If you're reading this, it probably means I haven't gone to a gig in more than two weeks. Here, then, is the third in the Obscurity Knocks series, featuring my favorite neglected albums.
Marion, The Program
Ahh, the '90s--it may have started with shoegaze, but any Anglophile can tell you that it was louche, loutish Britpop that gave the world notice. (Those same Anglophiles are also likely to inform you that Britpop was only a brief movement in British music and not, in fact, the blanket term that pervades in the United States.) Granted, by the late '90s, it was clear that the Brits had drank too much of their own Kool-Aid or, um, other stuff, but for a sizable block of time, I wanted whatever they were having, though preferably blended and with a cherry--and while you're at it, could you stick an umbrella in there too?
Marion was not at the forefront of Britpop. They didn't date models--or, rather, models didn't date them. They didn't instigate and milk public feuds with other bands. They weren't regulars at the Groucho Club. They didn't save Glastonbury. In short, they were more indicative of the typical band vying for media attention, rather than the handful of tabloid regulars dominating the charts. I remember seeing the odd write-up on the band, but they mostly escaped my notice until Sharon turned me on to them. By then, it was 1999, a full year after The Program was released in the United Kingdom (though it never found an American label), and Marion's best days were behind them--not that we knew it at the time.
The Program would be their second and last album, and for this effort, they could lay claim to a noteworthy hook: fellow Mancunian--and need I mention legendary Smiths guitarist?--Johnny Marr as producer. I suspect his influence tempered the band's more jagged edges, but I'd like to think Marion's natural evolution and developing sophistication as musicians played a part too.
Whatever the case, the histrionics of their earlier releases are mostly absent on this record. Whereas every song on This World and Body, their debut record, started off in a jolt of guitar, the songs on The Program showed greater musical variety and maturity, incorporating layers of acoustic guitar, synthesizers, and harmonies.
Singer Jaime Harding's vocal style was always closer to the arch, patently British readings of Suede's Brett Anderson or Aladdin Sane-era Bowie than Oasis's populist pub rockers, for example, but on this album, he reins it in to the point that he's veritably cooing on "The Powder Room Plan" and the title track. Never fear, however; this isn't a Pat Boone record, and on songs such as "Miyako Hideaway," he shows off a newfound naturalism in his singing, while "All of These Days" retains the band's post-punk energy.
But when you have Johnny Marr at the helm, you know there's going to be some bad-ass guitar on the album. That's apparent from the lead-off track, "The Smile," which creeps in on a cloud of radio static, only to be cleaved apart by a snaking, confident burst of guitar, backed by a slow portent of a rhythm--something wicked this way comes. Guitarists Phil Cunningham and Tony Grantham do themselves proud on this album, supplying simultaneously forceful and melodic riffs, perhaps most effectively in "Miyako Hideaway" and "The Powder Room Plan." Elsewhere on the record, they craft the lovely "Sparkle" and the taut, moody "The Program" around the acoustic guitar--simply gorgeous.
To those who read the inaugural installation of Obscurity Knocks: I wasn't kidding about the Chameleons being one of my greatest musical touchstones. I admit I may hear the Chameleons where others don't, but I can't help it--it's part of my musical DNA at this point.
Anyway, the Marion/Chameleons crossover moment comes about two-thirds of way through the dreamy "What Are You Waiting For?" The instruments drift to the background, and the keyboards sound out the transition. It doesn't even last 10 seconds, but it instantly transports me to the introduction to "In Answer" from the Chameleons' Strange Times. I'm pretty sure that's when I fell in love with The Program. (I was so smitten, in fact, that I pushed it on two other close friends, both of whom embraced it as well.)
I never saw Marion live, but a couple of years following my introduction to the band, Sharon gave me a bootleg of their show at the Troubador in Los Angeles, circa 1998. Watching the video, it's impossible to overlook how exceedingly pale and painfully thin Jaime appeared, even for a British rock star. By the time I saw this tape, the band had already dissolved, and Jaime's drug use was a simple matter of fact, but the show confirmed some of the worst suspicions. To this day, I can't listen to the lyrics of "The Program" ("Ever get the feeling you're losing control?") without wondering about its autobiographical implications.
Apparently, the band has reformed, and they're writing new songs and playing gigs in England, though they've once again faced more obstacles (Jaime had open heart surgery?!). I'm not holding my breath, but I would love to see them for myself one of these days. In the meantime, I'll go back to enjoying all my favorite tracks from The Program.
Listen (right-click and choose Save Link As):
» Marion: "The Program"
» Marion: "The Smile"
» Marion: "What Are We Waiting For?"
» Obscurity Knocks: Adorable, "Against Perfection"
» Obscurity Knocks: The Chameleons U.K., "Strange Times"
» Marion on MySpace