These albums present one of the most singular post-punk bands of all time as a nearly fully-formed entity.
To call the Monochrome Set an acquired taste would be an understatement. To some, their witty, hyper-literate compositions are the peak of what pop music can be; for others, their work is alienating, little more than the ramblings of a songwriter too clever for his own good. Either way, the band were unique right from the outset. Even among the glut of punk and post-punk bands that exploded onto the scene at the start of the ‘80s. Sure, they were every bit as insular and strange as post-punk could be, but the songs that populate Strange Boutiques and Love Zombies are anything but a sign of the times. While they shared a similar ethos of returning to the basics of pop music, what these two albums show is that the Monochromes’ idea of a return to basics was not what anyone would have expected.
Strange Boutique actually opens with something that would have fit right in with the experimental, rhythm-focused post-punk of the time. “The Monochrome Set (I Presume)” bangs to life with a series of repeated drums that evoke something primal in the mind, its repeated chorus of the song’s and band’s name becoming a mantra. But then, the album takes a left turn as the band introduce and hone what would eventually become their signature sound. While not quite formalist in nature, the songs exhibit a group far more rehearsed and technically skillful than anyone calling themselves punks would want to appear to be. The guitar work is light and jazzy, a perfect complement to singer Bid’s wry, clever observations and quick turns of phrase. Organs are peppered throughout, often becoming the linchpin of songs like “The Lighter Side of Dating” without overwhelming the rest of the band. If the album has a flaw, it’s that the band sometimes hew too close to convention. Some of the more experimental aspects of the album feel unfinished, suggesting that the band weren’t quite committed to following through with some of their weirder ideas. Even so, Strange Boutique is a singular experience for those who are new to the band.
That unease is largely gone on Love Zombies, far stranger than its predecessor, yet more assured and confident. Lester Square’s guitar is as light and crisp as ever, but he also introduces more effects-driven material such as the distortion that kicks off “B-I-D Spells Bid” and the looping “RSVP.” Elsewhere, the band dabble in psychedelic effects on the title track, while “The Man with the Black Moustache” is perhaps the first instance of Bid taking seemingly anachronistic song styles and making them into something modern. The singer remains in rare form as well; whether delivering unconnected French phrases on “R.S.V.P.” or cracking jokes in Latin on “Adeste Fideles,” Bid cements his status here as one of the most clever songwriters of his era, and it’s very clear that he knows it. While it does share its predecessor’s penchant to jumping from style to style with abandon, Love Zombies does so with a boldness that comes from knowing one’s artistic identity.
Neither of these albums could be considered the Monochrome Set’s masterpiece; that would come two years later with Eligible Bachelors. But taken as a whole, Strange Boutique and Love Zombies present one of the most singular post-punk bands of all time as a nearly fully-formed entity. Yes, everything about them–from their winking song titles to the off-kilter construction of their songs–screams “underappreciated cult band,” but it’s still a shame that the Set’s early work still languishes in relative obscurity, particularly in America. As both of these records ably demonstrate, there was–and is–nothing in pop music quite like the Monochrome Set.