Album of the Week, August 2: Icehouse by Icehouse (aka Flowers)

IcehouseWeCanicehouse_flowersIva Davies is a classically trained oboist who decided to pursue a career in rock. He taught himself guitar and hooked up with bassist Keith Welsh in 1977. The pair called themselves Flowers and quickly built a band to play covers in the local Sydney pub circuit. Davies’ voice and musical inclinations were well suited to the sounds of Lou Reed, David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Roxy Music. As they developed a following, Davies and keyboard player Michael Hoste began experimenting with a variety of synthesizers, slowly building Flowers’ own musical style. They signed with Regular Records in 1980, releasing the single Can’t Help Myself and the album Icehouse. The band and album were overnight sensations in Australia, which landed them an international distribution deal with Chrysalis. To avoid legal problems with the Scottish band the Flowers, they assumed the name of their debut album and became Icehouse.

Title Icehouse
Act Icehouse
Label Chrysalis Release Date  June 1981
Producer Cameron Allan and Iva Davies
U.S. Chart  #82 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks [U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Icehouse
  2. Can’t Help Myself
  3. Sister
  4. Walls
  5. Sons
  6. We Can Get Together [#62]
  7. Boulevarde
  8. Fatman
  9. Skin
  10. Not My Kind

At this point the band were a four-piece, with Davies and Welsh joined by drummer John Lloyd and keyboard player Anthony Smith. Hoste — who had been in and out of the band — co-wrote four tracks and provided some keyboard work but was gone from the group for good by the time the Chrysalis deal was inked. With the encouragement of their new label, Icehouse remixed the album and Davies recorded new vocals. Icehouse by Icehouse saw international release in 1981 with a new playing order and the lone dud, Nothing to Do, dropped entirely. Refined and bolstered by their success the band created a distinctive, compelling album that helped set the stage for 80s synth-pop.

Icehouse is an aptly named track, a chilly, haunting metaphor for isolation and madness. With a quietly gripping synth line and cold, martial drumming, it remains one of the band’s finest moments and a perfect track on which to hang their legacy. Can’t Help Myself has a churning, surging sound, over which Davies intones an urgent vocal. The breakthrough single perfectly captures obsession, nicely building the tension between wanting and NOT wanting to act on one’s impulses.

On Sister, Davies presents a slice of sci-fi fantasy, where robotic servants can fulfill one’s every need. The steady, mechanical keyboard work provides a flawless backdrop as the band crash away. A nice counterpoint to the title track, Walls finds the singer contemplating the security provided by boundaries. Davies explores his vocal range more fully, adding emotional punch to the song. Michael Hoste is the star of Sons, a creepy, compelling song of austere heroism. It’s a track that could have fallen off Bowie’s “Heroes”, right down to Davies’ intonation; Hoste provides an amazing piano figure that both supports that sensation and makes the song something very Icehouse.

We Can Get Together is a delightful song of romantic longing, a dance-floor infatuation with hope for more. It’s a great change of pace, showing off a rare fun side of the band, and is one of their best moments. Boulevarde is a rippling night drive with a great rock beat, and a strong marriage of guitar and synth. When the vocal kicks in, it almost feels like Gary Numan fronting the E Street Band. (Yes, that’s a good thing.) Fatman is a fun bit of fluff, an almost throwaway that works as a bridge song and another glimpse at the diverse sounds the band was exploring. On Skin, cranks up the subtle momentum that has run through the whole album, a brief, insistent track about identity.

Things wrap up — on both versions of album — with the stirring Not My Kind. Anthemic and sweeping, it’s a fine closer to an adventurous, carefully considered album. Over ten tracks and less than 40 minutes, Icehouse emerge from Flowers and announce themselves as a fresh talent with something grand to offer the changing musical landscape of the 80s. Seamlessly part of the New Wave era, Davies and company bring something original and Australian to the scene, launching a career that has lasted nearly 40 fascinating years.

FURTHER LISTENING: Iva Davies is the only constant in the band, with every album featuring  a slightly different lineup. As the vocalist and primary songwriter, he ensures that each album is a logical progression despite the changes, however, and almost every disc has something wonderful to offer. Man of Colours was the commercial breakthrough, filled with hits and easy sounds. It’s also a bit boring, but still a finer disc than many of its contemporaries. The best original album is 1986’s Measure for Measure, the bold statement that prepared the band for their breakthrough and shows more confidence and consistency that most Icehouse albums. White Heat, compiled in 2011, is a two-disc singles compilation that represents the many phases of Icehouse well.

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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.

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