Albums from the Lost and Found: Babylon & On / Frank

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.

One of the greatest ironies in the history of new wave is that Squeeze’s most enduring radio hit, the soulful “Tempted” from 1981’s East Side Story, and the lead vocals of which are almost exclusively handled by neither of the band’s two primary singers – instead, the song is sung by Paul Carrack, formerly the lead singer for Ace (“How Long”) and later the lead singer for Mike + the Mechanics – did not actually hit the Top 40 in America (stopping at #49), while neither of the band’s two actual Top 40 hits in this country (“Hourglass” and “853-5937”) – or any of Paul Carrack’s four Top 40 hits as a solo artist, either, for that matter – get played on the radio today on any kind of regular basis. Go figure.

Similarly, while the band’s early ‘80s albums (Argybargy and East Side Story in particular) continue to reap critical acclaim and pop up on best-of lists all the time, you never hear critics talk about the band’s albums from the late ‘80s, which is when the band actually had its biggest commercial success. It’s not only illogical, but it’s also a shame; the band’s two final albums of the decade might actually pack more instantly-memorable hooks into their respective grooves than anything else in their catalog and were a remarkable comeback after the relatively disappointing Sweets from a Stranger and Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti, neither of which contained anything quite commercial enough to be a natural fit on American pop radio.

1987’s Babylon and On sounds like little else in the band’s catalog, noticeably having a fuller and more polished production than anything they had released in the past. The band has taken on a sixth member in former Soft Boy Andy Metcalfe, and the band also incorporates horns into their sound (played by Metcalfe and vocalist/songwriter Glenn Tilbrook), while also bringing in T-Bone Wolk to play accordion on several tracks. The band wastes no time in broadening its palette, the horns providing the very opening notes of the album’s lead-off cut, the Top 40 hit “Hourglass.” It’s unfortunate that the effervescent sound of “Hourglass” doesn’t pop up on the radio anymore, because it still sounds fresh to this day and the band seldom ever got more playful than this, the song boasting a real rapid-fire, tongue-twisting chorus and a fun instrumental breakdown with just the horns and some percussion. Tilbrook is in fine form here, too, and it’s rather impressive just how long he manages to hold the high note towards the end of the song.

But “Hourglass” is just a taster of things to come, and Babylon and On has got plenty of other equally catchy songs: the Top 40-charting soul-pop of “853-5937,” which has the same R&B groove and tempo of “Tempted” but an even catchier chorus; the dreamy near-hypnotic pop of “Footprints,” drummer Gilson Lavis’s finest hour with the band, Lavis not missing a single beat on the drum-fill-heavy cut; the accordion-laden waltz “Tough Love,” a dramatically powerful story-song about a woman trapped in a relationship with an abusive-alcoholic partner; the fun and ridiculously catchy accordion-heavy pop of “Striking Matches”; the pounding rocker “The Prisoner”; the soulful “Cigarette of a Single Man” and “Some Americans”; and the quirky, more new-wave-tinged “Trust Me to Open My Mouth.”

The follow-up disc, 1989’s Frank, stiffed completely, only climbing as high on the U.S. album charts as #113 (whereas Babylon had climbed as high as #36), failing to yield even so much as a Hot 100 hit, never mind a Top 40 single. While the production was noticeably rawer this time out, there are just as many catchy songs on Frank as there were on Babylon, starting with the pounding rockers “If It’s Love” (which sports some rather muscular drum work from Lavis) and the deliciously wordy story-song “Rose I Said.” The intriguingly intricate “Peyton Place” is another unexpectedly catchy story-song and is also one of pianist Jools Holland’s finest outings with the band.

The band gets jazzy on “Slaughtered, Gutted, and Heartbroken” and mines the sound of New Orleans for “Dr. Jazz,” while it explores some unusual lyrical ground in the surprisingly sensitive “She Doesn’t Have to Shave,” which explores the inner thoughts of a husband dealing with his wife’s hormone-induced mood swings, and the even more dramatic – yet unexpectedly catchy – “Can of Worms,” which is written from the perspective of a man dating a divorcee and becoming a stepfather figure to her children, who spend alternate weekends with their biological father. 

Best of all, Chris Difford – who typically cedes lead vocals to Tilbrook – takes the mike on the wildly underrated “Love Circles,” arguably the finest and most addictive song he’s ever sung on a Squeeze album and a cut that somehow manages to be one of the more aggressive rockers in the band’s catalog and one of its prettiest at the exact same time.

Sadly, Squeeze would split with A&M – the label they had been with since their very first album, 1978’s U.K. Squeeze ­– shortly after Frank flopped, and the group would never again stick with the same label for two consecutive studio albums, signing with Reprise for 1991’s Play before re-signing with A&M and reuniting with Paul Carrack for 1993’s Some Fantastic Place before leaving A&M once again and issuing their next album, Ridiculous, through I.R.S. The band has issued three more albums since then, but to only modest sales response in America. The 1982 hits package Singles 45’s & Under remains a fairly steady back-catalog seller on these shores, but it ironically came out too early to feature either of the band’s two actual Top 40 hits, and as Babylon & On and Frank both prove, the band was quite adept at churning out non-singles that were nearly as catchy as the hits, so the aforementioned compilation, great though it is, only begins to give you a picture of just how deep and high-quality the band’s catalog is.