February 3, 2004

Friends, beware: bad choices are abundant here

I've always been of two minds about singles collections. On one hand, I rarely think that an album's best tracks are culled for singles. Furthermore, collections of nothing but singles do destroy the beauty of a well constructed album. Gone are the song pairings that make your hair stand on end, eye-catching cover art, interesting liner-notes, and anything else that makes an album stick out in the mind as something worth owning—something worth cherishing. It's like going to the Lourve to see the Mona Lisa only to find that paragon of painting replaced with fragments of the famous smile pasted, next to a few of da Vinci's half-baked sketches for a helicopter and some other Rube Goldberg-esqe device.

On the other hand, one can't deny how singles collections do have an appeal to record buyers seeking to get their feet wet without over-committing. After all, we've all been burned by terrible albums before—experienced the heartbreak of dropping twenty precious bits of paper on a lousy hunk of plastic that all your friends assured you "was fantastic" yet turns out to do nothing but make you drop to your knees, clasp your trembling hands, and feverishly pray for deafness. This special pain is second to none (with, of course, the possible exception of that birthday when you realize that you will never get an exciting present as long as you live, but shall instead receive nothing but socks and things you really need).

This, my friends, is where singles and greatest hits collections come into play. They allow us, the consumer, to get a brief glimpse of a band's career, fishing for traces of patterns that will indicate whether or not we would enjoy a full album from the group in question. They are safety mechanisms designed to provide us an out should we get hurt or become gun-shy.

New Model Army, the poor victims of the recent trend to cram an entire career into bit-sized snippets, have too interesting of a history to deserve such treatment. Although they emerged from the same early '80s British post-punk rubble as the Cure and the Smiths, the lads from Bradford, England remain relatively unknown over here in the states. Fronted by Justin "Slade the Leveler" Sullivan and named after Oliver Cromwell's revolutionary forces, New Model Army has walked a fine line through their twenty-odd years, merging incendiary politics and folk music with thumping, amphetamine-driven basslines and snarling attitude. Not quite early enough to be part of the punk revolution, and far too angry and folksy to be part of the British shoe-gazer moment, they exist in a sort of weird nebulous holding cell, playing folk festivals while getting pierced and tattooed. In short, they're a folk-festival band for those of us who aren't hippies.

New Model Army's latest release Great Expectations: The Singles Collection seeks to be a musical primer for the long career of New Model Army. From the "punk's-not-really-dead" blasts of "Great Expectations" to their later ballads ("Living in the Rose"), the disc spans a remarkable amount of musical and chronological time, painfully earnest in its attempts to show you exactly how and when New Model Army matured.

So, where does this album stack up in the mix of things? Well, as much as I hate to admit it, Great Expectations is pretty lackluster—even as far as singles collections go. Sure, there are some absolutely wonderful songs and musical moments on this album. The lonesome-yet-frantic harmonica solo in "Poison Street" is nothing short of sublime, while "Green and Grey" remains one of the most poignant small-town laments ever put to music. "Orange Tree Roads" and "Living in the Rose" represent a maturity and wistfulness rarely encountered in contemporary rock music, and the haunting "51st State" and "White Coats" both succeed in spite of Sullivan's often-ridiculous neo-Luddite politics.

However, for all the wonderful songs and remastered clarity, Great Expectations suffers from a myriad of problems. To begin, many of the songs on the album fall ill from a bad case of radio editing, excising beautiful intros and even whole verses in the name of three-minute airtime. Additionally, several of New Model Army's more controversial singles (most notably "Heroin" and "Vengeance") were left out for reasons unknown to any outside of their label. Why they chose to include the boring "Get Me Out" and the ho-hum "The Price" instead of the vastly more entertaining non-invites is entirely beyond me.

As I rapidly run out of space, let me just sum up as best I can: New Model Army is good; Great Expectations is not. If you are one of the many unfamiliar with this fantastic band, I recommend you pick up their albums Thunder and Consolation and the Ghost of Cain instead. If you're truly interested in hearing New Model Army and can't get your hands on either of those two albums, then I guess you can go ahead and buy Great Expectations instead. But please, don't do it with your own money. Friends don't let friends buy disappointing albums.