Thursday, November 9, 2017

Review of The Fixx's "Reach the Beach"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website a few moments ago:

Review Summary: I'm still not convinced that The Fixx is a great album band, but damn, they have some great songs.

The Fixx is one new wave band that has been almost criminally ignored on this site. While they're certainly still popular today on '80s-music podcasts and radio stations, they're not the kind of band that made their fame through danceable synthpop love songs. Although their music certainly makes use of synthesizers, they're more guitar-driven than the typical band of the era, and the themes of their songs are often serious and rather bleak.

Reach the Beach (1983) was The Fixx's most popular album, particularly in North America. The album got as high as #8 on both the U.S. and Canadian music charts, driven by prominent singles such as "One Thing Leads to Another", "Saved By Zero" and "The Sign of Fire". It also made the charts in the band's native UK, although the album was less successful there than the band's debut album, Shuttered Room (1982) had been.

The band is best-known for their noteworthy singles, so in tackling their most successful album, I was curious to investigate how proficient they were as an album band -- were they capable of putting together an LP that was consistently entertaining, or are the songs they're best known for all there really is to them?

First, a few words about their style of music. As I said earlier, The Fixx tends to be guitar-dominated. But a quick comparison with other groups of the era for whom this was also true reveals that this band very much has their own unique style. Where a band such as The Police are known for Andy Summers' jangly, often reggae-driven riffs, and groups like U2 and A Flock of Seagulls are famous for the driving guitars of The Edge and Paul Reynolds, The Fixx's Jamie West-Oram has a jerky style dominated by quickly-strummed electric guitar chords. 

Another distinguishing feature of their music is the way the little electric jolts of bass intertwine with those guitar pulses, which sometimes makes the experience of listening to this music similar to receiving a series of small electric shocks. (Some of the bass on Reach the Beach is handled by their former bass player Alfie Argus, while some was played by Dan K. Brown, who would be elevated to the status of full group member by the band's next album, 1984's Phantoms.) As for the lead vocals of Cy Curnin, while they're maybe not extraordinary, they're certainly competent, and his voice does have an immediately recognizable quality to it. On the whole, he's more of a plus than a minus.

So what about the songs themselves? While "One Thing Leads to Another" and "Saved By Zero" are both familiar '80s classics, and the first in particular is a song you can't help but move along with (even if you're not a dancer), "The Sign of Fire" has a desperate quality about it that gives the band a little bit of edge. However, a quick listen to Reach the Beach makes it obvious that there's more here than just the three singles. The title track is a slow, intense number that gives a little more prominence to the keyboards. It's about getting sidetracked by all of life's distractions, and how difficult it can be to focus on the things that are truly important, such as your relationships with those you love. "Liner", a song with a particularly interesting bass line on the verses, and an unusual chorus that drives home the lyric, "All aboard before the storm," also features imagery of being adrift in an ocean and making your way towards land. And the last track, "Outside", presents us with an interesting and deliberate guitar riff/vocal combo that is supported by a tense bass line and a light sprinkling of synth.

On the other hand, a number of the other songs are fairly forgettable. "Opinions" has a bit of a paranoid feel going for it, but not much else, and "Privilege," "Changing" and "Running" are all pretty uninteresting. 

So is The Fixx a great album band? It depends on your definition of "great album". If we're talking about an LP that is strong on every track, then no. But if you define it as an album that has enough interesting and high-quality numbers to make the whole package a must for your music collection, then maybe. The truth is, I don't know if Reach the Beach is great album or not. But damn, does it have its share of excellent songs! And that's enough for me to recommend it to all new wave music fans.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars