B-Side: Venus of the Soup Kitchen
Prefab Sprout are a band that I've always had a soft spot for, and yet although always easy to like, I find them hard to love. Their music often seems to come pre-filtered through a haze of wistfulness and melancholy. Soft is the word that springs to mind when I think of them, and I don't mean that in any kind of pejorative way either. Soft, like a duvet, or like cumulus clouds sky high in the summertime, gentle like a spring breeze, and so often full of yearning. Part of this is down to frontman, Paddy McAloon's voice. He seems to sing in a commanding whisper, that is both fleeting and captivating. The rest of the band plays their part too - instruments are coaxed and caressed rather than thrashed and pounded, melody reigns over riff - in short them seem such sensitive souls. This is deceptive because often McAloon's lyrics are dense and intense with as much passion as they have romance.
Having written all that The Golden Calf is actual a rocky number, but that doesn't invalidate the previous paragraph, because it rocks out in a considered, thoughtful manner, lyrics are lyrical rather than just words that rhyme and fit song. It's got a rock 'n' roll bassline and rhythm section that make it chug along nicely, but somehow it doesn't quite feel right. It may have worked better in context on the album - this was the fifth single from the album (the b-side is also from the album too), which sounds to me like the record company trying milk that Golden Calf dry. Just because it's rocky and upbeat doesn't mean it should be single, particularly when those of us who were hooked in by earlier songs have already got the album. Listening to The Golden Calf I get the feeling that it's not quite all there, there's something incomplete about it, part of that incompleteness, I think, comes from not having the rest of the album around it.
Venus of the Soup Kitchen also shows us something that's missing from the A-side, and that's Wendy Smith's vocal contributions - I didn't really notice them not being there on The Golden Calf, but here where she has something to sing it really helps fill the song out. Although usually her vocals are confined to oohs and ahhs and choruses and other backing vocal duties her tone is helps round out the sound. If Paddy McAloon's voice is like velvet then Wendy Smith's voice is like air - it's light and imperceptible but you notice when it's not there. Venus of the Soup Kitchen is a more complex song, with added choral backing, and following less obvious pop song structures than the norm. It's more like a little character vignette of a show tune. Lyrically it is less obscure, and although about homelessness and destitution it's never maudlin or mawkish, and it never preaches. However it feels one paced removed and you I can stand back and admire it and appreciate the skill and the craft that's gone into it without it ever really connecting with me.
A good band with a record that is likable but ultimately adrift, cut off from the parent album and struggling without that support.
Next time some White (or possibly Green) reggae...