ALL ABOUT EVE Keepsakes Mercury (2006)
In music today,the very pinnacle of the world of assumed perfection is the Greatest Hits compilation. This is where a band and its creators self-congratulate in all that they have achieved and - of course - this achievement is always immense and everything between the band members and their creators is always wonderful. By order.
All About Eve are one of the few bands around who are not directly guilty of doing this - but their one-time record label Mercury most certainly are. I refer here to the 1992 Ďbest ofí that was "Winter Words" which, with intentional bad timing, was released by Mercury on the same day as their first album with MCA.
The sleeve notes on "Winter Words" with that wonderful end line of "this draws a neat line under the bands career to date" gave no hint whatever that the group were in turmoil.
For example the departure of the original guitarist, Tim Bircheno, was glossed over in a half a sentence as just one of those things, and Julianne Regan herself was hailed as an maiden goddess of rock, as perfect and unemotional as an alabaster statue.
The difference with All About Eve though was that it was not simply suspected this wasn't true (as with rumours denied about Westlife) it was known for a fact it wasn't true. The whole truth was not necessarily known, but the music itself told us that something was amiss.
For example if Timís departure was just one of those things - why were there were no fewer than three songs on Winter Words telling him to get lost? Why, if the band had thought they had had such a wonderful career to date, were they even now releasing a fourth album in Ultraviolet that would be so radically different to anything that had gone before that even their own dearest fans would take another decade to get it? Why, if Julianne Regan, was really this emotionless angelic force that never made mistakes, did the band implode just three months later?
Fourteen years have passed since Winter Words and I have lost count of the number of reformations and splits All About Eve or various incarnations under different names have managed since then. I think we're currently on version 17a of the band - if indeed the band can currently said to be together.
This is, in itself, an incredible feat - that a band can split and reform and split again so many times without loosing either its driving force or its fans. The answer is that the music they make is very special indeed. In fact it's better than special, it's unique.
In a musical world full of manufactured pop lined up like so many brand new Ford Focuses, All About Eve stands out like a hand-built works improved TVR Sagaris, with - granted - all the inherent safety features of a gun-fight in a burning casino - but also performance, and flair and passion that you just don't see elsewhere.
You don't just drive a TVR you have to become an organic part of it (or you will crash and die) - in same way you can't just listen to All About Eve, you must enter completely into the music (or you will simply not get it).
All About Eve will never be found in a elevator. All About Eves' music speaks of raw emotion, of dangerous feelings in need of discharge - and your ears will be the receptacle, and, whatís more, the music told us this even when the producers told us that the band were perfect people - as anodyne as Westlife are today. What utter nonsense!
Perfect people simply do not make that sort of music.
Fast forward to today and we are presented with something of a paradox: a double CD and DVD called "Keepsakes" which, on the face of it, is another Greatest Hits album by All About Eve, also put out by Mercury and with their late eighties-era graphics all over the front cover.
So does Mercury still think it is 1989 and they can present the band as perfect to the world once more? In the real world, certainly, this is manifestly not the case. Circumstance and desire on both sides have - since the bandís 1999 reformation - brought a level of intimacy between Julianne Regan, the band, and her adoring hordes that is rarely seen into today's rather clinical music world.
In the real world, therefore, the old big-label mask of perfection - while not actually torn off (for it does remain in the nature of fans to cling to their illusions of their idols for as long as possible) - has not exactly been maintained. Great cracks now appear in that visage through which the cold light of reality now shines unhindered.
Now since what he have here comes from the same label that brought us Winter Words one has to wonder if it will try to plaster up those cracks, re-spray the mask, and try to start the old lie all over again?
The track selection would perhaps lend itself to something of an answer here - and immediately one sees that this isn't the obvious greatest hits material. Certainly all the hits are present, although not necessarily in original seven inch versions, but otherwise the selection is a little eclectic to say the least.
"Calling Your Name" is present, but not "D for Desire," "Freeze" but not "Mine" - and "Let Me Go Home" is the only post-99 song (not counting the four completely new ones) present at all.
Perhaps the choice of track is deliberately introspective, its creators knowing that all potential buyers already own everything put out since the reformation - but the big budget production doesn't seem to be an effort to preach only to the coverted. Perhaps, then, there is some specific reason for these songs - which include two of the 'FU-Tim' songs - even though Tim himself has clearly since been re-admitted to at least diplomatic-level grace - he has, after all, contributed on three of the new songs. I turn to the sleeve notes for a clue.
"We're a semi-suicidal hydra" says Julianne on page one, as we all duck for cover as the remains of the mask of perfection explodes into a million pieces, showering all and sundry with the dust of expended passion and broken dreams.
Did she really just say that?
Not your usual way to kick of a greatest hits album by any means - "Grovel and cower mortals for these are our great triumphs" normally does. Words to the effect of "If you'd honour us by listening to them here are our triumphs and our mistakes" is certainly different to say the least. Now we can do more than just listen to the wonderful music - and all of it is wonderful - but we can understand it in a way we perhaps never could before.
The sleeve notes do not make for comfortable reading. Julianne saying "I don't think I've wept as often in my life as I did during the making of Scarlet" is un-nervingly honest. Well we sort of knew that in 1989 when the album Scarlet and Other Stories was new, even though nothing was admitted at the time, because it was obvious from the music but back then we had to suspect and now we know.
This sheds a whole new light on the music - for at last we now fully understand the denied longing that is 'Scarlet,' the real psychological element in 'Drowning,' the despeate wish to go back and make things right that is 'December.'
I could go on explaining in instance of how the honesty of the words written in the sleeve notes continue to explode old myths while bringing new and wonderful (or even terrible) dimensions to old and familiar music - but you are all capable of doing this for yourself if you have the intelligence to buy this wonderful and honest record. So I will continue swiftly on to that lovely music.
Disc one starts with 'Flowers In Our Hair,' often derided these days but you can't deride a song with hindsight and I still love it for the hippy romper stomper that it is. This version kicks off with a rather ghostly "If youíre going to San Francisco" lyric at the beginning which brings an added wistfulness to proceedings. 'In The Clouds' is still very much 'In The Clouds' as fresh today as it ever was. 'Martha's Harbour,' despite now being out of fashion, is still beautiful.
Other highlights of the "old" stuff include all of the aforementioned Scarlet tracks, the Dave Gilmour and Marty Wilson-Piper spectaculars that are 'Wishing the Hours Away' and 'Are You Lonely,' and - despite the inherent bitterness in its creation - 'Farewell Mr Sorrow' is still one of the greatest break-up songs - all the way up there with 'Cioa' by Lush for sheer "get out of my life for good" energy.
The lyrics to 'Infrared' are printed (for the first time officially) in the sleeve of Keepsakes - and they are beautiful so why were they mixed so far down? (rhetorical question, the answer's given in the notes) but that doesn't stop the swirling guitars making it a fantastic dim-all-the-lights-and-loose-yourself track, and 'Le Me Go Home' has lost none of it's energy in two years either.
So it transpires that the choice of tracks certainly make sense as an ensemble once you've heard them.
Of the new songs, this year's version of 'What Kind of Fool' is much darker than the original - one wonders if the rush for honesty has maybe gone a little too far as this sounds not just self-deprecating but actually self-accusatory. Is this song an analogy for the band's history - did they leave too much treasure to rust in the rain over the years?
Conversely the new version of 'The Empty Dancehall' - featuring Tim Bircheno for the first time in seventeen years - is very nice and wafty, with a little bit of trip-hop going on in the background that fits it very well.
It is the two totally new songs, that really shine, however.
'Keepsakes' (the song) is written in the style we have come to associate with 'modern' (eg post '02) All About Eve and presents at least two meanings.
On one level it is the reuniting of two ex-lovers in the coldness of realityís light - realising that they still have things to offer each other. Does this relate to something personal to Julianne? Almost certainly. What might that be? Your guess is as good as mine.
On another level, however, it is - of course - the dedication of this album to those who will listen to it.
'Raindrops' - as it is a Tim Bircheno piece - starts with guitar work that we haven't heard on original All About Eve material for ages. As per the Empty Dancehall, there's again a hint of the Bristol Sound going on - but only a hint. It works very well with Tim's style of playing. This is a beautiful song that will grow and grow - and could make a very saleable single.
So finally we come to the videos.
This is the first time all the promos have been in one place at one time - the only prior release of promos being Evergreen way back - and that only covered the singles from the first album. Those particular videos have - in modern times - come under a lot of (mostly good-natured) ridicule.
I'm not entirely convinced that this is fair - seems like trying to judge 1988 by the standards of 2006. Did she really wear that? Clearly, but then - probably - so did we.
Again I mention doing things honestly - because every video is here - not just the good ones. I think I'm talking about the Scarlet-era videos here. When 'Road to Your Soul' started up - the first time I have ever seen it - my immediate thought that was Julianne looked terrible in it - not because of the twee hippy setting (though, yes, that was a bit dated) but because there was so much stress in and around her eyes that even the best plasterer could not conceal it.
It only gets worse on 'December' and by 'Scarlet' itself it looks like she hasnít eaten for a month - for her to recover completely in time for 'Farewell Mr Sorrow' a year later. Given the Scarlet-era videos are no longer in the public eye - and might anyway attracted the same critical panning anyway as 'Flowers in Our Hair' does for its dated hippy images - it would have been a much easier option to simply leave them off using that excuse as a reason, but - as has already been stated - maintaining the perfect image doesnít seem to be the objective here - and further proof is that they even include the infamous Top of the Pops version of 'Marha's Harbour.'
So there you have it - All About Eveís Keepsakes. An uncompromising record riveted together with flair, joi de vivre, depression, effort - and, despite it all - that pure raw power that makes the group carry on though relationship break-ups, group break-ups, arguments, fights, success failure and everything else that life and the gods can throw.
Of course, now we know nearly the whole back story - we can listen to it all in a completely different light if we wish.
So thank you All About Eve for breaking the mould of the manufactured. In a world full of Ford Focuses you will always be the TVR Sagaris - with its wheels in a flat spin, engine overheating and half the console switches broken - and we wouldn't want it any other way.
Julianne herself once said on stage 'We're refreshingly unprofessional.' Well keep it up, Miss Regan. This wonderful CD set catches so much more than bands greatest hits, it catches the very essence of all that makes them what they are from the highest highs to the lowest lows and everything in between.
A little flawed in places but breathtakingly beautiful.
Review by Paul Mendes