions everywhere.
"If I Didn't Love You" is easily as strong as the two singles; great vocal, great slide guitar solo, and the chorus' jerky rhythm is like a Cars riff gone right.
The rest is mostly pop music like "Separate Beds" that has the dynamic, layered production you'd expect from a mid-70s Elton John or Paul McCartney record.
And although everything is exactingly performed and nothing hurts your ears, the up-tempo numbers like "Misadventure" and "Farfisa Beat" are still plenty exciting.
The only annoyances are a relative lack of stylistic variety, and Difford's croaking, Bill Wyman-like lead vocals on the gimmicky "Here Comes That Feeling" and "I Think I'm Go Go."
Del Newman contributed some subtle string arrangements; John Wood co-produced again. (JA)
Jools Holland And His Millionaires (Holland: 1981)
His first solo album, although he'd released an EP with a bunch of boogie-woogie tunes in 1978. (JA)
East Side Story (1981)
The soul masterpiece "Tempted" is here, along with the British hit "Labelled With Love," which got them back in the Top 10.
Produced by Elvis Costello, who adds backing vocals to a couple of tracks (including "Tempted") and coaxes out what might be their best effort. (JA)
Sweets From A Stranger (1982)
This is another tastefully produced pop album in the style of the last two, but with Carrack replaced by the faceless Don Snow, it hints at problems to come.
The single "Black Coffee In Bed" didn't even crack the British Top 40, even though it's quite memorable, with the same crafty doo wop vocals and snappy pop production that made "Tempted" such a success.
Elsewhere the band just doesn't have much energy.
Several tunes are plodding and full of odd little harmonic experiments, clever but depressing ("The Elephant Ride").
When they go with a 40's style, string-sweetened jazz number, it's downright sleepy ("When The Hangover Strikes").
Still, though, the complexly orchestrated "Tongue Like A Knife" works well, with a clever snippet of "My Favorite Things" on the fade - it's much like later efforts by XTC.
Also on the up side, "Points Of View" and "His House Her Home" both sound like Costello's up-tempo, Beatles-inspired ballads, and if I'm not mistaken they both have fine lead vocals by Difford; and "I Can't Hold On" and "I've Returned" effectively steal Costello's over-driven rock formula, with lively bass lines and complex song structures.
A respectable follow-up to the last record, but I don't think it will win too many new fans.
Co-produced by Phil McDonald. (JA)
Suburban Voodoo (Carrack: 1982)
Carrack's debut album. By now he'd not only joined and left Squeeze, but way back in 1974 scored a fluke hit single ("How Long") with a band called Ace.
I have a copy of this one and I think it's okay, nothing special but as good or better than contemporary Difford-Tilbrook efforts.
Features the marginal Top 40 hit "I Need You." (JA)
Singles - 45's And Under (1982)
We don't review greatest hits packages, but I'm listing this one because it was their first gold album and included a new single of some note: "Annie Get Your Gun," whose fierce dynamics give it genuine emotional power. (JA)
Difford & Tilbrook (1984)
At this point Difford and Tilbrook foolishly decided that if they couldn't retain certain band members, they might just as well strike out as a new act on their own.
And strike out they did.
Hardly anything here is memorable: the few up-tempo numbers are more of the same soul/synth disco blend ("Wagon Train"); "Action Speaks Faster" is the best try, but it drags at five minutes.
Several tunes, including the single "Love's Crashing Waves," go over even farther to pure disco; at best, they're like Paul McCartney trying to imitate the Bee Gees ("Picking Up The Pieces").
There are a couple of prettily harmonized love songs ("You Can't Hurt The Girl"; "Tears For Attention"), one Costello-ish foot-tapper ("Man For All Seasons"), and one fascinatingly creepy, "'Til I Die"-like experiment ("The Apple Tree").
But everything else is drab, tedious pop, ruined by Tony Visconti's excessive production even when there are good musical ideas kicking around ("Hope Fell Down").
Another example of the excessive reliance on studio gimmickry and synthesizer effects that marred much of their 80s work. Keith Wilkinson shows up here on bass; there's also Andy Duncan (drums), Guy Fletcher (keyboards), and Debbie Bishop (backing vocals). (JA)
Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti (1985)
Wising up to the fact that "Squeeze" was a cash cow, Difford and Tilbrook reunited the band but continued with the same formula of elaborate overproduction.
Every tune crawls for at least four minutes (well, one is only 3:48), burdened by synth keyboard, echoey synth percussion, and distracting sound effect tracks.
Almost nothing works, from vague reggae influences ("By Your Side") to oozing pop-disco beats ("No Place Like Home").
When they hit on a halfway decent melody, they drown it with, say, gimmicky percussion and opressive pseudo-gospel harmonies ("I Learnt How To Pray").
In this company, practically the best moments are vocal spotlights by Difford ("Break My Heart," with a fat, leaden beat) and Holland (the trite, disco-y "Heartbreaking World," co-authored by Difford and featuring a wah-wah'ed guitar solo and peppy strings).
Incredibly, "Last Time Forever" was the single; a near-flop, it's a bland, deadening six-minute ballad with sequenced synth, a jazzy piano break, and nerdy voiceovers. But the energetic "Hits Of The Year" is a million times better, with a skittery hard rock lead guitar, funky bass line, and halfway-bearable synth windowdressing.
And at least the record is interestingly experimental: Wilkinson's throbbing bass lines ("Big Beng") and the varied instrumentation recall better, contemporary records by XTC (the jokey ska experiment "I Won't Ever Go Drinking Again (?)").
Still, the not-so-low points don't even lift this disc to the low level of the last one.
Produced by Laurie Latham. (JA)
Babylon And On (1987)
"Hourglass" became one of their most successful singles in years; "Trust Me To Open My Mouth" is also on the album, and it kicks butt all over the place, with a great harmony arrangement and a compelling bass line.
Co-produced by Tilbrook and Eric Thorngren. (JA)
One Good Reason (Carrack: 1987)
Got this one recently. Produced by Christopher Neal, with a band including Tim Renwick (guitar) and Peter Van Hooke (drums), with no bassist; "When You Walk In The Room" was the single. (JA)
With the 80s finally coming to a well-deserved end, the band suddenly showed signs of life with an unpretentious, classily produced album that's packed with quality tunes and comes off as a true group effort.
Mysteriously, the new record's singles completely bombed, as did the next one's.
But practically everything works, with crisp but complex arrangements, significant stylistic variety, and a genuine sense of humor - pretty much an East Side Story II.
Several tunes are among their best ever: "Peyton Place" has great dynamics and a riveting chorus, the twisting rockers "Rose I Said" and "(This Could Be) The Last Time" are excellent examples of the group's debt to Elvis Costello and the early Beatles, and "If It's Love" and the mesmerizingly harmonized "Love Circles" (hey, that's Difford in the lead) sound like Paul McCartney at his best.
Wilkinson's ferociously melodic, Tilbrook's guitar parts are a tour de force, and, like everyone, Holland sounds like he's having the party of his life.
His boogie-woogie jazz tribute is endearingly odd ("Dr. Jazz"), and he's memorable on another of Difford's spotlights (the smooth, 40's small-combo jazz number "Slaughtered, Gutted And Heartbroken").
Even the few formulaic blue-eyed soul love songs ("She Doesn't Have To Shave"; "Can Of Worms") and good-natured musical sendups (country-western on "Melody Motel"; manic rockabilly on "It's Too Late") are so well-performed they're gems.
None of this pushes the band's limits, but such a minor shortcoming won't spoil your enjoyment in the slightest.
Co-produced by Eric "E.T." Thorngren, the engineer. Matt Irving adds a couple accordion parts and there's a trio of singers on "If It's Love." (JA)
Groove Approved (Carrack: 1989)
An ultra-slick, synth-heavy pop record that somehow rises above its own smarminess with catchy songwriting and convincing vocals.
Carrack's vocals and blue-eyed synth-soul formula add up to a shockingly accurate Steve Winwood imitation, with five-minute love songs that use so much synth they almost conceal their generic blues, gospel, and R & B underpinnings (the Motown-like "Battlefield" and "Loveless").
He's so egoless that he brings in co-authors on almost every tune: mostly either Nick Lowe or co-producer/bassist Tom "T-Bone" Wolk, but also Difford, ex-Doobie Brother Michael McDonald, and even John Wesley Harding (oddly, other than Wolk none of them play anything).
That keeps things consistently fresh, so much so that the major embarassments are also the few departures from the genre: Harding's repetitive, hillbilly-flavored singalong "Bad News (At The Best Of Times)," and Lowe's insincere, sax-augmented funk-blues number "I'm On Your Tail."
Elsewhere Carrack's vocals soar on a slew of funky slow-dance tunes ("Only My Heart Can Tell"; "I Live By The Groove"; Difford's "After The Love Is Gone"; "Tip Of My Tongue"), plus a precisely rendered confessional ballad ("Dedicated").
Some of the material is so oily, airheaded, and "uplifting" it just doesn't fly (McDonald's "Love Can Break Your Heart"), but big-budget pop product doesn't get much better.
The drummer is Jimmy Bralower; the numerous guests include guitarist Robbie McIntosh, percussionist Sammy Figueroa, and singers Bernie Fowler and Darryl Hall.
The same year Carrack released the single "Don't Shed A Tear," but it's not on the album. (JA)
A Round And A Bout (1990)
This is the inevitable live record. Haven't found it yet but I'll keep looking. (JA)
World Of His Own (Holland: 1990)
At this point Holland started to drift from the band, first cutting a very well-crafted and diverse self-produced solo album.
Wilkinson and Lavis are the rhythm section, and both Difford and Tilbrook show up a few times, with Difford singing and playing on the extremely Squeeze-esque, ecstatic Holland-Difford pop tune "We're Through."
Holland's energy and cheer are contagious, his playing is impressive, and he carries the vocal numbers well: Allan Toussaint's burbling "Holy Cow" sounds like a synthed-out version of the Band at its funkiest; his big-band blues take on "In The Heat Of The Night" has a sprightly string arrangement; and his slowly-building pop/gospel epic "Architectural Number" (with Tilbrook on backing vocals) would have fit in well on a Squeeze record.
There's also an ambitious, nearly solo classical piece that makes interesting use of synth ("Thursday").
Elsewhere, though, Holland overindulges his interests in boogie-woogie and swing: the Cab Calloway-like "Biggy Wiggy" gets repeated as an instrumental, there's a super-slick torch song (Percy Mayfield's "Danger Zone"), and there's not one but two flat-out 40s revival dance numbers ("Grand Hotel," written with Sting; "The Maiden's Lament," with some furious stride piano).
Mostly that's harmless, but Squeeze fans might be turned off by all of the moldy nostalgia (the instrumental "Honey Dripper").
The old-timey horn arrangements are by Gary Barnacle, and there are numerous bit players. (JA)
Producer Tony Berg has the band retreat to its soporific mid-80s synth-heavy sound, and with the raw song material being weaker than usual, the result is a disappointment.
Worse still, Difford and Tilbrook tried to tie the songs together as a tepid concept album, which only serves to confuse matters.
Even the best songs ("The Truth") just sink under the band's lack of energy and Berg's lack of taste.
With Holland out of the picture, keyboards are filled in by several people, including Berg, Matt Irving, and Steve Nieve. Bruce Hornsby shows up playing accordion (!), and Jerry Hey leads a horn section; there's also a string section. (JA)
The A-Z Geographer's Guide To The Piano (Holland: 1992)
Not nearly as serious as it sounds, this is a more heavily instrumental record than World Of His Own, without as much Squeeze involvement. (JA)
Some Fantastic Place (1993)
The last record was so weak you'd think the band had run out of steam, but actually this one is pretty solid.
For starters, they return to the stylistic variety that made Frank work; there's a flat-out country tune, and Keith Wilkinson's surprise vocal spotlight turns out to be a reggae sendup.
"Third Rail" was a middling hit single, their first to crack the British Top 40 in years; the title track also was a single.
Pete Thomas appears on drums, and Paul Carrack returns on keyboards and also gets in a lead vocal .
The record's oddest aspect is Difford's near-absence; he doesn't play a note on several tracks and he takes none of the lead vocals, although he's audible enough as a backing vocalist that you won't notice.
Co-produced by Pete Smith. (JA)
Another respectable effort, although it's not as lively as the last album.
By now the band was trying to ride the crest of 90s nostalgia for the 60s, so the record is jammed with distorted guitars, fat bass lines, plodding electric organ lines, and echoey drums.
They get totally carried away with shameless Baby Boomer pandering on the record's one obvious potential hit ("Electric Trains"), a relatively upbeat effort with an enthusiastic beat and groovy string and backing vocal arrangements.
Elsewhere, there's not a lot to brag about.
"Great Escape" has a funky chorus worthy of Midnight Oil; Tilbrook's duet with Cathy Dennis on the very mellow love song "Temptation For Love" sounds much like early 70s Stevie Wonder.
There are a couple of interesting experiments: "Long Face" is a moody, thoroughly modernized electronic dance number with a breathless, distorted Chris Difford lead vocal; "I Want You" gets a big bombastic string arrangement; "Daphne" has a warped country-western vibe that's a little amusing.
"Grouch Of The Day" is a moderately successful attempt at emulating Revolver's bouncy, reverby 12-string sound.
By now the lineup had changed yet again, with only Difford, Tilbrook, and Wilkinson remaining and Tilbrook handling almost all the keyboards; they're joined by drummer Kevin Wilkinson.
Paul Carrack sings as a guest on one track.
Co-produced by Tilbrook and Peter Smith. (JA)
Trust me to open my mouth.