by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
For all the countless acts who have credited them as being an influence (Radiohead, The Killers, LaRoux, The xx, Moby, LCD Soundsystem, Robyn, Death Cab for Cutie, and Depeche Mode co-founder Vince Clarke, to name a few), Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (or OMD, as they’re more commonly referred to) inexplicably remain something of an obscurity in America. While their biggest hit, the timeless Pretty in Pink theme “If You Leave,” does still pop up frequently on American radio, most people seem to forget they had three additional Top 40 hits here (two of which made the Top 20), and whereas music critics have historically always been quick to salivate over fellow synth-pop pioneers Joy Division and its spin-off band New Order, you seldom hear anyone in American music journalism gush over an OMD album.
It’s a bit of a mystery why that is, particularly since not only are Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphries easily one of the greatest songwriting duos of the ‘80s, but OMD’s first four albums are as avant-garde and off-kilter and unlikely to appeal to many people other than music critics as any synth-pop music to be found in the ‘80s. (Their fourth disc, Dazzle Ships, is arguably the most blatantly uncommercial album to ever make the Top Ten in the UK album chart, although its single “Genetic Engineering” is still thankfully catchy enough for your average pop fan to appreciate.)
Indeed, it took several years (and a mid-‘80s change of label from Epic to A&M) for the band to finally strike the right balance between its more experimental tendencies and a more commercial approach. Their first A&M album, Junk Culture, was still slightly self-indulgent but was a promising step in the right direction and yielded enduring fan favorites in “Tesla Girls,” “Talking Loud and Clear,” and “Locomotion.” Its follow-up, Crush, made much more noise, landing the band its first American Top 40 hit, the excellent “So in Love,” and boasting several other great tracks in cuts like “Secret,” “Bloc Bloc Bloc,” “Women III,” and the hauntingly pretty ballad “Hold You,” though the album gets just a tad too lethargic in its back half to qualify as a flawless album.
1986’s The Pacific Age, the band’s first post-Pretty in Pink outing and its first album with a full-time brass section (in Graham and Neil Weir), in contrast, starts off strong and never once loses momentum, the ballads being lively and melodically memorable enough to keep the album from derailing and the hooks steadily piling up one after another.
The album takes advantage of its new lineup immediately on the kickoff track “Stay (The Black Rose and the Universal Wheel),” which, with its funky bassline and stabbing horns, boasts a rhythm track that calls to mind the most club-minded cuts on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. The hint of funk carries over to the next track, the soulful Top 40 hit “(Forever) Live and Die,” which boasts a chorus with some of the most impressively arranged harmonies to be found on any pop single from the late ‘80s. The vocals build up layer by layer with each successive line, the song peaking with a very cleverly-arranged instrumental break showcasing the new horn section. It’s a far cry from OMD’s earlier, explicitly-new-wave-minded singles, but the songcraft is still first-rate, and it’s quite impressive how the band has broadened its sound to incorporate some R&B elements into its brand of pop.
The muscular drumming of Malcolm Holmes heightens the dramatic intensity of the title track, while the band does a nice job of fusing the avant-garde pop of Dazzle Ships to its new, more pop-friendly sound on “The Dead Girls” and “Flame of Hope,” the majestic melody of the former occasionally calling to mind Abba at their best. The stellar pop caress of “Shame,” showcases the band at its most soulful and sultry, Andy McCluskey turning in a vocal performance that could make Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp jealous. The spine-chilling, horn-heavy instrumental MLK tribute “Southern,” which incorporates clips of the late civil rights leader’s speeches to marvelous effect, may be the finest tribute ever paid to the man on record. “Goddess of Love,” inexplicably got overlooked as a single, but it may very well be the album’s catchiest moment, and the lively production really helps to make the song one of the most dancefloor-friendly cuts in the entire OMD catalog.
The last two cuts on the album may be its very best, starting with the propulsive dance-rock of “We Love You,” which has a chorus that is so perfect yet so simple that you can’t help but wonder how no one ever thought of it before (why the single failed to follow “(Forever) Live and Die” into the American Top 40 is rather puzzling). The album ends with the slinky “Watch Us Fall,” which dials back the band’s usual synth attack in favor of a more acoustic-flavored, guitar-driven soulful groove and boasts the most fun chorus of all on the album to sing along to. (You’ll surely be singing along by the second time the chorus rolls around.) The laid-back vibe and alluring production make it the ideal chill-out track to wind down the disc after the emotional heights of “We Love You.”
Oddly, The Pacific Age sold only moderately well and sadly quickly made its way into cut-out bins, but the album—while certainly not their most artistically ambitious outing—is nonetheless arguably its very best. I’ve actually worn out at least three copies by now, and my sister is probably on her fourth copy by now as well! The album’s sadly been out of print on CD in America for years (though it can be obtained as an import on Caroline Records and original U.S. copies can be found periodically in the budget bins at used record shops) but is definitely worth tracking down.