RETURN OF THE (INDIE) GLIMMER TWINS: Nikki Sudden & Epic Soundtracks

Nikki and Epic by Chris Coleman

A pair of expanded reissues ably sings the praises of the late Godfrey brothers. Above photo by Chris Coleman.

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

Ed. note: England’s Stones/Faces-worshiping rocker Nikki Sudden passed away in 2006, while his somewhat more art-rock inclined younger brother, Epic Soundtracks, preceded him by nearly a decade, in 1997. By then, though, both had attained cult-hero status—their punk maneuverings of the late ‘70s as Swell Maps certainly didn’t hurt their legacies—and here in modern times, the music-buying public is simply fortunate to have the opportunity to dip into both artists’ oeuvre. No stranger to either man, Britain’s Easy Action label, well known to fans of Motor City-centric archival titles, along with sundry other Detroit-looking artists from around the globe, recently went to the well once more, and with stellar—not to mention greatly expanded—results. Our own scarves-brandishing, glam-rockin’ contributing editor Michael Toland explains, below. – FM

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Nikki Sudden Brocade

1999’s Red Brocade was my first Nikki Sudden album. After years of reading about him in various publications, particularly the Trouser Press Record Guide, I decided it was time to indulge my curiosity. Since this album featured Chicago’s Chamber Strings, with whom I’d recently become infatuated (R.I.P. frontman Kevin Junior), and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and Sudden had proclaimed it his best to date, it seemed like a good place to start. Plus, it was new, and on an American label (albeit a tiny one), and it was the only one on the racks at my local store.

Since this was in the days before you could stream a song on YouTube or SoundCloud, I’d never heard a note of Sudden’s music, and I have to admit: I couldn’t get into it. The, shall we say, contrast between the Strings’ shimmering rock/pop and Sudden’s atonal singing didn’t sit well with me at all. In those days when I was still expanding my palette as far as what constituted acceptable music, I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. So I gave it a couple of spins and sold it back to the store from whence it came.

A couple of years later, having grown more accustomed to dissonance, I tried again, this time with Secretly Canadian’s then-recent two-fer reissue of his earlier band The Jacobites’ Texas/Dead Men Tell No Tales, and that resonated with me far more than Red Brocade ever had. Why? Who knows? Sometimes music comes into your life at the wrong time. At any rate, I became obsessed, seeking out everything I could find beyond SC’s reissues series, buying everything I could get my hands on… including, at the tail end of a couple years’ spree, Red Brocade.

Maybe it was due to a lingering bad first impression, but I still wasn’t into it, even after becoming acclimated to his style. Despite Sudden’s claim that it was his best record up to that point, it was still my least favorite. I literally haven’t listened to it in probably a decade. That makes this new two-disk remaster on archival specialist label Easy Action an almost brand new experience.

Throughout his long post-Swell Maps career, Sudden stuck to pretty much one groove: a raucous and romantic blend of the Stones, Dylan, the Faces and T. Rex. But that doesn’t mean the former Adrian Godfrey kept his mind closed. (The hints of disco that pop up on some his best albums prove that.) After years of raw rock & roll and unvarnished ballads, Sudden took a big leap of faith with Red Brocade, originally released in 1999 and now reissued by Easy Action, current caretakers of the Godfrey brothers catalog. Decamping to Chicago and recording with the recently passed singer/songwriter Kevin Junior and his then-upcoming band the Chamber Strings, Sudden attempted to do something new with his music, something more lush and orchestral – an unusual move for a rocker so unrefined.

But, as was often the case with this mercurial artist, there were speedbumps along the way.

Recording with Chicago producer Ellis Clark, member of smart pop groups Epicycle and June & the Exit Wounds, as well as the Strings, Sudden and Junior pretty much accomplished what they set out to do. But once Sudden took the tapes back to England and his regular producer John A. Rivers, the results were remixed until they sounded like.. .a Nikki Sudden album. Not necessarily a bad thing in concept, as we’ll note, but one wonders if it betrayed the spirit of the original recordings. Clearly Sudden didn’t think so – he told all and sundry at the time that he felt it was his best album to date. Certainly, Rivers’ mix gives the lush instrumentation sharp clarity without blunting Sudden’s rock & roll edge, making Red Brocade one of his most sonically pleasing albums.

Listening to it so long after its initial release, it’s hard to argue with that assertion. The Chamber Strings were easily the slickest, most professional group he’d yet worked with, and their touch brings out the craft he poured into the songs. (Ironically, according to Kevin Junior’s liner notes, Sudden arrived at the sessions with no songs and banged out this batch in short order.) Adorning the tracks with horns, strings, timpani, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin actually enhances this set of tunes, rather than obscures them. The Strings are particularly effective on the ballads, a state of affairs of which Sudden takes full advantage. “Broken Door,” “Stained Sheets” and the elegiac “Silver Blanket” stand as some of his absolute strongest songs in that arena, thanks to collision of tuneage and musicians.

That’s not to say the album stints on rockers – “Tie You Up,” the bonus track “So Many Girls” and the (original) album closer “Take Me Back Home” riff heartily and rock righteously. Taking further advantage of a versatile band, Sudden also branches out into country (“Miss You So”), soul (“Countess”) and, on another bonus track, groovy psychedelic grunge (“Stained”).

The only track that doesn’t quite work is the one that was intended to garner the most attention: “Farewell, My Darling” features Jeff Tweedy on duet vocal, but the Wilco leader’s hapless performance just underscores how Sudden writes lyrics to suit his own voice and nobody else’s.

But that’s a rare bump in this road. Otherwise Red Brocade finds Sudden at his most well-crafted and focused.

Nikki 2

One might wonder what Rivers found wrong with the original mix, done by Clark and Sudden. Clark claims in the liner notes that the mix was done too quickly under deadline; regardless, this edition includes a second disk with that first mix for comparison’s sake. Fans expecting the “Angel City Mixes,” as they’re called, to be more true to the Chamber Strings’ aesthetic may be surprised, as these versions aren’t really any more opulent than Rivers’. That said, “Miss You So” and “Countess Kicks” have more emphasis on their rhythm sections, “Scarred” becomes a more dynamic “Scarred Again,” “Scent” adds a piano prologue and “Broken Door” gives prominence to the string section coda. Other differences pop up in the vocals – the reverb on “Farewell, My Darling,” the prominent backing vocals on “Tie You Up,” altered lyrics and lead performances on a few tracks, and more centered, upfront singing in general.

Whether or not the Angel City Mixes trump the Rivers mixes will be down to individual listeners. But even if you don’t want to bother, disk 2 includes a few extras, including live album tracks, a cover of Clark’s “West Side Girl” and a blazing live rip through Swell Maps’ (remember them, Sudden fans?) “Midget Submarine” slammed into the Sudden classic “Kiss at Dawn” by a sadly unidentified band. The guitar sound alone on the live cuts is worth spinning the second disk.

The bonus cuts truly enhance the experience and comparing the two different mixes is educational. But ultimately what makes the record hold up nearly 17 years after its first release is the original collection of songs. With a decade and a half of distance and a shiny new remaster, Red Brocade has gone from my least favorite Sudden album to one of the best.

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Epic Soundtracks 11-27

Meanwhile, to kick off its treatment of the Epic Soundtracks catalog, Easy Action initially released the wonderful compilation Wild Smile in 2012, as comprehensive a look at the late British songwriter’s career as could be hoped for. Three years later, the label follows up with the first actual reissue: Rise Above, the former Kevin Paul Godfrey’s first solo album after years of playing second fiddle to Rowland S. Howard (in These Immortal Souls), Simon Bonney (Crime & the City Solution), and of course his brother Nikki Sudden (with whom he formed punk cult heroes the Swell Maps in the late ‘70s).

Originally released in 1992, Rise Above was likely a surprise to Soundtracks’ fans at the time. After all, his aforementioned former acts never shied away from dissonance and distortion. Plus, a glance at the liner notes reveals the presence of then-current alt.rock stars Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr), Martyn P. Casey (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds) and Will Pepper (Thee Hypnotics). But instead of the noisy rock record that lineup might presage, Soundtracks delivered an album of pop classicism.

As freshly evidenced by this expanded reissue, Soundtracks—relying on his piano rather than his usual drum kit—produces lovelorn odes inspired by the most vulnerable sides of his heroes Alex Chilton and Brian Wilson. Backed by tasteful instrumentation – often by piano alone – the troubadour sings with matter-of-fact conviction, rarely kicking up a fuss even when the emotions he’s conveying call for a psychologist’s couch.

Relying on stripped-down arrangements, “Sad Song,” “Farmer’s Daughter” and “Fallen Down” sound like lost classics from the catalog of Todd Rundgren or Carole King, wistful and melancholy all at once. “Big Apple Graveyard” and “Wild Situation” fill out his sound considerably, verging on being widescreen epics, yet never get in the way of Soundtracks himself. Not even Chris Lee’s free jazz trumpet on the former or Howard’s menacing slide on the latter break the spell. Probably the closest thing Soundtracks had to a hit, “She Sleeps Alone” – present in two different versions, one dirge-like and the other stately – splits the difference, putting Soundtracks’ vulnerable observations in the spotlight for the first half and letting strings and horns carry the coda. The tune ends the original album with its strongest song and performance, capping a pure pop classic that unfortunately never came close to the charts.

Epic

Easy Action doesn’t let it go there, however, filling the rest of this two-disk set with demos and outtakes.

Most of the former repeat the songs found on the original album, some in slightly tweaked arrangements, but most in solo form. The added instrumentation gives welcome color to the recordings, but the solo demos present Soundtracks naked, as it were, for a much more intimate experience. The handful of new tunes fit right in with the previously released in tone and style, to the point where one wonders if the only reason they remained in the vault was reluctance to release a double album. The clearly-recorded “Can You Keep a Secret” and “Caroline” exploit his plainspoken vulnerability to moving effect, while lower-fi demos of “Lay in Bed All Day” and “Beatles Song” prove that even partially realized efforts still have strong appeal. The studio version of “I Wish I Had a Girlfriend” (previously appearing in solo form on Wild Smile) uses horns and the leader’s sprightly piano to create a delightful cut that should’ve seen the light of day long before now.

The disks contain multiple versions of the same songs — “Caroline” = “You Still Shine,” “Black Hole Girl” = “Hole of a Heart,” “When You’re Not Around” = “Sad Song” — so casual fans uninterested in watching the material develop over time may not have the patience for the whole package. But even casual fans will find the original Rise Above indispensable, and those wishing to dig deeper will find pockets of riches wherever the laser hits.

Below: the greatest U.K. band… ever! Swell Maps, natch. Photo by Andy Bean.

Swell Maps by Andy Bean

 

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