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The Haul 2010: Colin Newman's Commerical Suicide and Seam's "Days of Thunder"

These two LPs came from New Paltz, NY’s Rhino Records, a store I hadn’t visited in several years. It brought back fond memories of loading up on cheap CDs in high school.

6. Colin Newman – Commercial Suicide LP – Enigma, 1986 – $12 (1/17 Rhino Records)

Colin Newman's Commercial Suicide

The title of Colin Newman’s fourth solo album implies a detour from the nervy, antagonist post-punk of A – Z and Not To to less hospitable terrain, but the stylistic shift to electronically equipped chamber pop isn’t nearly as severe as what Wire fans came to expect with Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert’s art-damaged Dome albums. Yet I still agree with Colin Newman’s warning; Commercial Suicide marks a drastic left turn in compositional orientation. There’s plenty of weird, alienating textures on A – Z and Not To, but they’re essentially guitar rock records. Commercial Suicide is decidedly not.

More specifically, Commercial Suicide isn’t a Wire record. Both A – Z and Not To featured Wire drummer Robert Gotobed and a few songs originally intended for their follow-up to 154. (Compare the Wire version of “Safe” from Turns and Strokes to Newman’s own version from Not To; the difference between the thrashing snarl of the former and the wearied restraint of the latter is huge.) Those two albums picked up where Newman’s songs on 154 left off. Once Wire reformed in 1985, Colin Newman’s solo output branched off, making Commercial Suicide the first Newman solo album to truly feel distanced from Wire.

(A brief covering-my-bases note: this discussion excludes Provisionally Entitled the Singing Fish, Newman’s Brian Eno-inspired album of short instrumentals. It’s a pleasant diversion for those people who just can’t get enough of Music for Films, but every time I put it on, I wish Newman would sing over the tracks like he with “Fish One” on the CN1 EP, rechristening it “No Doubt.”)

This distance is explored on the opener, “Their Terrain,” (MP3) a fanfare for Wire’s concurrent return that forgoes guitars and percussion for both real and synthesized symphonic swells. It’s the most memorable track here by a fair margin, demonstrating how well Newman’s melodic instincts (“Outdoor Miner,” “The 15th,” “& Jury”) translate to chamber pop. Other keepers include “But I…,” highlighted by an atypically open chorus of “I have waited for so long / I,” and “I Can Hear Your… (Heartbeat),” which features background vocals from Newman’s now wife Malka Spiegel (who still collaborates with her husband in Githead). These highlights stand out clearly, since too many songs flounder in a propulsion-less slog from the album’s distaste for percussion.

Yet Commercial Suicide’s critical flaw is its reliance on 1980s synthesizers masquerading as orchestral flourishes. I tend to skirt the issue of “dated” recordings, since almost every record is tied to its historical context by its production values and/or compositional signposts, but it’s impossible to hear Commercial Suicide without thinking two things: 1. This record came out in the mid 1980s 2. This record would sound so much better if the ’80s synths were actual instruments. Strings are certainly present here, but not exclusively. Imagine Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock with obvious synth tones—would it hold the same critical reverence? I doubt it. Commercial Suicide needs to sound grand, not canned.

Newman’s next solo album, It Seems, bridges the gap between these eras to some extent, relying on sequencers for less chamber-oriented pop. (It’s just as dated, if not more so.) It’s not, however, as brave or compelling of a switch as Commercial Suicide was. For all of this album’s flaws, it’s impossible for me to hear the marvelous “Their Terrain” or “But I…” and not appreciate the chances Newman takes in switching from post-punk to chamber-pop or marvel at the success he has with such a different form. Sure, I still wonder what it would sound like with the Laughing Stock treatment, but Commercial Suicide provides detailed notes for that mental re-recording.

7. Seam – “Days of Thunder” + 2 7” – Homestead, 1991 – $4 (1/17 Rhino Records)

Seam's Days of Thunder single

It still blows my mind that Mac McCaughlin of Superchunk / Portastatic / Merge Records fame was Seam’s drummer when they started out. The band went through numerous line-up changes during its eight-year run, but starting out in North Carolina with Mac on drums is the biggest head-scratcher. “Days of Thunder” is their debut single, featuring the same line-up from 1992’s Headsparks (bassist Lexi Mitchell joining Seam mainstay Sooyoung Park) and sharing one song, “Grain.” The a-side does the lugubrious Seam template quite well—mumbled vocals, slowed-down tempos, buzzing guitars, bass hum, and those gloriously reticent melodies. “Grain” picks up the tempo, adding more jangle to the guitars, although it’s not as upbeat as the album version.

The cover of the Big Boys’ “Which Way to Go” fills out side B nicely with female vocals carrying a lilting rendition of the tune. It’s borderline twee, dropping Mac’s drums out for an occasional shake of a tambourine, but Seam was particularly good at stretching the logical boundaries of its melodic indie rock sound. I certainly expect this song was a head-scratcher for any Bitch Magnet fans hoping that Seam picked up where Ben Hur left off.

I’ve uploaded the “Days of Thunder” single along with seven other out-of-print songs from Seam singles here. The understated cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” is quite nice.