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GREAT LOST ALBUMS: Captain (#3 in a hypothetical series)


GREAT LOST ALBUMS: Captain (#3 in a hypothetical series)

I’ve been trying to write about the only album by Captain, which rejoices in the title This Is Hazelville and was released by EMI in 2006 to perfunctory critical acclaim, and sales – I’m speculating here because this kind of information is not readily available – you could count on the legs of a generous handful of centipedes. Maybe one or two millipedes, if you’re lucky. If Captain are lucky. I love it. I didn’t love it at first, but having subjected myself to a remorseless listening regime for a fortnight or so I still love it that little bit more with each listen, which is as good a honeymoon as one could expect from any major label pop-pomp opus.

I still don’t know what to say about it, though. Rather, I must shoehorn all the things I could say into a few hundred words that both convey what the record sounds like and persuade you that without it your life is worthless. Doing both at the same time isn’t going to be easy. It really isn’t. The salient feature of the two interviews I’ve read is Captain’s abiding love of the band Keane. Captain’s singer, who rejoices in the title Rik, is convinced that the only reason anybody would claim to dislike Keane would be in a misguided attempt to appear cool. I admire the cut of Rik’s jib. But he’s wrong. To the extent that either their piano-laden simpering or their stadium-lite semibombast elicits any response at all, I dislike Keane. And I’m definitely not trying to appear cool. Here I am bigging up Captain, for fuck’s sake. Give me a break.

The connections between Captain and Keane are there to be made. Both can be located somewhere on the continuum of over-egged post-Coldplay industry puddings. But while Keane seemingly aspire to being a kind of cross between Supertramp and Prozac (the dadmags tell me their latest is a courageous step away from this: the charity shops of the near future should provide plenty of opportunity for research if you’re so inclined), Captain, like their darker, deeper, fellow pudding travellers Guillemots, owe more to the underrated school of 1980s pop maximalism than to the 1970s rhythm piano plod. They even hired Trevor Horn to overproduce This Is Hazelville, although – thankfully – if you’re expecting Fairlights and gated reverbs the size of a house you’ll be disappointed. The most obvious comparison is with Prefab Sprout (those who say Deacon Blue are cruel and unnecessary) but, despite musical similarities made explicit on Glorious and quietly evident throughout in the breathy boy/girl vocal thang, Captain (like pretty much everyone else ever) don’t have a tenth of Paddy McAloon’s lyrical invention. But I don’t expect them to. They are not the same beast. I’d sooner compare them to Stars (whose most recent album bears the dedication “Paddy McAloon: the greatest”) in that their work is also steeped in the “indie” (or “alternative”, if you happen to be an inhabitant of North America) music of the quarter century that’s elapsed since the Sprout first set out their upmarket stall. They’re not a period piece. They are from now. Ish.

I fucking love Stars. But they can wait. I was trying to work out what to say about Captain, the title track of whose only album starts off reminiscent of the Pale Saints and ends up sounding like the Dismemberment Plan, even though they’ve almost certainly heard neither. And now I have. And it’s this: they are a bunch of music students. They know exactly what they’re doing. They are as choreographed as a phalanx of East German gymnasts. But they know where to find the filthy button marked “yes”, and they come across less as wanting the cake than as wanting to do something that’s, like, really, really good. I’ll happily take a hit in the amateurish spontaneity stakes for the perfection of these arrangements. No doubt Trevor Horn’s experience and ability didn’t do any harm, but Trev didn’t play bass on the last chorus of the sublime Frontline, which tiny detail alone would justify the price of admission. Fifty pee plus postage, last I looked. Tanj it, as Louis Wu would have said. There ain’t no justice.

(Postscript: EMI, bless ‘em, loved this band. They wanted so badly to get This Is Hazelville up and running that they released nearly half the tracks as singles, in a bewildering rainbow of formats. Zilch. But they tried hard. This is the label that gave us Kate Bush – scoring itself the unlikeliest Number One this side of O Superman for its trouble (well, the other side, sequentially speaking, and O Superman only got to number two. But you know what I mean. While I’ve got you in these brackets, let’s reflect together for a moment on the fact that Wuthering Heights – in 1978 – was the first self-penned UK Number One performed by a woman)  – and would have given us the Sex Pistols if its one foot in the British establishment hadn’t gone cold. At its best, including the day it signed Captain, EMI was like the musical wing of the BBC: as good an argument for state ownership of the cultural industries as any. We’ll be poorer for its passing. As, I suspect, will Captain. But I hope not. I could certainly go another Captain album.)

posted on Tuesday 27th January, 2009

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