Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Black Box Recorder - England Made Me

Black Box Recorder
England Made Me

Released 1998 on Chrysalis Records
Reviewed by Robin Tripp, 24/06/2006ce

1. Girl Singing in the Wreckage (2:42)
2. England Made Me (4:00)
3. New Baby Boom (2:10)
4. It's Only the End of the World (5:21)
5. Ideal Home (2:39)
6. Child Psychology (4:08)
7. I.C. One Female (2:19)
8. Uptown Top Ranking (3:57)
9. Swinging (3:52)
10. Kidnapping an Heiress (2:46)
11. Hated Sunday (3:16)

All songs written by Luke Haines & John Moore (except track 8).

England Made Me was the first album released by Black Box Recorder; an indie-pop super group comprising of the former Auteurs' chief-in-residence Luke Haines, ex-Jesus and Mary Chain drummer John Moore, and that cool, indie chanteuse-in-the-making, Sarah Nixey. Together, the band would inflict upon the world three wonderfully bilious and sadistically dark little pop albums that would draw stylistically on a number of different influences, most notably, The Velvet Underground, glam-pop and Saint Etienne. Of the three great albums that they released, England Made Me remains my personal favourite, with the songs here lacking the 21st century trip-hop ambience of 2000's semi-hit follow-up The Facts of Life, or indeed, the bright and sparkly electro-pop sound of 2003's much more topical release Passionoia, to instead present a much darker and more claustrophobic take on life in a world fast approaching the once-devastating notion of Y2K!!

The stripped-down style works well here, with the band adopting an almost lo-fi approach to the recording to give the songs a further creeping feeling of crippling claustrophobia. As a result, the real components of these compositions are the lulled and seductive vocals of Nixey and the minimal guitars of Haines - which here, creep sinisterly along the scales amidst some mild drum and bass inflections - both gnawing away within a wash of ambient keyboards, a hint of electronica (admittedly, most notable on their bizarre cover version of Uptown Top Ranking) and of all things, a singing saw. The results are cold and curiously esoteric; a world away from the warmth of songs like Junk Shop Clothes or The Daughter of a Child, and seemingly devoid of the sly, satirical wink to the camera favoured by later Haines-related endeavours like The Oliver Twist Manifesto and Passionoia. Instead, England Made Me comes across as both po-faced and seriously dead-pan... a concept that feels like the musical equivalent of Nathan Barley, in the sense that the joke is more about those who don't quite get the joke than the joke itself. Regardless, the songs here are excellent throughout, with Haines and Moore writing some wonderfully subversive pop gems that sound sugary sweet on the ears, whilst simultaneously talking about suicide, terrorism and domestic ennui.

The album opens with the standout track, Girl Singing in the Wreckage, which besides being one of the greatest ever titles for a pop song, is just a fantastic tune. The song establishes both the sound of Black Box Recorder and the sound of this album in general; kicking off, as it does, with the bare and spidery guitar work of Haines, the almost metronome like percussion of Moore and that bored and slightly despondent lead vocal of Sarah Nixey. The lyrics, like those found throughout the album, are sniping and snide; filled with moments of devious black humour, though delivered with a straight-face by the lovely Ms. Nixey. So, it's probably one of those records where you'll either get the joke (and appreciate what Haines and Moore were trying to achieve) or alternatively, take the Pitchfork route and lampoon its aching melancholy and seemingly humourless approach to middle-class self-pity. Regardless, Girl Singing in the Wreckage is, for me, amongst the top-ten pop songs of the 90's, and gives way to the further brilliance of the title track; which takes an obvious reference to Graham Greene whilst further developing the album's overall reliance on stop-start song structures, minimal instrumentation, and that cold and uninviting feeling of sonic claustrophobia.

I trapped a spider underneath the glass
I kept it for a week to see how long he'd last
He stared right back at me
He thought that he could win
We played the waiting game
He thought that I'd give in

England made me
England made me

I had a dream last night, that I was drunk
I killed the stranger, and left him in a trunk
In Brighton railway station
It was an unsolved case
A famous murder mystery
People love mystery

England made me
England made me

I need my privacy, I lead a secret life
Sleep with the enemy, and betray both sides
I travelled all my life, but never got away
From the killing jar, and it got me sick

England made me
England made me

As ever with Haines, the lyrics are fantastic throughout; offering a combination of gothic storytelling and kitchen-sink desperation; with a combination of abstract snatches of imagery and deadpan musings to present moods that are both dark and devious, but also nostalgic and often quite evocative. The song-writing throughout is really on top form, with Haines (in collaboration with Moore) continuing his obsessions with social subcultures (New Baby Boom), middle-class apathy (Hated Sunday) and underground terrorism (Kidnapping an Heiress); all featuring alongside the more conceptual allusions to troubled childhoods, British mediocrity and a general feeling of pre-millennium tension (baring in mind that the album was released in 1998... the cusp of a new century).

Child Psychology was the album's big single, famously finding itself banned by the BBC for featuring the classic lyric/chorus "life in unfair... kill yourself or get over it", as well as another great stop/start structure that has Nixey almost speaking the verse "in-character", before breathing the chorus in a soft and sleepy whisper. Despite the dark and confrontational subject mater, I find most of the songs fascinating and rather a lot of fun; from the more immediate sounding New Baby Boom and I.C. One Female, to the more lyrically abrasive subject matter of Ideal Home and the fantastic Kidnapping an Heiress (an obvious reference to Patty Hearst and the SLA, surely?); which continues the terrorist themes developed on the Baader Meinhof LP, which, in turn, would continue through to Haines' soundtrack for the B.S. Johnson adaptation, Christie Malry's Own Double Entry. My only criticism of the album can be found with the awkward novelty cover version of Althea & Donna's Uptown Top Ranking, but this is more than overcome by the swooning melancholy of Swinging (which has a lush sound and Nixey's lovely vocals crooning lines like "all the people have to say / we're swinging / we don't like you / go away / we're swinging / feeling rotten to the core / and I don't need you anymore") and the great closing moment, Hated Sunday, which makes the inclusion of the Beachy Head photographs inside the CD booklet suddenly make a sinister kind of sense...

Close the windows, draw the blinds
I can't stand it if the sun shines
On Sunday, hated Sunday
Disturbing pictures on the news
Distant wars but they won't touch you
On Sunday, hated Sunday

Your mother calls, she's alright
Your sister calls, she's in hospital

Honouring politician dead
Car found parked on Beachy Head
On Sunday, hated Sunday
Oh to be in England on a Sunday
Dear old dismal England an a Sunday

For me, England Made Me stands out as a fine album that ably demonstrates that not all Britpop records were about trad glamour or novelty pop bombast. The musical arrangements are sparse and tight, but still fairly pop in their influence (the melodic use of tempo and key-changes, the minimal production, the backing vocals, Nixey's smooth and seductive voice, etc), whilst the lyrics are amongst some of Haines's very best work. England Made Me is easily the creative peak of Black Box Recorder's brief career, and is probably an album that - along with The Auteurs' After Murder Park (1996) and his one-off side-project, Baader Meinhof (1997) - represents the dark heart of Luke Haines' subversive pop trilogy. One to listen to alongside recent endeavours, such as Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop by Luke Haines, Half Awake by John Moore and the soon to be released debut solo album from Sarah Nixey herself.

NOTE: The American release of this album contains four bonus tracks and an alternative cover shot (the cloyingly innocent snap of a little girl asleep in a predominately yellow room). I've gone for the original released cover photo of the 1970's pro-wrestler Adrian Street posing with his dad at their local coal mine in Brynmawr, South Wales; which you can imagine being the sort of thing that would appeal greatly to Haines's fondness for showbiz themes, nostalgia and the 1970's, and would have probably made a much better cover-shot to the final Auteurs album, How I Learned to Love the Bootboys (1999). The bonus tracks include; Wonderful Life, Factory Radio, Lord Lucan is Missing and a deadpan cover of Terry Jacks' rendition of Seasons in the Sun.

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