Sunday, March 18, 2012

Echo & the Bunnymen - Reverberation

Echo & the Bunnymen's 1990 release Reverberation is the kind of album that I love to write about. Like Love's Reel To Real, or The Velvet Underground's Squeeze, Reverberation was maligned by critics and fans alike upon it's release, but it's earned a much more favorable posthumous reputation, at least among a vocal minority of fans. Take a look at the customer reviews on Amazon which have titles like, "The best Echo and the Bunnymen Release, Hands Down," "Ian Who?," "A Classic on par w/ Ocean Rain," and "Track Listing" (okay, that last title doesn't really tell you much, but trust me Dave from San Jose really likes the album too).

So are these folks nuts? The conventional wisdom regarding Reverberation is that it never should have been made. Lead singer Ian McCulloch dropped out of the band and embarked on a solo career in 1988. Drummer Pete de Freitas died in a tragic motorcycle accident a year later. Nevertheless, guitarist Will Sergeant and bassist Les Pattinson thought it was a good idea to carry on as Echo & the Bunnymen, so they recruited new lead singer Noel Burke (formerly of St. Vitus Dance), new drummer Damon Reece, and promoted "fifth Bunnyman" and touring keyboardist Jake Brockman to full Bunnyhood.

The backlash was as virulent as it was predictable. Some called the new group "Echo & the Bogusmen." Reviews of Reverberation were scathing. Entertainment Weekly reviewer Bob Mack called it "a turkey best left to be gobbled up by the band's relatives, close friends, and diehard fans." But for the most part even the diehard fans (yours truly included) didn't buy the album, and the group was quickly dropped by WEA/Sire. The new group soldiered on, releasing a couple more independent singles that garnered little attention before splitting up in 1993. By 1994 McCulloch and Sergeant were working together again in Electrafixion, and with Pattinson back on board in 1997 the Bunnymen moniker was dusted off and Echo & the Bunnymen Mach II was little more than a bad memory.

With the benefit of hindsight it's obvious that Sergeant and Pattinson would have been better off rechristening the new line-up "Hitler's Children" rather than carry on as Echo & the Bunnymen. McCulloch summed up the feelings of many when he said in a March 1992 interview with Robert Sandall in Q: "I just can't understand why they carried on with the name... It did them no favours, and however it can be defended, it spoils the memory. It's not so much that it's unforgivable, but it is a pity that we don't see each other and never talk to each other."

It's probably hard to understand why all of this mattered if you weren't a fan of Echo & the Bunnymen during the 1980s. After all, Van Halen carried on without David Lee Roth. Pink Floyd didn't change their name when Syd Barrett left, or later when Roger Waters exited. Fleetwood Mac changed lineups almost as often as I change underwear. So what was the big deal about having a guy named Noel Burke singing for Echo & the Bunnymen?

To really make sense of the reaction, you have to understand that Echo & the Bunnymen were a band that inspired fierce devotion. I am speaking from experience when I say you could take a lot of shit for listening to a band called Echo & the Bunnymen in Ronald Reagan's America. Anybody could be a fan of Van Halen and fit right in, but pledging allegiance to a band called Echo & the Bunnymen in 1980s America was like taping a giant "kick me" sign on your back.

Nearly a quarter of a century later it's a lot easier to set all that aside and listen to Reverberation with fresh ears. So is it actually any good? Yeah, I think it is. Is it "hands down the best Echo & the Bunnymen album"? Not in my opinion.

Noel Burke's voice is pleasant, and songs like the single "Enlighten Me" and "Gone, Gone, Gone" are solid. Geoff Emerick's production and the light psychedelic touches like backward sitar are pitch perfect. On the whole I find the album more appealing than the last "real" Echo & the Bunnymen album (the self-titled one with "Lips Like Sugar," etc.).

But it's hard to get past the fact that the drama and depth that Ian McCulloch brought to the best Bunnymen material is missing. Of course the drama the McCulloch brought to the worst Bunnymen material is missing as well. Reverberation isn't likely to turn certain people off the way an album like Heaven Up Here might, but by the same token it's hard to imagine this version of the band inspiring fanatical devotion either. I think it could have been a very good start for a new band with a different name, one that might in time have gone on to greater levels of mainstream popularity than Echo & the Bunnymen. To my ears their follow up independent single "Prove Me Wrong" from 1991 sounds a bit more distinctive than the material on Reverberation, and it's a shame the band was unnecessarily doomed by the larger-than life legacy of its departed singer.

I realize I am damning the album with faint praise. That's not my intention. I like it. It's true that it was unjustly dismissed by critics and fans at the time of its release. It deserved a better fate. I've probably listened to it a dozen times since I spotted it sitting forlorn and unloved in the used bins at my local record store. I've enjoyed it every time I listened to it, but I can't honestly say any of it has sunk in as deeply as my favorite Echo & the Bunnymen albums. But I don't think the people praising the album on Amazon are nuts, or even merely trying to be provocative. It's a thoroughly enjoyable album that is very easy to like.

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