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Music Review: Erasure – The Innocents (21st Anniversary Edition)

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In many ways The Innocents represents the commercial peak for pop icons Erasure. Granted, it is their biggest-selling album to date, and also yielded their most international radio chart success. But it is their most fully-formed, accessible and diverse album to date as well. More than just an extended vehicle for hits such as "A Little Respect" and "Chains Of Love," The Innocents is an album full to the brim of excellence in pop songwriting. The electronic wizardry of Vince Clarke matched with the soulful crooning of Andy Bell had solidified into something that had an eye beyond fleeting radio success. And now, on the 21st anniversary year of its release, it's receiving some much-overdue attention.

It's hard to imagine a stronger lead cut than "A Little Respect." It's a near-perfect pop song, exuding self-assurance. And with the ever-revolving styles of pop radio, it still doesn't sound like it's over two decades old. The melancholic "Ship Of Fools" follows, a surprisingly low-key hit for the group, but a strong album track. Upbeat gems "Phantom Bride" and "Chains Of Love" help lead the first half, along with the pensively beautiful "Hallowed Ground."

Really, you'd have to go all the way down to "Imagination" to find anything even approaching a weak cut. Not only does the album contain excellent songs one after the other, but it contains a breadth of styles. There's the gospel-influenced "Yahoo!" and jaunty waltz of "Witch In The Ditch." And then there's the swing-band influenced "Sixty-Five Thousand," an instrumental awash with horns.

This album found Erasure stretching themselves creatively, and winning at every turn. The remastering job for the set is both subtle and effective. Although elevating the volume level, it doesn't sacrifice balance or quality of sound in the process. Slightly cleaner separation and up-front vocal presence give it a thoroughly fresh sound.

In addition to the album proper (which comprises disc one of this three-disc set), the deluxe edition contains an extra disc of remixes, b-sides and rarities, as well as a live DVD, all housed in CD-sized hardcover book. The book itself holds the discs in slip-sleeve pages of heavy card stock. Twenty pages are devoted to images, lyrics and Q&As with both Clarke and Bell. The text content doesn't yield anything horribly revelatory, although neither does it leave out anything you might expect. All in all, it's a nice housing for the set, and attractive to boot.

The second disc — containing remixes and b-sides and live cuts — offers a nice alternate take on their style at the time. Extended versions are the name of the game here, eschewing the need for more abstract interpretations. The Shiver Me Timbers Mix of "Ship Of Fools" offers a lengthy intro before settling into the track itself, all the while taking its existing style and just stretching it out. Both "When I Needed You" and the 7" version of "River Deep Mountain High" offer more single-length versions of the tracks tucked onto the album. The Unfettered Mix is a nice go-to extended version of "Chains Of Love," unlike the 12" House Mix of "A Little Respect" (the disc really could have used the 12" Vocal Mix instead) which deviates from the overall feel of the selections here.

The Country Joe Mix of "Don't Suppose" is a slight extension of this b-side, giving more emphasis to the banjo parts, and is a great bonus track from the "Chains Of Love" single. The Dangerous Mix of Vince's cover of "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly" is a slightly meatier version of this b-side, giving it some added beat emphasis. The Mark Freegard Mix of "Like Zsa Zsa Gabor" is an excellent, single-worthy remix of this fun b-side although it suffers a bit from overzealous reverb. And "Love Is Colder Than Death" is an endearing — though brief — bit of twilight reverie. Rounding out the disc are four live tracks from the period that, quite frankly, pale in comparison to the concert versions that follow on the DVD.

Indeed, the real treat of this deluxe set is the DVD. Although containing various bits, its primary item is an hour-long concert at the NEC Birmingham, wrapping up The Innocents Live tour. Previously available as a UK-only VHS release, this is a great item for fans of the group. The video quality of the footage shows the limitations of the source, but fortunately the stereo audio is full and detailed. You can quickly forgive the slightly lo-fi look of the show as the strength of the performance wins you over. This is a fantastic show and reveals the band at their live best. Featuring material from their first three albums (as well as the Crackers International EP), these are some of their best live performances, with Bell giving some commanding and top-notch vocal renditions of their early hits. Also included are two bonus live cuts from the original concert, "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" and "Witch In The Ditch."

The DVD also contains several other items of note. "The Innocents – Live" is a thirty-minute TV special of the concert, featuring a few of its songs, interspersed with behind-the-scenes and interview footage of the group. "Ship Of Fools" from Going Live and "A Little Respect" from Top Of The Tops are two television lip-sync performances from the period. Music videos for "Ship Of Fools," "Chains Of Love" and "A Little Respect" are also included. To top things off, the DVD also contains MP3 files of the full NEC Birmingham show.

This is how special editions should be done. Not only is the album handled with proper remastering care, but an appropriate bonus disc of rarities and an excellent live DVD companion make this a well thought-out and executed repackaging. Fans should make this release a priority.

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