TALK TALK Asides Besides (EMI)

This is the fourth Talk Talk compilation to be released by EMI, the company for whom the band released four albums between 1982 and 1988. In the light of the circumstances of their acrimonious split with their taskmasters (Mark Hollis storms off in a huff after EMI release an unauthorised album of remixes) the booklet graphic of this double CD - what looks like a goose astride a golden egg with a noose wrapped around its neck - is almost comically inappropriate.

In their early years Talk Talk were groomed by EMI as successors to Duran Duran in the teen market, hence the booklet photos of pinup pictures of the foursome in matching white suits and black ties, drawn from the pages of Oh Boy!, No.1 and Jackie (can you really see Jackie doing a Mark Hollis interview these days? I think not), and the early plastic synth dabblings originally to be found on their debut album, "The Party’s Over". At the time I thought the likes of "Talk Talk" and "Today" were terrific, but then again I was only eight, and pretty much anything with a synth in it sounded fabulous in 1982. The first indications of burgeoning maturity occurred with the title track of their second album, the anthemic "It’s My Life", one of their earliest collaborations with producer and co-writer Tim Friese-Green, with whom the band went on to fashion two of the greatest albums of the 80s, "The Colour Of Spring" and the criminally ignored "Spirit Of Eden", where The Blue Nile’s atmospherics wed Van Morrison’s Celtic soul.

Much of "Asides Besides", a compilation of non-album single tracks in a similar, if less polished vein, to New Order’s peerless "Substance", concentrates on their early, poppier material. The first disc, subtitled "The Longer Versions", is not an enlightening listen: the songs that survive the stretching best are usually those that weren’t much cop in the first place (relatively speaking, of course: although only a shadow of the potential that they eventually realised, I’d take anything from the first two Talk Talk albums in preference to even the least terrible Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran track, and they, don’t forget, were the competition at the time), whilst the material from "The Colour Of Spring" is so perfect in its original form that any attempt to improve it by splicing invariably ends up sounding like a hatchet job. Still, some respect is due to EMI for at least gathering all these alternative versions up into one comprehensive package, I suppose.

More delight can be obtained from the second CD, "The Extra Tracks". There’s demo versions of three songs that eventually found a home on "The Party’s Over" : recorded, rather surprisingly, under the supervision of the late Primal Scream, Rolling Stones and Traffic producer Jimmy Miller, these are actually a notch or two more interesting than the released versions; sounding far more rocky and spontaneous they could almost be the work of a different band (which, before EMI got their creative marketing hands on them, they might well have been. We may never know). A few B-sides from their teenybop era are more interesting than they have any right to be ("Strike Up The Band", "?", a piano version of "Call In The Night Boy"), and are certainly preferable to yet more mixes of "My Foolish Friend" and "Dum Dum Girl". The highlights of this disc, and the entire package, are the last five tracks, which were originally released on singles from "The Colour Of Spring" and "Spirit Of Eden", mostly lush, atmospheric songs, obviously b-sides from their less-than-rigorously-worked-through vibe, but none the less entertaining for all that, with "It’s Getting Late In The Evening" and "John Cope" being particularly fine. A black mark, though, for the inclusion of a cruelly truncated version of "Eden", which shows how, even at the end, EMI stupidly thought they could chop up Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Green’s expansive, ambient psychedelics into four-minute pop songs.

Talk Talk signed with Verve (one time home of The Velvet Underground and The Mothers Of Invention), producing only 1991’s wonderful "Laughing Stock" before falling apart, frustrated by record company ignorance and commercial failure, the kind of tale that’s sapped the morale of bands from (and I’m mentioning them again by accident, but it seems cruelly appropriate) The Velvets and The Mothers onwards. "Asides Besides" is probably only of interest to the committed fan who has all their proper albums (i.e. me, and even then it’s only partially interesting), but for a more general introductory guide you carn’t go far wrong with EMI’s "Natural History" best of, which balances their early Top Of The Pops fodder with a wide (but still not wide enough) trawl through those seminal late 80s works.

TALK TALK London 1986 (Pond Life)

Now that the mighty Talk Talk are being accorded a slight but significant measure of the respect that in a perfect world they would've commanded during their lifetime, Voiceprint offer up this recording of their final British concert as the first release on their Pond Life subsidiary. Taped at the Hammersmith Odeon on 8 May 1986, this recording was originally destined for a video release that eventually surfaced only in Italy, although some of the tracks offered here turned up as b-sides when in the early 90s, when EMI were shamelessly flogging the dead horse of Talk Talk's pop potential for as many pieces of silver as they could get. This CD issue tastefully draws on long-time collaborator James Marsh's original cover art for the proposed live video.

Promoting the "Colour Of Spring" album, released three months earlier, from which three tracks are drawn, the bulk of the set is taken from their previous album, "It's My Life", which marked the beginning of their transition from skinny-tied besuited new romantics to freeform jazz folk psychedelecists. However, songs such as "Tomorrow Started" are rearranged so subtly and tastefully that they don't sound out of place next to the mighty newer material. And naturally "It's My Life" is present and correct. As faultless as ever it was, it gains more than anything else here from the bounce of a big PA system and the whooping and whistling of an adoring crowd. It's almost like stadium rock done properly and with humility, if that doesn't sound like too much of a contradiction. Elsewhere former Nine Below Zero member Mark Feltham, who was to become a vital part of the Talk Talk soundscape on later albums, sets "Living In Another World" ablaze with a couple of phenomenal harmonica solos, and the sound of the audience singing along to "Give It Up" is strangely heart-warming.

As a snapshot of what Talk Talk were like minutes before they gave up on the whole rock star thing and retreated to a deserted church to make dense, swirling albums of incomparable beauty, "London 1986" is pretty much essential listening, and much respect to Voiceprint for having the sound aesthetic judgement to release it.

TALK TALK Missing Pieces (Pond Life)

Kev gave this release an unequivocal thumbs-down in the last issue, and even as a hardened, rarity-craving Talk Talk enthusiast I can see his point. Verging on user-hostile, "Missing Pieces" doesn’t do anything to ingratiate itself with the listener. In the absence of anything that approaches sleeve notes (the digipak contains the lyrics to the song "Ascension Day" only, and a list of the musicians used, a roll-call that includes ex-Nine Below Zero harmonica wizard Mark Feltham, Mark Hollis' perennial sidekick Tim Friese-Green and former Electric Light Orchestra violinist Wilf Gibson) I'll repeat the information Kev offered in his review: the music on "Missing Pieces" consists of alternate takes of material destined for the final Talk Talk album, "Laughing Stock", along with two tracks from the same sessions that never made the long player, tailed by a solo piano piece apparently recorded by Mark Hollis for something called "AV 1", whatever that may be. One point worth making is that, that final track aside, the songs contained on "Missing Pieces" appeared on a series of three picture CD singles released in the wake of "Laughing Stock", in the same sequence preserved here. Although I'm unable to confirm whether the versions used are identical, the coincidence seems to great to ignore.

Enough of the commercial, what of the music? Well, late period Talk Talk saw the band far removed from their primitive origins as just another soulless troupe of skinny-tied electropop New Romantics. Over the course of their final three albums, Mark Hollis had steered their music towards his own singular vision, one that valued the space between notes as highly as the melodies that linked them together, that folded Satie-like piano balladry into "Astral Weeks"-style folk/country/jazz/rhythm/blues meltdown and sprinkled the whole with just a touch of Blue Nile-esque electronic melancholia. This startlingly original blend is probably heard to best effect on the perennially undervalued "Spirit Of Eden" album; by the time of "Laughing Stock" the glinting golden greatness had become submerged under Hollis' almost mathematical approach to fracturing time signatures, deliberately breaking natural melodies apart and stretching them across the bars. Which means that the alternate takes of "Laughing Stock" material presented here are fabulous but self-consciously awkward, and just about the last place you should start listening to Talk Talk unless you're in the mood for a rigorous discussion about musical theory afterwards. Adding to the confusion, without playing them side by side I would have to say that these supposedly alternate versions are almost indistinguishable from the released takes: I was also about to mention that the anti-sequencing of the running order here wrecks the carefully modulated dynamics of the original album, where the crashing climax of "Ascension Day" reverses into the steady, rhythmic pulse of "After The Flood". Placed as tracks 5 and 1 respectively, as they are here, it ain't gonna happen, although I can see the reasoning if these tracks really are the takes issued on that sequence of singles, as they appear here in chronological order of release.

Compared to the "Laughing Stock" material those two new-ish offerings, "Stump" and "5:09", are as inspiring as their blunt titles might suggest, being instrumentals off-cut from the same cloth, but lacking Mark Hollis' ethereal incantations they can't help but sound like dusty old unused backing tracks searching for songs to get hitched up with. Similarly, that Mark Hollis solo piano piece, cunningly titled "Piano", is a complete washout. A painful way to spend a quarter of an hour, it sounds like one of the chamber pieces from the new Aphex Twin album being examined under a microscope, blown up to such magnification that any semblance of melody or rhythm the original might have possessed has been obliterated.

So should you buy "Missing Pieces"? Not if you're a curious beginner, keen to dip a toe in the balmy waters of the Talk Talk canon - in that case there are at least three classic studio albums you should turn your attention to first ("The Colour Of Spring", I'll say it again "Spirit Of Eden", and naturally the original cut of "Laughing Stock") as well as the half-decent escape from pop music "It’s My Life", their sole live document "London 1986" and the grindingly comprehensive rarities compilation "Asides Besides". But once you have all those, and Mark Hollis' single, eponymous solo outing, "Missing Pieces" might start to look like an essential next step.

TALK TALK Live At Montreux 1986 (Eagle Vision) 

Whilst any scrap of Talk Talk documentation is welcomed by the faithful, it’s tempered by the realisation that the band were only able to achieve their full, fantastic potential when freed of the rigours of touring, an attribute arguably shared with labelmates The Beatles. That limits the fascination of any live Talk Talk release, and this DVD is no exception.

A setlist drawn from the band’s first three albums – in which they developed from Duran Duran’s kid brothers to a second –rate Blue Nile (not the kind of compliment I bestow lightly, of course) – stops short of the astral avant-garde hush and clatter of “Spirit Of Eden” that would make them a post-rock touchstone, and upon which much of their present day reputation rests. Both performance and presentation are casualties of this concert’s datestamp. An expanded eight-piece band manages to noodle the heart and soul out of the songs, many of which are over-extended with pointless sub-Weather Report soloing. Perhaps the phalanx of percussionists and keyboard players crowding the stage was meant to foster the kind of polyrhythmic experimentation found in Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” concert film and album; unfortunately, it just leads to laboured indulgence. No wonder Mark Hollis (here seen sporting a ponytail) spends so much of the gig sitting on the drum riser, head in hands.

In their original incarnations, the likes of “Life’s What You Make It”, “Living In Another World”, “Give It Up”, “It’s My Life” and “I Don’t Believe In You” are great songs. Here, however, their delicate subtleties are trampled upon, and not even the pained passion of Hollis’ vocals can save them.

Sound and vision quality are more adequate than spectacular, and whilst it might well capture “a great band performing at their absolute peak”, as the back cover blurb suggests, it also underlines how shrewd their decision to retire from the road was.

Mark Hollis