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Adrian Borland - 5:00 am review (Glenn McDonald 1997)

date: Oct 5, 1997


Adrian Borland - "5:00 am" 

Adrian Borland is a particularly emblematic case. His old band, The Sound, wasn't all that successful in what passed for their heyday, even, and his solo career has had, at least in the US, virtually no visibility. Perhaps his closest brush with fame is that ex-Chameleons singer Mark Burgess, on another album that wasn't released here (Paradyning, Mark's collaboration with Yves Altana), wrote a song called "Adrian Be" about him. But I discovered the Sound belatedly, last year, when Renascent reissued The Shock of Daylight & Heads and Hearts and In the Hothouse, and this resulted, inevitably, in my trying to track down Adrian's subsequent solo albums. The one I found first was 1995's Cinematic, which was released in the US, in 1996, by the Hoboken label Setanta. The title boded well, but the album itself actually arrested my Borland binge before it got to the importers to order the rest of the catalog. The music had an impressive sweep to it, but the production seemed to me to emphasize the mechanical repetitiveness of the arrangements, which Gary Numan can sometimes carry off (on the albums, at least, that aren't clones of their predecessors), but Borland, I thought, couldn't. 

Much of the singing also pushed at the lower end of Borland's dynamic range, where, to my ears, the lack of air flow began to affect his ability to sing in tune. So perhaps, I concluded, my energy would be better applied to scouring used-vinyl stores for the rest of the Sound's albums, instead of worrying about what came after. In fact, I passed up the first copy of 5:00am I spotted during my recent London rounds, thinking that there, at least, was a o£16 I could avoid contributing to my own personal trade deficit. But I couldn't find any Sound records in London, either, and the pro-Borland sentiments I thus failed to give outlet to turned on me, in their exasperation, and demanded that I give him the only other chance available. And, hearteningly, 5:00am turns out to sound exactly the way I wanted Cinematic to. Borland's voice, when he sings like he means it, is a glorious amalgam of Burgess, Ian McNabb, Ian McCulloch, Mike Peters, Jim Kerr and Then Jerico's Mark Shaw, the breathy intimacy that for me misfired on Cinematic here filling, elegantly, the roll that hoarse fervor played in his singing with the Sound. 

If punk's vocal lesson was that people who can't sing can be singers, New Wave's corollary was that people who don't sing that well can be awesome singers, passion substituting admirably for technique. The production, similarly, seems to me to regain its bearings, and here brings out the alternately atmospheric and pulsing synthesizers, the alternately roaring and echoing guitars, the galvanizing backing-vocal wails, the unhurried snap of the drums, and the odd flugelhorn flourish. The swirling, anthemic "Stray Bullets" is everything that made the Big Music intoxicating and New Wave charming, like a cross between "With or Without You" and "Don't You (Forget About Me)" that translates Jim Kerr's elfin dancing into U2's expansive landscape. The sighing "Dangerous Stars", with a scratchy drum loop percolating under twinkling synthesizers and Edge-style ping-pong guitars, is like an excerpt from the smaller, quieter follow-up to The Joshua Tree that U2 never made.

"Vampiric" sounds like a Catherine Wheel song tempered by a long weekend, just before recording it, spent listening to Echo and the Bunnymen's Ocean Rain. "Baby Moon" mixes in chiming acoustic guitars and pixie-dust synth shimmers, the churning "City Speed" wouldn't have been out of place on the Simple Minds' Sparkle in the Rain, and the muted, moody "Kissing in the Dark", when it erupts into calliope keyboard glissandos, reminds me obliquely of Gardening by Moonlight. "I'm Your Freedom" is spare, organic and haunting, mostly Borland's acoustic guitar, producer Tim Smith's whirring harmonium, and some violin credited only to "Smudge", with a bit of gruff, Shriekback-like backing vocals towards the end. The verses of "The Spinning Room", contrastingly, are determinedly mechanistic, a beepy keyboard whine bubbling dreamily through them like an early draft of an alarm-clock sound that they found, in testing, people would happily sleep through.

The choruses are all resonating guitar chords, though, and the ragged "Redemption's Knees", with blaring guitar, near-rockabilly vocal slapbacks, slinky shaker percussion and a sturdy drum stomp, could be a Mike Peters song. Then again, "Between Buildings" has a static-y drum loop Borland could have borrowed from Gary Numan, glassy keyboards that might have come from a Simple Minds instrumental, a rubbery Jah Wobble-ish bass line and thin, buzzy vocal processing, and the sweeping, massed guitar and piano chords in the chorus can only increase the solemnity of the pace. The album kicks in the pop rapture once more before it ends, with the galloping, affectionate "Over the Under", all ahhing choruses, sunny Waterboys-esque trumpets and wiry keyboard hooks, which sounds to me like what the Alarm might have evolved into if the atmosphere of Eye of the Hurricane hadn't turned out to be a tangent. 

Borland opts to end the record, however, with a quiet song, the slow, mostly acoustic "Before the Day Begins". "When you drowned in the sea of life, / Did your own one make no sense?", he asks, and this has, for me, the ring of self-awareness, as if he has learned, through painful experience, that reaching the cusp of revelation in a song doesn't always correspond to crossing over into it back in the world of clammy movie-theater floors, belligerent impatience, mass-produced aggression and a decade of music that would rather stew in its own transient, small-world street-toughness than yearn, vulnerably, for bigger things. And one could contend, reasonably enough, that the cathartic swells of songs like these are no different, qualitatively, from movie explosions, attempts to cater to one reflex or another in our system of perceptions, whether or not we agree with the content of the gesture (if, indeed, it has content).

But fireworks and sunsets are, to me, aesthetic atavisms, things our primitive ancestors would have understood just as well. Movie explosions are even worse, because they combine our brainless fascination with bright lights with an ability to ignore the amoral perversity of being pleased by a picture of people dying, if it's only shiny enough. A song like these, on the other hand, or a movie like Titanic, however much it relies on visceral appeals, is also the sound of a human mind searching for a path to transcendence that can justify ever picking up our clubs and walking away from the warm, pretty, flickering fire. It echoes in my head, for this reason, changing and being changed, long after my retinas have forgotten about the flash. 

Copyright 1997, Glenn McDonald 

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