Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

ABC – Beauty Stab

I don’t share musical sensibilities with very many people. It’s not that I’m a hipster with ridiculously obscure tastes, mind you. My library contains mostly recognizable names, though sometimes it’s a case of “a leading artist in their narrow niche.” Taken as a whole, however, you’re unlikely to find any single person who would agree about much more than half of my four-or-five-star selections.

With that said, over the last couple of years Wonderduck and I have found considerable congruity in what kind of music makes us sit up and take notice. I sent him a USB-stick sampler as a Yule present a few months ago, and he occasionally links me something via email that he thinks I might get a kick out of. It’s not always spot-on, but I trust his tastes enough that I’m always willing to at least give it a listen.

A while ago he commented on a Quacked Panes comic about artists who went in a different direction from their norm and how that tends to earn the ire of their fanbase. His example was ABC’s second album, “Beauty Stab.”

ABC made their mark with the kind of early-80s synthpop that I grew up on, so I was already somewhat familiar with the band. What I’d not been aware of was that for their sophomore record they chose to go in a more rock-n-roll, guitar-and-bass direction. They were, of course, both pilloried and ignored for this choice. From then on they went back to making electronic pop music like everyone wanted them to.

And with that one might be tempted to pass up “Beauty Stab” because, hey, it’s clear that this wasn’t what they were good at, so why bother? This is a temptation one should resist. Turns out, ABC actually did a good job posing as a straight-up rock band.

Okay, so it’s not like they made a Black Sabbath record all of a sudden. It’s still pop-rock, there are still synths, and it’s all very bright and upbeat with a couple of notable exceptions. As a style experiment, however, it really does work. Standout tracks include the lead-off “That Was Then But This Is Now,” “The Power of Persuasion,” “King Money” and the groovy, naughty “Unzip.” I love how “That Was Then…” leads off with gentle synths as if you were about to get an electronica record, then the guitar and drums kick in. Gotcha!

Never mind that this is another lead-off track with a certain amount of “meta” built in. “I guess you’ve changed / you’ve changed but how.” It reminds me a bit of the new Soundgarden album’s lead track which basically says, “Yes, we’re back, whatever, deal with it.”

One big surprise for me on this record is a very quiet track that I just can’t get enough of, “By Default By Design.” It’s absolutely gorgeous and almost justifies the album price all by itself. Your mileage may vary, but alongside four four-star tracks this one’s the five-star selection for me.

Those are just the standouts to me; there’s not a bad track on the album, just songs that don’t grab me quite as much as the others. By all means, if you have a few dollars to throw at your preferred music vendor, you could do worse that to pick up this little gem from the early 1980s, a bygone time that shaped so much about who I am and what I like. I wonder what I would’ve thought of this album had anyone played it for me back then…

1 Comment

  1. Wonderduck

    After listening to the album, there are a couple of tracks that leap out at me as being entirely inappropriate to the rest of it. SOS, I suspect, was left over from Lexicon. Meanwhile, United Kingdom, the political diatribe that ends the album, is so wildly out of place for ABC that one could easily convince me that someone snuck the sheet music in one night and the band just played what was in front of them.

    Everything else is a leather jacket over a tuxedo.

    I know I wasn’t as taken with the album back in the ’80s as I am now. It was okay, it just wasn’t what I wanted from ABC… wacky synthpop where’s my How To Be A Zillionare dance music?

    If someone released this today, By Default By Design would make some serious noise on the charts, I think.

    Thanks for the review, brotherduck.

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