All-Time Albums: #25


PREFAB SPROUT From Langley Park To Memphis

The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll 4:22 (UK single, #7)
Cars And Girls 4:25 (UK single, #44)
3 I Remember That 4:13 (UK single in 1993 to promote The Best Of, did not chart)
4 Enchanted 3:47
Nightingales 5:53 (UK single, #78)
6 Hey Manhattan! 4:45 (UK single, #72)
7 Knock On Wood 4:16
8 The Golden Calf 5:06 (UK single, #82)
9 Nancy (Let Your Hair Down For Me) 4:02
10 The Venus Of The Soup Kitchen 4:29

Much had changed in the world of music since the Prefab’s second album Steve McQueen (retitled “Two Wheels Good” in America) wowed the critics and proved a slow-burning success in 1985, courtesy of the radio favourite When Love Breaks Down and a handful of other minor chart hits. Stadium Rock and SAW-pop were all the rage, for a start, and now by the dawn of 1988 the British Top 40 was under siege from Hip Hop, House and Rave.

Fortunately for Paddy MacAloon and co., there was still room in the charts (and in Smash Hits) for good old-fashioned melodic pop, the kind which Aztec Camera, Danny Wilson and Climie Fisher were also providing at the time. From Langley Park…’s arrival that spring was almost serendipitous, and among its ten tracks was a song which would take them into the Singles Top 10 for the first and only time. Yes, the one about hot dogs and jumping frogs.

In fact, this wasn’t the band’s third album at all, a set entitled “Protest Songs” had been recorded then shelved in the meantime (and would get a posthumous release in 1989). Although it contained a future classic in Life Of Surprises and a healthy handful of excellent Sprout nuggets, it would not have been the triumph that From Langley Park To Memphis became.

An initial #5 debut on the strength of fanbase loyalty eventually turned into a serious long-term residency on the album chart, CBS sustaining the momentum with a succession of (flop) singles throughout the rest of 1988 and well into 1989 (and another one in 1993 to help promote a Best Of).

I wasn’t really an early devotee of Prefab Sprout; their 1986 single Johnny Johnny did well on my personal charts, but this album was my first purchase. Lead single Cars & Girls, a “Springsteen critique” as they called it in the media, was enough to sway me. Its trademark use of Wendy Smith’s delicate, heavenly tones marked it out as classic slice of Sprout pop. There had been a few bands cropping up during the band’s absence who drew upon a similar sound (Danny Wilson and Deacon Blue being the most high-profile), and now it felt like the real thing were back to show everyone how it was done.

The King Of Rock N Roll rode the line between insanely catchy and annoying (but clearly fell on the former side in my opinion), and The Golden Calf rocked as convincingly as Faron Young had done on the previous album. The ballads were lush, sophisticated and unabashedly sentimental, like pieces from Broadway Musicals that didn’t yet exist (the only way to accurately describe Nightingales is heavenly).

Hey Manhattan! and the closing Venus Of The Soup Kitchen could easily have been clever-clever and insincere, but the sense of wonder and ambition in the execution is real. Apparently, one of the main goals of Nancy (Let Your Hair Down For Me) was to sneak the word “office” into a pop song; it’s lovely, of course, but as one of the four non-singles along with Enchanted, Knock On Wood and Venus… it almost gets forgotten.

Thomas Dolby’s production is once again ingenious and playful, as well as perfect for the burdgeoning CD era (this is another of my favourite-sounding albums); Joni Mitchell may have tired of his “interior decoration” but his work is better suited to the Sprouts and MacAloon’s delightfully awry worldview.

A double concept album would follow, but as amazing as much of Jordan: The Comeback would be, in some ways Prefab Sprout were never as precise or as brilliant as they were on From Langley Park To Memphis.

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