This enormous collection is at its best when directing listeners towards the smallest, subtlest glimpses of a sound that didn’t have to disappear.
The London synth-pop duo Blancmange somehow never got cool. This is rather surprising, since the band—most frequently consisting of Harrowers Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe—seems to have all the makings of a hipster favorite: an ironic moniker, a slick new-wave style and a desire to combine rock motifs with non-Western influences. So why does Blancmange not have the sizable cult following of bands like Talking Heads, The Dismemberment Plan or Vampire Weekend?
The Blanc Tapes answers this question across its six discs, which include the band’s original three-LP run on London Records (Happy Families , Mange Tout , Believe You Me ) and three discs of outtakes that correspond with each LP. The material reveals a band whose polished sound regrettably replaced early lo-fi broodings with a mannered style marked by poetaster rhyme schemes and ill-informed borrowings.
The most riveting evidence of their early sound is a series of three demos from the set’s second disc: “Holland,” “I Can’t Explain” and “Black Bell.” These buzzing, lovably unkempt tracks uncover the Blancmange that could have been. Listen carefully to instrumental “Black Bell,” for example, and you can almost trick yourself into thinking that they would powerfully plug in to the bracingly dark, dysmorphic aura of bands like Joy Division. A pretention-free experiment in atmosphere, it’s all bleeding electronics and distorted guitar wail. It seems to linger in darkness, waiting for the next era in music to completely unfurl.
Unfortunately, by the time that next era arrived Blancmange had crafted a more commercial sound that fit a little too neatly into synth-pop aesthetics. They end up coming across as a color-by-numbers New Order or an assembly-line Depeche Mode. Still, a measure of the band’s previously disheveled energy comes across on parts of all of their studio albums. For Happy Families, this is the case on passionately expressed, high-energy “Feel Me.” It’s here that Arthur’s rumbling, angst-y baritone voice seems worthy of prolonged attention. “Feel me now/ Feel the pain,” he howls over a series of sinister drum snarls and grooving guitar, and a choir of open-toned voices responds in accord.
Other highlights include ABBA cover “The Day Before You Came” (from Mange Tout) and “Other Animals” (from Believe You Me). The former pitches down ABBA’s disco vibes just enough to feel sinister, while the latter is, on a sonic level, more exploratory. Its ruthless saxophone wades its way through an electric sea to depict a society on the edge of a neurotic breakdown. Both tracks find Blancmange conveying a decidedly modern and urban form of loneliness: the feeling of total isolation in the midst of crowds and technologies that pile forth like so many particle waves.
The trouble is that these feel like the exception rather than the rule, particularly in terms of lyrics. A line like, “Other animals move from the city/ Shift to automatic, leaving their houses” is about as captivating as Blancmange gets. More frequently, their songs feature face palm-inducing couplets and vapid imagery. “We had a love, a love to last years/ Should’ve blown away all of our fears,” goes “Lose Your Love,” while “Sweet as sugar/ Spice of life/ And all things nice,” from “All Things Are Nice,” marks another low point.
This compilation does have a few other surprises up its sleeves, like the Purcell-esque arrangements of “John” and “Lorraine’s My Nurse.” Initially, these come across as bizarre, revisionist takes on English music history, but in context they confirm the group’s British brand of stuffiness. Tracks like “Living on the Ceiling” and “Vishnu – Short Version,” while well intentioned, exacerbate this tendency in overstated nods towards Middle Eastern and Indian sounds, respectively. Neither seems particularly interested in non-Western cultures as anything other than exotic reference points, even though the occasional tabla, madal or sitar appears in a few other Blancmange numbers.
An inclusive set, The Blanc Tapes paints a baroque picture of a band that moved in a number of fascinating directions. It’s a pleasure to hear all of this material through the fuzz of vinyl, which adds an additional layer of charm to the band’s earliest work. As any eye-opening box set should, it lays bare Blancmange’s most mundane, grating and offensive tendencies. The band may not be worthy of a massive following, but why would they want one? This enormous collection is at its best when directing listeners away from massiveness towards the smallest, subtlest glimpses of a sound that didn’t have to disappear.