ALBUM REVIEW: Echo & the Bunnymen – The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon

9/10

Liverpudlian Post Punk legends Echo and the Bunnymen have weathered tumultuous occurrences, the death of band members and various lineup changes throughout their 40-year history. On October 5th the original founders of the band, Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant are releasing “The Stars, The Oceans and The Moon” to commemorate this momentous anniversary. The album contains two new tracks and a reinterpretation of 13 of the band’s most beloved songs. The band hand-picked the selections and exposed them to a reworking with today’s latest studio technology.

Echo and the Bunnymen after developing a heavy cult following with their debut album, 1980’s Crocodiles, entered the wider public music conscious in 1983 with the top 10 UK hit The Cutter. Porcupine the album that spawn that hit reached # 2 on the UK charts and was followed up by the impressive top ten chart album Ocean Rain in 1984. In the US, Echo and Bunnymen made their mark contributing to the soundtracks of many 80’s films. Songs like The Killing Moon, Lips Like Sugar and Bring on The Dancing Horses that were placed in John Hughes adolescent centred movies which drove kids to the record stores to buy the band’s discography. To assist in establishing a US beachhead the compilation album Songs to Learn and Sing was released in 1985 and rose to number 6 on the charts growing the band’s profile in the US. The band seemed on the brink of superstardom when events turned. A number of fans would be turned off by McCulloch’s fearless voicing of his opinion about other artists, most especial the venom he tossed at bands like U2 and Simple Minds. Internal turmoil would lead to frontman McCulloch leaving for a solo career.

Another misfortune occurred when Drummer Pete De Freitas died in a motorcycle accident in 1989. There would be various lineup changes to follow and the band would disband in 1993. Echo and the Bunnymen would be resurrected in 1994 when McCulloch and Sergeant decided to again work together. With the eventual addition of the band’s original bassist Les Pattinson, it seemed logical to relaunch Echo and Bunnymen. Together they would release Evergreen in 1997 and go on to make five additional albums over the next two decades, their most recent 2014’s Meteorites.

For this auspicious tribute to their four decades, McCulloch and Co chose Andy Wright as Co-producer. The band recorded and mixed the release at Dog House Studios. The goal was to shake up the chosen classic tracks without losing the impact of the original works. McCulloch has said he strove to improve his phrasing and pronunciation on the lyrics. He also stated he desired to tone down the overt naïveté on the original tracks adding a more mature and informed perspective to record something just as arresting. McCulloch’s intent might send a chill down the spine of hardcore Echo and The Bunnymen fans. Reason being it was not outside the realm of possibility that the re-approach would damage the classic Bunnymen canon. However, Echo and the Bunnymen succeed in to freshen up their classic songs without spoiling them. For older fans, the joy of this release comes from comparing the old to the new and many times liking both. For me, it was a great chance to finally figure out what McCulloch was singing and I was struck by the beauty of his lyrics time and again.

The Stars, the Oceans & the Moon starts with Bring On the Dancing Horses and is more refined with its cleaner and modernized sonic adding a gorgeous orchestration that continues that swirling vibe of the original. The Somnambulist is one of the two new tracks and has all the markings of a classic Echo and the Bunnymen offering. Ian’s vocal is hypnotic as always and the song is intriguing as it demands repeated listens. A true work of art that shows the maturity and skills McCulloch has always possessed when songwriting. Stepping back to their reunion album Evergreen the track Nothing Lasts Forever is a gloriously ethereal and gauzy ballad. It trades on a Nick Cave minimalist approach and stands up well with the epic tracks on the release. The epic Lips Like Sugar had me holding my breath. Could anything top this song? This song ruled MTV and you could not escape it in its heyday. I feared this version would not measure up. All fears were allayed with the beginning trademark guitar lick. It is a spectacular reinterpretation of this song, made ever so slightly brighter but honouring the original sonic, the band delivers the goods on this one.

Rescue is probably one of the biggest departures from the original with a different slower tempo, almost a ballad. The strings and funk approach make for a clever contrast from the original. In comparing the two, the original still wins for being one of the darkest introspective post-punk classics ever released. Rust gets a Van Morrison interpretation and the beauty of McCulloch’s lyrics jump out at the listener. This happens again on Angels and Devils which takes a headlong run at winning out over the original song. The one track that is a real revelation on the release is All My Colours (Zimbo) from their 1981 release Heaven Up Here. This is a simply stunning revamp that is completely mesmerizing and delivers a powerful impact.

Again and again on the release, I was impressed with McCulloch and Sergeant’s respectful treatment of their classics. Throughout the release it is evident they put tremendous effort into getting it right. This is really apparent on the tracks Stars are Stars and Ocean Rain which made me want to go back and listen to the originals and fall in love with both originals and their reinterpretations.

Seven Seas is slowed down reflecting the maturity the band has gained. The track is simpler in ways but still loaded with yearning and just as evocative. I totally love the addition of the accordion. I didn’t think the song could get more earnest but Ian and Will pull it off and deliver a dénouement of sorts for their discography. I paused when I saw that the band was taking on a reinterpretation of The Cutter which is in the pantheon of classic Post Punk songs. This was going to be a highwire act over a shark tank. The song made Echo and the Bunnymen who they are in music history, giving them their legendary sonic fingerprint. The original uncontrolled hysteria is now better controlled. It is not as murky and delivers more of punch lyrically as again the production is brighter and cleaner.

The final two tracks are a great contrast of the new juxtaposed against one of Echo and the Bunnymen’s’ most unforgettable songs. How Far? is a touching tribute to their career and reviews the path they have travelled. There are music references to prior songs, ideas and lyrics. The “We are all astronauts looking for heaven” lyric cleverly refers to the universal quest for the meaning of life that the band has always sought and to the title of this release. The final track, The Killing Moon utilizes a piano ballad with orchestral strings rather than the keening synths and guitars that characterized the original. This song is as beautiful as the original and takes on another life. It is a stunning way to end a transcendent album. Many times during the release McCulloch challenges himself. He takes on the original tracks and his younger self and miraculously comes out unscathed taking nothing away from the first renditions and only adds illumination. That is not easy to do and everyone involved deserves praises for pulling it off.

The Stars, The Oceans and the Moon is an outstanding release that in inspired in it’s retranslating of the Echo and the Bunnymen canon. In many ways, the album performs the same task as Songs to Learn and Sing did in the mid-eighties giving a shorthand version of some of the band’s most powerful songs. It is an excellent gateway into the discography of Echo and the Bunnymen for younger listeners and will provide endless interest for hardcore fans. For those fans, there are no disappointments to be found on the album and take that as a ringing endorsement from me, a gal who once had a treasured poster of the cover of Songs to Learn and Sing in her dorm room. The two new tracks are worthy to be placed with these long-standing classics. As anniversary/tribute releases go, Echo and the Bunnymen have successfully walked the tightrope between refreshing their classics and honouring them beautifully.

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