Though more questions are raised than answered, the erstwhile Joy Division/New Order bassist clearly knows his material, and your reaction to it will depend upon where you fall on the purist scale. The albums: Unknown Pleasures Tour 2012: Live at Leeds; Closer Live Tour 2011: Live in Manchester; Movement Tour 2013: Live in Dublin; Power Corruption & Lies Tour 2013: Live in Dublin
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
When a prominent member leaves a famous and still-active band and forms a rival outfit, it’s always something of a conundrum. What’s the line between a continuation of the original group’s vision and a cover act that happens to feature an original member? It’s made especially complicated when said rival concentrates on classic material, rather than creating new stuff. One might well ask: what’s the point beyond the initial rush of nostalgia? Especially if that bandmember is the bass player. Unless we’re talking about Geddy Lee, that’s hardly the member most fans want to see spin off into his own thing – after all, it’s usually the singer or perhaps the guitarist who draw the most attention.
For Peter Hook, however, it’s not so simple. After a famously acrimonious parting from New Order, he formed a group called the Light in order to play the Joy Division and New Order songs he loved. An original member of both groups, Hook was a driving musical force in both. His distinctive tone and penchant for playing high on the neck gives each band a unique bottom end – just try to imagine “Love Will Tear Us Apart” without that iconic bass riff. As co-writer and riff-generator, rather than just simply anchor, Hook has as much right to play these songs as anybody, and he’s made a comfortable career for himself performing them for audiences either old enough to miss the good ol’ days or too young to have experienced them live.
But both bands are identified by their lead singers – the flat, emotionally drained insistence of JD’s Ian Curtis and the light, poppy croon of NO’s Bernard Sumner. And the latter continues to tour with New Order, who are also still in the business of making new albums, rather than peddling nostalgia. (Though, let’s face it, NO concerts probably consist of a small handful of new tracks and an endless parade of hits.) Hook is strictly delivering reminiscence. Which begs the question: Does the Light need to make albums when the original albums he’s covering are still readily available?
Hook has decided to find out with a barrage of new releases via Westworld, all live, each devoted to a particular item from his prior acts’ catalogs. Live in Leeds takes on Joy Division’s iconic debut Unknown Pleasures, adding enough JD singles and B-sides to expand into a second disk. Live in Manchester, performed for a hometown crowd, addresses JD’s second and final LP Closer, adding many of the same non-album tracks as bonuses for a two-disk set. The Light proves itself to be a crack band, particularly drummer Paul Kehoe and guitarist Nat Wason, boasting enough reverence to do the material justice and enough energy to give the more aggressive songs a kick in the arse. With a gruff voice in the same range as Ian Curtis’, Hook slips into the late frontman’s role surprisingly well, though he doesn’t have his predecessor’s lived-in gloom. Like the band, Hook seems most comfortable with the pounding end of the JD songbook – “Warsaw,” “Transmission” and “Dead Souls” genuinely smoke. The occasional deep dive turns up songs like the punky “The Drawback,” from the scrapped version of JD’s debut album, or the instrumental “Incubation,” which appears only a posthumous JD live record and opens Manchester. Ending Leeds with “Ceremony,” the first New Order single that was intended to be a Joy Division song, is a nice touch.
The two volumes of Live in Dublin present Hook and co. doing New Order’s Movement and Power, Corruption & Lies in their entirety. (Released, for some reason, in separate volumes, even though they were recorded at the same show and practically beg for another double disk set.) As the albums NO made before dancefloor dominance became paramount, they’re well-suited to the Light’s less synth-heavy, more rocking approach. The band plays up a storm, attacking these songs like they’re brand new. New six-stringer David Potts’ power chords gives every track balls, while Hook’s bass-playing son Jack Bates holds down the bottom so Hook can essay his usual high-neck plinks. Kehoe keeps the rhythms burning like a line of ash leading to dynamite. The aggression powering “Denial,” “Senses” and “Ultraviolence” may take longtime fans aback, though it’s not so much a radical shift as an aesthetic one. The Light is particularly potent on the non-album tracks – “Everything’s Gone Green” and “Procession” practically leap out of the speakers and at your throat.
The real contrast is in the vocals. Hook’s bluff baritone isn’t remotely close to NO guitarist Bernard Sumner’s choirboy croon, and the former’s frank struggle to keep with the same key as the originals can be a little, shall we say, disconcerting. (“Dreams Never End” and “Doubts Even Here” are excepted, since they were originally sung by Hook in the first place.) The brooding balladry of “Your Silent Face,” grooving dance pop of “True Faith” and unabashed sugar of “Age of Consent” and “Temptation” practically beg for a voice less prone to flatness and grit. It doesn’t help that the first half of the Movement release consists of Joy Division tunes, which suit Hook far better.
No one, including Hook, would ever claim these records are superior to the originals. So once again the question arises: What’s the point? Are they mere souvenirs for diehard fans to take home from concert tours? Considering how hard the band cooks and the obvious love and effort put into the performances, it’s difficult to dismiss these records as just items to take up space on the merch table. And goodness knows it may be the only chance to hear the Joy Division songs played live by someone who was there. In the end, of course, it’s up to the individual listener. For some, no takes on these songs without Ian Curtis or the rest of New Order serves any point. For others, the might of the band and the live energy may be enough to justify the spins. Pick your poison.
Consumer Note: The albums were originally released as limited edition vinyl for this year’s Record Store Day.