Prefab Sprout was their name, and despite considerable critical acclaim, the British band's creative seedlings never quite sprouted into mainstream success. They debuted in 1982 with the album Swoon, and through the decade remained purveyors of fine, literate pop, led by chief songwriter/vocalist Paddy McAloon.
Their high point was 1985's Steve McQueen (confusingly, the album was retitled Two Wheels Good in the U.S. after McQueen's representatives threatened legal action). Now, Steve McQueen is back in an expanded, remastered two-disc edition from Sony/Legacy. The big draw here is an entire CD of eight of the album's songs recorded in solo acoustic versions by McAloon in 2006.
More than 20 years on, Steve McQueen remains a dreamy slice of 1980's pop, evocative of Squeeze or Crowded House. On first listen, the tunes are romantic rock, but they're filled with layers. A song like "Faron Young" is an intentionally vague, yet gorgeously grand, piece of music. The brooding "When Love Comes To Town" was the album's biggest hit. While it was the '80s, in a lot of ways Prefab Sprout's true inspirations were the orchestrated epics of Burt Bacharach or The Beach Boys. McAloon lends a dark underside to his often cheery compositions – or as "Desire As" puts it, “I've got six things on my mind you're no longer one of them."
Particularly on the British side of the pond, the album remains a classic – It has subsequently featured in a number of polls for best album ever, including #47 in a poll by The Times in 1993, #90 in a poll by Mojo in 1995 and #61 in a 1997 poll by The Guardian.
How fresh the album sounds to you in 2007 might depend on your tolerance for '80s excess. Some of the tunes have dated badly, with Dolby's overly glossy production now feeling rather plastic to me – tinkly keyboards, crashing drums – so it's a real treat to hear "naked" versions of the tunes in the set's bonus disc. Re-recording old tracks often smacks of creative desperation, but not here. Frankly, some of the stripped-down versions sound better than the originals, with more room for McAloon's lonesome lyrics to bloom. "Desire As" receives a particularly strong reinvention, and generally the songs get a more melancholy, thoughtful air as dictated by the passage of time.
It is a bummer there's no real rarities, demos, or live tracks included in this set, despite the existence of several B-sides out there (and two songs fans were long used to on the American edition are no longer here). The Sony/Legacy Edition sets are usually stunningly comprehensive. The new acoustic versions are still a must for any fan of Prefab Sprout.
Some of Steve McQueen's more '80s flourishes may be dated, true, but it still stands up as some of the more elegant songcraft of that decade.Powered by Sidelines