Long-time readers of PowerPop know that we are all huge Records fanatics, and any new product from the group or its former members is always greeted with great fanfare. So, when the long overdue reissue of the third and final Records LP, Music on Both Sides fell into my hands, I felt as if I had located a long lost friend. MOBS, originally released in March of 1982, has never seen a legitimate CD release until now and only two of its tracks have ever found their way to the digital medium (on the Records' greatest hits comp Smashes, Crashes, and Near Misses). But thanks to Will Birch and On the Beach Records, it is now available again in a deluxe edition replete with 9 bonus tracks. I've had this disc for several months, but I've been holding off on my review until it was widely available here in the States. You can get it from the good folks at Not Lame here or directly from the label here.
The lineup for MOBS was a decidedly different band from the Records that recorded their previous disc, the classic Crashes. Pop wunderkind Jude Cole had recently left the group and core members John Wicks, Will Birch, and Phil Brown decided to soldier on by recruiting a new frontman. Enter lead vocalist Chris Gent who had previously been in the London powerpop combo The Autographs. They also added Chris Gent on second guitar and the new quintet was complete.
Music on Both Sides takes a little getting used to for fans familiar with their earlier LPs as it revamps the Records signature powerpop sound. The SuperBadfingerisms of The Records and the hyper-Beatlesque flourishes of Crashes are muted in favor of more stripped-down production by Will Birch. The fragile, expressive voice of John Wicks gives way to the stadium-rock dynamics of new lead vocalist Chris Gent. For me, it was kinda like taking a '66 Jaguar XKE and painting flames on the hood. Ira A. Robbins, in his review in the New Trouser Press Record Guide (1989) said that MOBS "sounded like Rubber Soul with a crappy rock singer" but that's a bit harsh. The clever songwriting and wordplay of Birch and Wicks still shines through and there are a number of gems on the disc making it a worthwhile purchase for the fan of classic powerpop.
The disc opens with the smashing Your Own Soundtrack which was originally left off the LP but was initially issued as the B side to the single Imitation Jewellery. This reissue restores it to its originally intended position as the leadoff track and it kicks the disc off with a bang. The lyrical subject matter of MOBS takes a decidely darker and more cynical approach than the band's previous efforts. As with their signature tune Starry Eyes, record biz shady dealings continued to provide fodder for the songwriting. Clown Around Town, Not So Much the Time, and Third Hand Information all take aim at former managers and assorted shady characters advising the band. In the liner notes to the disc, Will Birch said "I should have shown the record company more gratitude, but bile-driven songwriting was hard to beat." The bile continued to flow with other tunes on the LP such as the sardonic Selfish Love and Keeping Up With Jones. Admittedly, there are a few weak tracks on the disc. I've never been a fan of the synth-laden single Imitation Jewellery, which was a misguided attempt by the band to mimic the au courant synth-pop sound prevalent in the early 80s. The instrumental Cheap Detective Music also seems a bit out of place on the disc, and actually sounds more like an outtake by Virgin labelmates Fingerprintz.
In keeping with On the Beach's habit of including a wealth of bonus material, the new edition of MOBS includes 9 additional songs. For fans who have always wondered what the LP would have sounded like if John Wicks had handled lead vocals, 3 demos are included to give you a taste (I prefer John!). Also, three live tracks salvaged from the 1978 Stiff tour give you a glimpse of the band at the height of their powers. The disc closes with an excellent cover of the Michael Pagliaro powerpop classic Lovin'You Ain't Easy with the lovely Jane Aire on lead vocals.
Music on Both Sides is not the Records finest work, but it holds up nicely 25 years after its initial release and it remains an enjoyable listen. A Birch/Wicks song is always something to be savored and it is reassuring that the final piece of the Records musical puzzle is again back in print. Remember that you can still get a copy of John Wicks and the Records' great 2007 CD Rotate here. My earlier review of it can be found here.