Thursday, July 03, 2008

181. Refrigerated Love: No Expiration Date (2008)

Pop music is built on the unexpected. Superstar artists and hit songs come out of seemingly nowhere, established bands reunite long after their fans have given up on the idea, band members die, careers turn on a single bad album or public incident, and some artists have fluke hits or make spectacular albums many many years after the height of their popularity. The one thing you can say about music is that there's always a second, third, forth and fifth chance waiting.

Perhaps more than any other artist, British "heavy new wave folk" band Refrigerated Love has taken advantage of this. If a cat has 9 lives, then RL represents approximately 2 1/2 cats. If you need proof, please read the history and discography I typed up a few years ago, then take a look at my review of their last album, 1999's We're Actually Serious, Really.

Most onlookers thought Refrigerated Love were gone for good after that effort, which was well-received but not well-purchased. However, in 2oo5 they sprung back to life, reuniting and touring. That year and the following one found them criss-crossing the globe on their "Warm-Up Farewell Tour" and "Penultimate Farewell Tour". While fans of the band who lived in or near cities with an arena or stadium and who possessed disposable income enough to afford to pay an additional 50% of the ticket face-vale extra in Ticketmaster "processing and convenience fees" were able to see their heroes again, they were not treated to any new music.

This was a purposeful decision by the band. "We've got plenty of new songs ready to record," singer Colin Porthorn reported in a 2006 Pitchfork interview, "but it's just not a financially viable decision for us. The guys at the record label tell me records don't sell anymore, that kids load all their music off video games." Porthorn's tenuous understanding of technology aside, Refrigerated Love seemed resolute in their commitment to stick to the old songs. Guitarist Nigel Hornblower addressed this in a recent interview with the Onion AV Club: "Fans want to hear things they've already heard before, so that's what we'll give them. I'm just glad they've heard the old songs already, or we wouldn't have anything to play."

The decision to avoid new music seemed to be cemented even more by the events of 2007. While taking time off to prepare for 2008's "Say Goodbye Again Tour" the band took up a lawsuit against (taking the language directly from court documents) "all stores that sell used CDs and records, Amazon Marketplace, eBay, and anyone who has ever sold a CD, LP, cassette or 8 Track at a garage sale." In a separate suit, the band also went after those who had dubbed copies of Refrigerated Love's music onto cassette tapes, either fully or as part of a mix. The band claimed that these dubbings and second-hand sales were negatively affecting the number of Refrigerated Love songs downloaded from Kazaa and Gnutella. Feisty drummer "Pasty" Pete Pockhorn acted as the band's representative, even appearing before a congressional committee on the topic. The band's dogged pursuit of fairness was rewarded when each guilty party was ordered to pay $0.099 per unit resold.

Morally redeemed and flush with money, but now devoid of fans, the band reversed position and rushed into the recording studio.

The result is No Expiration Date, the band's 35th album, but if you're looking for the CD in stores, be prepared to wait. There's no release date on the schedule. Instead of issuing the album traditionally, the songs from No Expiration Date will initially appear as background music in commercials for companies such as Big Lots, Old Navy, Kia, Sears, KFC, Orkin, T Mobile, Ameritrade Financial and Dress Barn. The only way to collect all the tracks is to purchase something from each of these businesses, at which time you'll be given a coupon for a song from the album. These coupons, once collected, can be sent in for a shiny CD copy of the album, which will be delivered in 6 - 8 weeks. In a press release announcing the album, the band says the chose this method in order to "take the music directly to the fans."

Fans who make the effort will be well-rewarded. There's a lot of the old Refrigerated Love magic smeared all over these songs. The album begins with a spacey 12 minute instrumental jam called Landing On the Sun. Most bands would have difficultly sustaining a listener's interest over such a long, meandering tune, and this case is no different. It probably wasn't a good choice for opener, but it holds with the longstanding Refrigerated Love philosophy of, as lyricist Elvis Hornman once put it, "getting our worst song out of the way right off."

Thankfully, things pick up immediately with Hair Gel, a punkish new wave blast sung by band keyboardist Hornel Lieberman. Some critics may mistakenly take this song as being about a girl: "You hold me up / You don't let go / I'm tangled up in you / Don't you know?" However, seasoned Refrigerated Love followers know that the band never uses metaphors in their lyrics.

Speaking of lyrics, Elvis Hornman (whom many have called a "Bernie Taupin for those who have declared bankruptcy") doesn't shy away from topical matters. The heartbreaking I Don't Know What's Real Anymore, So I Guess That Means I'm Psychotic documents Colin Porthorn's short-lived VH1 show Making Out With Colin Porthorn wherein the singer looked for love among a group of randomly-chosen girls with self-esteem issues. The show was canceled before he could hand out his "final kiss" due to poor ratings and Porthorn's wife taking exception to the show's concept.

Similarly, Hey, Fever retells the story of "Pasty" Pete's nasty addiction to Claritin, for which he spent December 2007 in rehab. The song is raw, with jagged guitar from Hornblower and tortured vocals from Porthorn: "Throat is strained / Nose won't drain / I'm on the run like a thief / My head's in a cloud / I need some non-drowsy relief / But I can't have you / You're o-o-over the counter and I'm uh-uh-under your spell."

Believe it or not, all of the members of Refrigerated Love have now procreated. Song For the Next Generation (You Can Thank Us Later), in a rare lead vocal appearance from Nigel Hornblower, addresses that fact. "We made ourselves a little band" he sings, "And we will take them by the hand / It's on us now to teach them our ways / So they can rock in future days" It's affecting and creepy all at once.

Other highlights include What If, Maybe and I Suppose, an old-style crooner, the electronica-tinged and tabla-driven Plant One In Me, which brings up fond allusions to the band's 1982 masterwork Plant Lives, and We're All One Race, a soulfully good-hearted, if misguided, plea for tolerance.

Not everything works. The final song, Released, aims at a poetic finish to their career, a la The Beatles The End or Billy Joel's Famous Last Words. However, perhaps the band should have reconsidered some of the lyrics: "That's it / It's all over / Finished and done / So get off of me / And get dressed / I'm released / And so are you." The buzzy, feedback-heavy industrial sound of the song doesn't help matters, nor do Porthorn's screeched, filtered vocals. Plus, the band ruins any effect of saying goodbye by including an additional 15 minutes of tuning up and indecipherable studio banter after the songs conclusion.

If No Expiration Date is unlikely to return the band to the top of the charts, gain them more fans, or reverse their poor standing with critics, it can at least be counted on to put Refrigerated Love back on people's lips. For those who choose to give it a little bit of their time, they'll find it's the best we can reasonably expect from a veteran rock band looking to reclaim past glories: It's not that embarrassing. And if you believe that this is the last time we'll hear from Refrigerated Love, I've got a bridge to sell you.

Grade: B -
Fave Song: Hair Gel

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