SOFT CELL The Very Best Of Soft Cell (Mercury/Some Bizarre)
Why exactly does the world need another Soft Cell compilation? There have already been two attempts at anthologising the band's hits, as well as an exhaustive triple CD trawl through their 12" singles and at least one budget best of (the kind of product that explains its low price by omitting "Tainted Love" in favour of vast quantities of apparently randomly selected album tracks).
Despite its initially unpromising premise, "The Very Best Of Soft Cell" just about justifies its existence, being about as crammed as a single CD could expect to be. Its emergence now is particularly apposite for several reasons. With Electroclash poised to be the next big thing in dance music (and if it isn't there'll be a lot of red-faced record company employees and music journalists!) this album instructively demonstrates how Marc Almond and Dave Ball had the whole genre sewn up decades ago. Secondly, Soft Cell's reformation finally reaches some kind of concrete fruition here, with the premiere of two new tracks of 21st century vintage. This thoughtfully compiled compilation also picks enough material from outside the band's three proper studio albums to render it interesting even to the existing fan. And, as if it matters, these songs are still as fantastic as when I first heard them 20 years ago, when it seemed that every other band on "Top Of The Pops" was a synth duo with a Revox.
Here we get the tacky, gritty electro of "Memorabilia" and the planet-straddling Northern soul cover "Tainted Love", of course. "Bedsitter" remains one of the most concise evocations of urban alienation yet written, the song the Pet Shop Boys have spent an entire career failing to better. "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye" is rescued from David Gray cover hell (the best thing that can be said about his version is that he makes the song his own, i.e. as dreary and bloodless as the rest of his output), and the chucklesome camp of "Sex Dwarf" still astonishes. "Torch" brings toreador chic to the fetish club, and now we're all older and wiser it doesn't seem too far fetched to suggest the influence of Miles Davis circa "Sketches Of Spain", and "What" is all 60s girl group flounce.
From then on proceedings become darker and fractured - not without reason was the second Soft Cell album entitled "The Art Of Falling Apart" - and more than ever their music seemed to represent a toxic reaction to the highly stylised, airbrushed follies of contemporaries such as Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. The five songs included here from that album and its successor, "This Last Night In Sodom", are the tip of a titanic iceberg of emotional degradation best left for another day, although the maniacally grinning, rocket-powered whoosh of "Soul Inside" remains one of the band's finest overlooked moments. The two new tracks sound almost exactly as might be expected: they have that familiar Soft Cell electro throb, updated with the dubious benefit of modern technology, but lack the corrosive edge of old.
So, what's not good about this CD? Well, there are a couple of inessential remixes lashed on at the end, and the cover logo appears to be on loan from a late 70s Electric Light Orchestra album. Otherwise, this is a flawless document of a fabulous band.SOFT CELL Cruelty Without Beauty (True North)
As John Lydon put it, piercingly succinctly, during the first round of Sex Pistols reunion shows in 1996, "Fat, forty and back". 18 years after their untidy dissolution - not that Marc Almond and Dave Ball ever really went away, enjoying success as a solo artist and as part of The Grid respectively - what would you expect a new Soft Cell album to sound like? The pervy, planet-straddling synth-pop of "Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret", or the zero-selling electro-shock blues of "This Last Night In Sodom"? The reality isn't quite as clear-cut as might be expected, "Cruelty Without Beauty" sounding like a flabbier version of that produced by the duo's sharp young selves. It's slightly plodding, rubbery Eurodisco that already sounds dated, especially compared to the music they were sculpting 20 years ago, which still sounds spring-fresh.
The songs seem to dwell on a narrow selection of familiar themes. There's the finger-wagging incomprehension of modern life displayed by "Darker Times" and "Monoculture", the predictable parade of freakshow theatrics of "Le Grand Guignol" and "Caligula Syndrome", and the desperate graspings of last chance saloon habitus ("Last Chance", "Desperate"). A cover of The Four Seasons' "The Night" provides an unexpected highlight, the grown-up kitchen sink drama "Whatever It Takes" is quite fun (and there's something about the use of the word supermarket in a lyric that instantly makes a song seem quaintly, cosily English) and the brass- and string-propelled "On An Up" serves up something perky to finish with. But overall "Cruelty Without Beauty" is an uneven and unnecessary album, soaked in nostalgia and barely worthy of the brand name.