Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Beautiful South

  • Welcome to the Beautiful South [Elektra, 1990] A-
  • Choke [Elektra, 1990] ***
  • 0898 Beautiful South [Elektra, 1992] A-
  • Miaow [Go! Discs, 1994] ***
  • Carry On Up the Charts: The Best of the Beautiful South [Mercury, 1995] A-
  • Blue Is the Colour [Ark 21, 1997] A
  • Quench [Mercury, 1998] *
  • Painting It Red [Ark 21, 2000] B+
  • Golddiggas Headnodders & Pholk Songs [Sony Music UK, 2004] A-
  • Superbi [Sony/BMG, 2006] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Welcome to the Beautiful South [Elektra, 1990]
They're to the Housemartins as General Public was to the English Beat, only General Public stunk up the joint. And though the first two cuts do last 12 minutes, this album isn't soft, sweet, or dead on its feet--it's a killer. Its surface is even more feckless and dulcet than the old guys': drummer-turned-vocalist Dave Hemingway trades sugarlumps with Paul Heaton, who sheathes his political edge. The tempos, the keybs, snazzy new guitarist Dave Rotheray and his sneaky-catchy tuns--all are camouflage for Heaton's righteous self-righteousness and radical unease. Personally, I miss the Marxian animus he's abandoned for attacks on the pop power structure and sarcastic relationship songs. But I'm knocked out that he can progress so naturally from subverting garage-pop to subverting the real thing. He's a sweet, soft force to be reckoned with, and if he wants to camouflage his politics I'm willing to credit his motives. The pop power structure is always worth taking on--if you do it right. A-

Choke [Elektra, 1990]
cute but deadly, pop but not, fussy but that can change ("I've Come for My Award," "I Think the Answer's Yes") ***

0898 Beautiful South [Elektra, 1992]
Even more obscure stateside since he got lusher conventions, songsmith Paul Heaton does his endangered species proud. The tunes stick, and the lyrics transcend their sarcastic shtick--predictably idiosyncratic though "You do English/I'll do sums/You break fingers/I'll break thumbs" may be, it brings you up short anyway. Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush hand Jon Kelly adds musical authenticity, and third vocalist Briana Corrigan sings lines like "This is the woman you laid" with just the right edge of icy remorse. Introduce them to a decent drum programmer and they could be a threat. A-

Miaow [Go! Discs, 1994]
too pissed for their own good ("Prettiest Eyes," "Mini-Correct") ***

Carry On Up the Charts: The Best of the Beautiful South [Mercury, 1995]
Though Paul Heaton isn't the first or last pop aesthete to tense dark lyrics against lite music, not many have a) set up disparities as stark as "I love you from the bottom of my pencil case" or b) gone so literally pop with them. I don't want to make too much of his common touch, which is limited to England, where his extreme Englishness seems (somewhat) less exotic--not many Stateside have sampled the three albums that yield 10 of these tracks, and no one has heard them on the radio. But from Randy Newman's liberal elitism to Stephin Merritt's camp, American practitioners of this strategy like to pretend they're putting something over. So maybe Heaton's pop credibility is a reward for his sincere belief that the same people who suck up sweet music have an appetite for bitter sentiments. And maybe he seems so much deeper than Ben Folds because he's never snide. Sarcastic, bloody well right. Fond of his own cleverness, he'll drink to that. Tuneful, that's his fookin job. But pissed off to the heart. A-

Blue Is the Colour [Ark 21, 1997]
Guitars vestigial, jokes brittle sometimes but no less funny, Paul Heaton's finest album evolves toward the calling he was born too late for: music hall. Like such northern stars as Dan Leno and George Formby Sr., he voices the sharp-witted resentments of working stiffs resigned to their lot. Or maybe not: from "Don't marry her, fuck me" to "Imagine a mirror/Bigger than the room it was placed in," a few women here see beyond the repressive depression of English suburban life, where one of two husbands drinks as much as Heaton and the other is as boring as Phil Collins--and the loners are tedious souses. The triumph in this vein is "Liars Bar," the greatest in a long line of drinking songs by the man who's said: "I consider myself a workaholic, it's just that I like to have a drink while I'm working." It comes with a video in which a disheveled Heaton leads a chorus of homeless drunks through a lurching soft shoe like a born variety artist. "I'm a standup comedian," he sings, and it sounds like a job application. A

Quench [Mercury, 1998]
Next stop AA ("Dumb," "Your Father and I"). *

Painting It Red [Ark 21, 2000]
Just a few years ago Paul Heaton impressed with his empathy for his elders. Two albums later the song that turns on gray hairs seems to be about him. He's not close to losing his gift and may never be; pros like him have a right to their ups and downs, and after the soggy Quench, his music man Paul Rotheray has aired it out some. I dare the callowest Blur fan to resist the three-note piano-then-guitar-then-bass rhythm figure that anchors "10,000 Feet," sure to be a single with B sides before this 19-cut there, 17-cut here release finishes its U.K. run. But Blur are younger than the Beautiful South, always will be, and now they're on Anglophilia's slippery slope themselves. Americans are so insensitive. B+

Golddiggas Headnodders & Pholk Songs [Sony Music UK, 2004]
By the time pop grandmaster Paul Heaton threw this covers album to his U.K. hordes, his American fanbase was so small it had drowned in a pint of bitter. Yet the Britannia-ruling Olivia-ELO-Zombies trifecta that opens is no less winning than the all-American Ramones-Stylistics parlay that closes, and the Heppelbaums country song is more Willie Nelson than the Willie Nelson country song even though the Heppelbaums are actually Paul Heaton and Dave Rotheray. Moreover, the U.K.-specific selections from Spice Girls spinoff S Club 7 and major-label shoegazers Lush fit in less cunningly than the brazen Blue Oyster Cult and Rufus Wainwright picks. Every rendition is sly, dulcet, midtempo, with strings when appropriate--a beloved pop confection. A-

Superbi [Sony/BMG, 2006]
Paul: "We've come a long way from the cave." Alison: "What, you started to shave?" Paul: "Now we know just how to behave." Alison: "Since chivalry decided to bathe." So OK, I accept that they're somehow too English for us rude Yanks. What I don't get is how they lost their mojo in their native land--disbanding in 2007, they announced, due to "musical similarities." Their final album is middle of the pack by their high standards, opening with six unfailingly witty tunes, most of which reflect cynically on romantic love although there is that one about the Manchester rain, and closing with six less consistent songs Ray Davies would embrace socialism to have written. I suppose it could have been the drinking. I read where Paul now owns a pub in Manchester, records solo a bit, and continues to embrace socialism. A-

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