Album of the Week, June 22: Choke by the Beautiful South

ChokeThe Beautiful South arose from the ashes of the Housemartins, a sophisticated pop unit from Hull, England, who dissolved after two successful albums in three years. Vocalists Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway were joined by former Housemartins roadie Sean Welch on bass, drummer Dave Stead, and guitarist Dave Rotheray who became Heaton’s main writing partner. The new writing team explored the ironic, socially conscious pop territory of the Housemartins, dropping the more overtly political moments and crafting a more sophisticated, jazz-tinged musical backdrop. Their debut album, Welcome to the Beautiful South, proved as successful as the Housemartins, going Top 10 and featuring two Top 10 hits. Vocalist Brianna Corrigan added wonderful accents and harmonies to the debut and was quickly adopted as a full-fledged band member. The sextet set about recording their second album, a wonderful pop extravaganza with beautiful music and harmonies underpinning often barbed, darkly ironic observations.

Title Choke
Act The Beautiful South
Label Elektra Release Date October 1990
Producer Mike Hedges and the Beautiful South
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  2
Tracks
  1. Tonight I Fancy Myself
  2. My Book
  3. Let Love Speak Up Itself
  4. Should’ve Kept My Eyes Shut
  5. I’ve Come For My Award
  6. Lips
  7. I Think the Answer’s Yes
  8. A Little Time
  9. Mother’s Pride
  10. I Hate You (But You’re Interesting)
  11. The Rising of Grafton Street

Choke introduces itself with one of the band’s finest moments, the celebratory Tonight I Fancy Myself. An ode to being satisfied with oneself, romantically and otherwise, it’s a beautiful song with witty, canny lyrics. Arch and tinged with darkness, it manages a lightness of lyrical heart that’s rare in the Beautiful South canon. Even at their most optimistic Heaton and Rotheray are far from cheery, but the notes of independence provide a welcome bit of hope and strength. The three vocalists work together seamlessly, crafting a stunning vocal environment that argues for more sometimes being more.

The other ten tracks range from the interesting to the amazing, falling into three broad categories. Three of the songs are bare sketches or experiments. Lips is a very short lyric about betrayal, chanted over a swirling pop backdrop in just over a minute, a nice pause mid-album that serves as a bridge and palate cleanser. I Hate You (But You’re Interesting) is a companion to the debut disc’s I Love You (But You’re Boring), a whispered, morose meditation on a carnival pier. The Rising of Grafton Street is a lovingly constructed instrumental, one of the cheeriest moments on the album. Sadly, these two tracks wrap up the album. If they had been sequenced differently, they might work better, instead, they leave the listener feeling like the album just sort of peters out, even though they are objectively fine songs. That’s a shame because the other seven tracks are magnificent.

Four fit into the band’s penchant for kitchen sink dramas, dark bits of biography that they float on their lovely tunes. My Book is a very British look at a life anchored by pop culture, a charming, bouncy song with nice vocal delivery. Should’ve Kept My Eyes Shut is one of the prettiest songs about domestic violence ever recorded, with Corrigan turning in a gripping lead vocal that maintains a level of humanity that rescues the dark narration. I’ve Come For My Award sarcastically celebrates the ne’er-do-wells who meet far too much success in the world. Mother’s Pride mines similar territory through a third-person lens. All these songs work because the lyrics — while darkly ironic — are honest and compellingly delivered while the band are tight and consistent in framing them.

The other three tracks are mini-masterpieces, examples of how good sophisticated pop can be. Musically compelling and complex, they show off the kind of chops that make well-crafted songs seem effortless. I Think the Answer’s Yes is the most political song on the album, a determined declaration of independence and warning to abusive politicians that their power depends on the people. A Little Time, the band’s only #1 in a long string of hits, is a wonderful be-careful-what-you-wish-for song, with the vocalists narrating a perfectly crafted story of infidelity and comeuppance. Let Love Speak Up Itself is one of the Beautiful South’s finest songs, a disarmingly honest song about the challenges of romance and the importance of not over-complicating relationships. A rare single lead vocal by Heaton rides on an elegant musical backdrop that slowly grows to a beautiful climax. While missing the vocal fireworks that epitomize the band, this is otherwise a classic moment, mixing light irony, deep emotion, inspired horns, and perfect pop pacing.

Choke suffers a bit from sequencing and ambition and isn’t the Beautiful South’s most consistent album. It features them at their most optimistic and enthusiastic, however, and demonstrates musical highs that they’d hint at but never quite hit again. Fans of perfectly crafted pop and smart lyrics owe it to themselves to check out this wonderful disc.

FURTHER LISTENING: After Choke came 0898 Beautiful South a more consistent but less remarkable set that found a talented group settling into a groove that sometimes became a rut. Corrigan departed after this album, pursuing a solo career not tied to Heaton’s darker lyrical moments. Jacqui Abbott ably fulfilled the third vocalist role for four albums, replaced by Alison Wheeler for the final three. After 20 years and ten solid albums, the group split, aptly citing “musical similarities.” All the albums have something to offer, but the enterprise became one of slowly diminishing returns, consistent but less inspired as the years progressed. The best single albums other than Choke are the debut and Blue Is the Colour. With a couple dozen UK chart singles, they’ve been anthologized regularly. 1994’s Carry On Up the Charts shocked everyone by far outselling the original albums and becoming one of the best-selling albums in British music history. It stops after Miaow, the fourth outing, however, so it’s a scant overview. Soup, while short on later content, includes some Housemartins tracks and provides a nice career overview. Gold suffers from the opposite problem, sprawling over two discs and lacking in band input, but casual fans will find it a very satisfying overview of an impressive band career.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

One Response to Album of the Week, June 22: Choke by the Beautiful South

  1. vespasteve says:

    Great Album Underrated band

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