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282: Refrigerated Love: Prodigal Sunshine (2019)

Following their 2011 album Inmortality, and its subsequent "You Didn't Know You Missed Us" tour, the British "heavy new wave arena metal" band Refrigerated Love did something unprecedented in their 32-year career: They walked away with their dignity intact. The 2000s had not been kind to the group that critic Jody Rosen once called "the cockroaches of pop." With their second Polydor contract expired and lyricist Elvis Hornman expelled from the band, the mojo that had sustained them since 1979 was gone.

They never officially broke up, but the four remaining band members went their own ways. Drummer "Pasty" Pete Pockhorn invested in a company - Hot Spot - that makes sunscreen specifically designed for men with male pattern baldness. Guitarist Nigel Hornblower surprised everyone by researching and writing a book about the history of guitar strings. Keyboardist Hornel Lieberman became an in-demand session player, working with the likes of Panic! At The Disco, Arianna Grande, BTS, and Dolly Parton. Lead singer Colin Porthorn settled on his family farm and focused on developing a new breed of quinoa.

The years went by like this, with nary a word from the Refrigerated Love website or social media accounts. The band members reportedly met once per year for a popcorn and movie night.

But this past year there were stirrings that something was up. It started in early 2018 when a contestant on NBC's The Voice sang electro-funk ballad "Not a Soul But Us" from Refrigerated Love's 1981 debut. None of the judges turned around, but the national exposure led to a 5000% increase in streaming plays, netting the band a cool $1.72. Then the group's Twitter account posted a picture of broken-off glacier with "2019" emblazoned over it. Many fans took that as a dire warning about climate change, but others rightly guessed that it meant things were thawing out in the world of Refrigerated Love.

Sure enough, news came next that Hornman had dissolved his touring band Frozen Romance Featuring the Hits of Refrigerated Love By the Man Who Wrote the Words, and had been spotted at Lieberman's home studio in Cheshire. In late 2018 the band made the news when they asked Donald Trump to start playing "Outro, pt 1" (from 1987's Heart Like a Flying Car) at his rallies just so they could ask him to stop playing it.

Then, finally, on January 2, the band officially announced they had surreptitiously regrouped to record on a new album, to be supported by a tour. Hornman was welcomed back into the fold, but only after an intense 35-week whole-band session with a performance coach that helped the group develop a mutually agreed-upon set of rules for refrigerator etiquette.

The only casualty of the reunion was Pockhorn, who has become quite rich off Hot Spot and had no interest in resuming his rock star lifestyle. The band brought in Porthorn's 15-year-old son Alfie as their new drummer, but the trouble is that Alfie only plays tuba. So veteran session drummer Jim Keltner sat in on the recording sessions, and Matt Walker will serve as mentor for Alfie on the road.

The new album - the band's 28th studio effort - was released this past week, and boy, is it something else! Titled Prodigal Sunshine, the album finds the band returning to its very earliest roots, all the way back to Hornblower and Porthorn's first demos when they were still known as The Coldsmen.

In the spring of 1980, Barry Gibb saw the duo at a little club in the east Village. They were harshly booed off the stage, but the Bee Gee heard something he liked. He paid for the guys to record a five-song demo at the Record Plant, and gave the impression he'd get it in front of several labels. But the guys soon got word that Gibb was only interested in co-opting the band's songs and sound for his wife's nephew's band. Hornblower and Porthorn abandoned the recordings and the songs, too. Known among fans as the "BG demos," these recordings became a highly sought-after item in Refrigerated Love bootleg circles.

Fast forward nearly 40 years, and Refrigerated Love have returned to those original demos. For the new album, the band created new versions of those earliest compositions. Hornman rewrote lyrics, sometimes completely from scratch. And the arrangements have been altered, in some cases radically. The resulting album is something that feels both familiar and completely alien. The cover art, though oddly reminiscent of a Windham Hill CD sampler, is actually a good representation of what listening to the album feels like.

Opener "Dear Alistair," originally a lilting number about a soldier in the Boer War sending letters home to his younger brother, is now a soaring, multi-tracked pop ballad. It sounds like Queen fronted by Jack Antonoff. The new lyrics are addressed to Alistair from former lover, and detailing all the ways he found Alistair inadequate. Refrigerated Love have always struggled with their choice of album openers, and this one is no different.

In its first iteration "Film Song" was little more than a hushed list of movies that were popular circa 1979 (sample lyric: "Apocalypse Now, Breaking Away / Kramer vs. Kramer, Norma Rae."), but the new version is done thrash style and lists every single winner of the BAFTA for Best Documentary. It sounds like something off the Salad Days EP. "Every Man's Land" was an idealistic peace and love anthem with delicate finger-picking and high harmonies from Hornblower. The new version is surprisingly faithful to the original, with the only real difference being a tasteful tuba solo from Alfie Porthorn.

Another song that was rescued from the band's early days, but not the "BG demos," is "April Showers," now recast as "April Showers '19." Curiously, the two acoustic guitars of the original are replaced with dueling synths in the new version, lending the song a Pet Shop Boys-by-way-of-Dan Fogelberg sort of feel.

There are three brand new songs in the mix. First is the blues funk of"I Thought It Was Mine," which was clearly meant as a therapeutic way for Hornman to address the inter-band conflicts that led to his dismissal. The song reveals that apparently he wasn't only stealing food from the fridge, but would also borrow clothing, phones, and hygiene products from his bandmates. "Put Her There," meanwhile, is the latest of Porthorn's long line of uncomfortable sexual come-ons. It sits very oddly with the other material on the record.

"Haunted Homes and Ghoulish Gardens" is the album's requisite writing and singing turn from Hornel Lieberman. Long a purposefully-hidden songwriting talent in the band, Lieberman offers a new tune that explores his well-documented belief in the supernatural. Over a soulful power pop backing that recalls Paul Carrack circa 1982, Lieberman tells a spooky tale of his childhood home, in which he claims to have befriended no less than seven different ghosts.

Closer "Weekend's End" is the first song Porthorn and Hornblower ever wrote together, a sweet, fast-paced elegy that perfectly captures the melancholy of nostalgia and Sunday evening. The only difference between the original and the new is the clear sense of maturity in the two men's voices. Well, that and a guest rap from Lil Jon on the bridge.

All in all Prodigal Sunshine is the rare album that manages to look backward while also blazing a path forward, or at least diagonally.

*

It's difficult to guess where the Refrigerated Love story will go next, but this critic predicts we're going to be getting a lot more Love over the next few years. In fact, to jump on the renewed interest in the band they once dropped like a hot potato, Polydor has announced plans to release a career-spanning box set called Refrigerate After Opening.

For more Refrigerated Love:
Refrigerated Love: A History
Refrigerated Love: The Complete Discography
We're Actually Serious, No Really (1999 album review)
No Expiration Date (2008 album review)
Inmortality (2011 album review)

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