Impermissible Ideas

Breathless: Chasing Promises

(It may seem odd, frivolous, or foolish to be writing about an old pop album while the nation is coming apart mentally and perhaps in the not-too-distant future physically. But nothing I write will change that.)

I can't remember for sure, but I think "Moment to Moment" from this album may have been an eMusic freebie several years ago, before eMusic withered to its present condition. What I do know for sure is that I had it in a playlist of eMusic stuff that I hadn't really listened to, and which I played more or less in the background while working (on software stuff, not writing). 

The plaintive closing refrain, if you want to call it that, kept catching my ear: "Are you laughing now?" I guess it was enough to cause me to get the rest of the album. Whatever. In any case, a month or two back I gave the whole album an attentive listen, and then several more. And although "Moment to Moment" remains my favorite song, I like the rest of the album a lot, too.

I don't know how you'd classify it. It was released in 1989, and has something in common with other good music of the time. AllMusic uses terms like "dreamy" and "passionate": fair enough, but if you know the music released by the 4AD label back then, it may be enough to say that it would have fit in well there (though in fact it was on a small label that did not survive for very long). 

The 4AD connection is not just in my mind. I kept thinking that the singer's voice was familiar, and it finally dawned on me that he, Dominic Appleton, is one of a number of guests who contributed to This Mortal Coil's Filigree and Shadow. I used to really love that rich, moody, dramatic album, though I haven't heard it for a while. I'll probably be writing about it here before too long. 

The songs are in a way sort of shapeless; fundamentally simple, I think, but they don't really follow a pop song sort of pattern. I found the lyrics only half-intelligible, but happily the band have put them online: see this page for the lyrics to "Moment to Moment." They are even less poppy than the music and have substance. It is not at all obvious from the text how this could be put into a song structure:

If patience works
then this I have
there are just some things
that break my back.
The truth as it is
is walking beside you.
The truth is you do care
the fact is
that I don't think you should

But it works. It really works. If you like this song--and I suggest you give it several hearings if you're undecided after one--you'll like the whole album, or at least most of it.

(Well, maybe this post does have a certain contemporary resonance and application: Are you laughing now?)


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This is a truly excellent record and I greatly appreciate your putting me onto it a few weeks back. I lent my copy to a friend, who tells me he's been playing it nonstop, and he had an interesting observation: the songs do not finish where you expect them to when you hear the beginnings, and when they finally get there you don't want them to end. I think this is very true, and part of that magic, if I can call it that, is the fact that all the songs are long enough to allow development like that to play itself out.

What I immediately found interesting about the record is that it doesn't sound like 1989. Much of the stuff that came out in that period had a very polished and precise sound to it. Chasing Promises on the other hand sounds very live and organic -- almost like a 70's record. The 80's is my wheelhouse musically speaking, and I can honestly say that I've not heard anything else that really sounds like this from that period. I also think that if it were released today it would be a huge hit, at least among indie music listeners.

By the way, the follow-up record, Between Happiness and Heartache, is pretty solid as well, if somewhat less unconventional.

The other contemporary resonance would be the name,"Breathless."

Heh. I guess so. It actually was meant to refer to the Godard movie (of which I am not a great admirer).

That's interesting, Rob, and you're welcome. It does sound 80s-ish to me, but I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the TMC-4AD-Cocteau Twins etc connection, which isn't necessarily sonic.

Yeah, I think if it sounds 80's it's more early 80's, before everything started to get slick and polished. My point was more that it definitely doesn't sound like anything from the late 80's that I know of, and the recording sounds more 70s than 80s to me.

Joy Division occurs to me. They barely made it into the '80s, and Breathless doesn't sound like them. But I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there was an influence.

Funny you should mention that, because I was about to say yesterday that some of their songs remind me of New Order -- not so much in sound, but in the way the chord progressions and melodies run. N.O.'s stuff, being basically dance music, was a lot simpler and more straightforward in rhythm, but I think the other similarities are there. These N.O. songs came to mind:

(An aside -- I always wondered how Peter Hook played the bass like that without completely murdering his back. Who knows -- maybe he did.)

Never mind his back--how does he even play?!? I've wondered at (and been slightly annoyed) for a long time by the guitarists who hang their instruments so low that they are just barely in reach. I don't know how they play at all.

But anyway, yes, there is something in common there. And now that I think of it, when I was reading about Breathless a couple of weeks ago, there was a comment from the bass player about Peter Hook being an influence on her.

It's always intriguing to wonder what direction Joy Division would have gone had not Ian Curtis committed suicide.

And if the Beatles hadn't broken up. And if Lennon hadn't been shot. And if Hendrix hadn't died so young... My somewhat cynical inclination is to suspect that the future careers of most of those artists would have been disappointing. Certainly nothing any of the ex-Beatles did after they broke up means very much to me--not that it's all bad, but nothing I can't do without.

Cynical, but it has many supporting instances among artists who didn't die. It's certainly pretty typical for pop artists to do their best work when they're still young. I remember an article in a guitar magazine--maybe it was just a letter to the editor--anyway it was talking about Hendrix's unfulfilled potential, and the guy said 'Yeah, maybe he would be doing great things. Or maybe he would just be recording "Red House" for the 615th time.'

LOL -- That's a good point. I guess it interests me with JD because they did continue on without him, and were quite successful, but there's no way of knowing whether they would have gone in the same direction had he still been around. Then again, maybe he would have quit before the next record. ;)

In record sales and general visibility, NO was probably more successful than JD, weren't they? Or maybe not if you only consider their first two albums. Anyway, that is an unusual thing. The more typical pattern is that if the most charismatic and/or talented person leaves (or in this case dies), the band doesn't do very well afterwards. Occasionally the person who leaves is mistaken about how essential he (or she) is. E.g. Roger Waters with Pink Floyd. In commercial success they actually did better without him, and his solo albums were never in the artistic class with the group's work. PF after Syd Barrett was somewhat like New Order, I guess: a different direction, but at least as good.

Whole-better-than-sum-of-parts applies to a lot of groups, I guess. They break up and various members go solo, but never do as well either artistically or commercially as the group. Prime example being the Beatles.

"In record sales and general visibility, NO was probably more successful than JD, weren't they? Or maybe not if you only consider their first two albums. Anyway, that is an unusual thing."

Yes, I think that's an exception to the rule.

10000 Maniacs didn't really go anywhere after Natalie Merchant left, for instance, but her solo stuff wasn't all that memorable either, other than a couple singles. The best Maniacs songs from those first couple records tended to be collaborative efforts.

What little I heard of them didn't much grab me. Now that I think of it, though, I believe I heard the post-Merchant group live at a festival here, probably 20 years ago now. They were enjoyable but I didn't go looking for their records.

Re-reading my comment about Pink Floyd and Roger Waters, I see it's misleading: I meant to be saying that PF minus Waters was more successful than Waters alone, at least in commercial terms.

The Maniacs' first two major label albums, which were on the folky side, were pretty good. The first one was produced by Joe Boyd, the British folk-rock guy who had worked with Fairport, etc. After that they went in a more pop-rock direction and their stuff started to get fairly banal.

I got what you meant about PF and Waters.

I wouldn't want anyone to think I'm not aware of the commercial position of Dark Side of the Moon. :-)

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