How is it that people can still care about the Human League so many years after their creative peak? It's not like they were brilliant or anything. I mean, yeah, they had their catchy synth-pop anthem, "Don't You Want Me," and a slew of less successful follow-up hits. But what distinguishes them from any other forgotten '80s radio staple? Like Limahl. Really, why not Limahl? He had to be at least as influential, what with hits like the theme from The Neverending Story and "Too Shy," with his band Kajagoogoo. Sure, Limahl had only one true hit song, but his hair was brilliant. Doesn't that also deserve tribute?
To be fair, the Human League actually had an incredibly long career, and a major following among industrial purists and gay club DJs. In fact, their run is apparently not over yet-- new material has been hinted at since their 1995 flop, Octopus. Still, it's been nearly 20 years since the video for their inescapable chart-topper immortalized frontman Philip Oakey's ghostly visage caked in Revlon. Do people really want to remember this?
Ah, but it's too late to bitch, 'cause here's Reproductions, an entire album of Human League songs updated for a new breed of fans. March Records offers 16 songs revamped by a legion of quirk-slinging pop stars, covering everything from the top 40 smashes to the obscure soundtrack cuts.
Stephin Merritt kicks things off with 30 seconds of heavily reverbed minimalism masquerading as a piece off the Get Carter soundtrack. But it ends as quickly as it began, leaving us to deal with the Aluminum Group's take on Dare's "Love Action (I Believe in Love)." Brothers Frank and John Navin offer a convincing, practically verbatim version of the original, which can't be said for the terrifying recreation of "Sweet Child o' Mine" that appeared on their Wonder Boy album. This is probably the most "techno" these guys have ever sounded, and honestly, it might not hurt for them to experiment a little more with this format. The Bacharach thing is a little played out, as I'm sure you'll agree.
Optiganally Yours turn out a genuinely cool remake of "Empire State Human," with Rob Crow alternating between playful falsetto and a slowed-down growl, and Pea Hix going nuts with his famed Optigan keyboard. The Future Bible Heroes' Chris Ewen pulls off a pretty neat effects-laden cover of the would-be arena jam "The Black Hit of Space," a song co-written with original Human League members Martyn Ware (later of Heaven 17) and Ian Marsh (later of Heaven 17, and on programming duties for Right Said Fred). And during the disc's second half, Momus strolls in with a truly confounding cover of "I Am the Law," backed by what sounds like manipulated cellos.
But the fun stops there! Granted, that's a hell of a lot more fun than I'd have expected to have with this record, but when you're dealing with source material like this, it can only be made better. Or so I thought. The Future Bible Heroes proper are given the honor of reworking "Don't You Want Me," on which the similarity between Stephin Merritt and Philip Oakey's sub-deep vocals seem uncanny. Otherwise, it's a straightforward representation of a terribly overplayed song, and that's not fun for anybody.
Elsewhere, Clicks, a band comprised of the Pulsars' Dave Trumfio, the Mekons' Sally Timms and good old Eric Hanna, show up with a ridiculously Devo-ized version of "Seconds"; the Superheroes sing "The Sound of the Crowd" to a pre-programmed beat I could swear was snatched out of the Thompson Twins' "Lies"; Lloyd Cole joins the 6ths for a nicely produced but ultimately melodramatic take on "Human," the Human League's only other #1 song; and don't even get me started on Lali Puna's "experimental" slaughtering of an already laughably bad Philip Oakey/Giorgio Moroder collaboration, "Together in Electric Dreams." (Yes, the theme song to the downright awful 1984 film, Electric Dreams, about a guy and his computer falling in love with Virginia Madsen.)
As unwarranted a concept for a tribute album as Reproductions is, I have to give it credit for pulling it off relatively well. At the heart of the bad synths and worse make-up of the Human League lied some decent pop hooks. Of course, this is a very hard album to recommend, since I can name at least 10,000 other records more worthy of purchase. Plus, you'd have to own a CD with a song by a band called Superheroes. Plus, it's a Human League covers album. I cannot stress the latter point enough. Anyway, I've said all I can say. It's your money.
www.splendidezine.com February 2001 new
Did Phil Oakey provide the soundtrack to the best years of your life? If you came of age in the eighties, you probably have at least five or six Human League songs locked in your subconscious. So, apparently, do the bands featured here. More than just an excuse to get as many Stephin Merritt projects as possible onto a single disc, Reproductions permits indie-pop's feyest and finest to show their fun sides. The performances are mixed: Barcelona's "Mirror Man" is almost too faithful, while Baxendale's "Keep Feeling (Fascination)" is a bit weak at the beginning, but builds to a nice mix of re-creation and creative reinterpretation. Lali Puna's spin on the immortally cheesy "Together in Electric Dreams" is a tasteful bit of understated ambience, but I can't help feeling they've missed a great opportunity to camp it up. Some of the less predictable participants prove the most enjoyable: Optiganally Yours dishes up a noisy, lively take on the lesser-known "Empire State Human", and Clicks (Dave Trumfio, Sally Timms and Eric Hanna) delivers a punched-up (if slightly too straightforward) "Seconds". Stephin Merritt, in Future Bible Heroes and 6ths guises, delivers precisely the sort of quirky preciousness one expects from him, and his team-up with Lloyd Cole on the album-closing "Human" makes me wish the two would collaborate further. The verdict? Light. Fluffy. Fun. A bit uneven. But ultimately more worthwhile than you'd expect. And there's no better antidote to an overdose of humorless DC punk.
This project, which has Stephin Merritt written all over it, features enough bright spots to almost convince you that Human League, a two-hit (okay, maybe two-and-a-half hit) wonder from the 80's, is actually deserving of such a tribute. It is, of course, following in the footsteps of other recent efforts to resurrect synth-pop from its grave of hairspray and rayon — most notably Random and For the Masses, respective tributes to Gary Numan and Depeche Mode. What Reproductions has that the other two don't, however, is a sense of humor.
"I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar..." Merritt croons in the Future Bible Heroes' gender-bending rendition of "Don't You Want Me?" Claudia Gonson, also of FBH and the Magnetic Fields, joins him in the famous duet. Though it obviously lacks the drama of its predecessor, the song is a treat. Baxendale doesn't wimp out on their twee cover of "Keep Feeling (Fascination)" either; they deliver the goofy rap punch at the end á la the Pet Shop Boys. Also amusing is Optiganally Yours' intergalactic romp through "Empire State Human."
The album doesn't necessarily flop in its serious moments, however. Momus shapes a cacophony of untuned violins and wobbly woodwinds into the spare and beautiful "I Am the Law." "Human" retains its haunting quality in the hands of the 6ths (another Merritt outfit) with guest vocalist Lloyd Cole. Reproductions' only weaknesses, in fact, lie in that middle-of-the-road realm where the bands don't make enough of a statement with their contributions. The Alum-inum Group's "Love Action (I Believe in Love)" barely strays at all from the original and Stars' "Stay with Me Tonight" is yawnworthy.
Overall, though, Reproductions does the Human League justice. It plays up their best qualities — an occasional knack for delectable pop among them — and doesn't make too much of a big deal about their shortcomings. Not bad, given the medium.
January 2006 new
Merritt's tactics on the those tracks are a bit too predictably postmodern. He starts by covering The Human League covering someone else (the Get Carter film theme), and then the version of Don't You Want Me is a fairly close rendering of the original but with Merritt taking the female part and fellow band member Claudia Gonson singing the male part. Gender switches like this are one of his trademarks.
The track that has always stood out for me on this album is Baxendale's (Keep Feeling) Fascination. As well as an infectious energy, they add more layers to the song, first with their cheeky tapes of teenage girls leaving obsessive crush messages on Phil Oakey's answerphone, and then rapping a wistful little commentary over the end of the song, an elegy to the days of seeing The Human League on Top of the Pops. For my 38th birthday I cajoled my friends into going to see Baxendale at the Spitz on Commercial Street. I'm sure I heard somewhere that they've split since then.
The track by Garlands is quite amusing for taking The Human League at their most off-centre — Being Boiled — and turning it into a jangly pop tune. But, like much of the album, it's a bit of a one-line joke. See, I'm not as generous in my praise as Philip Oakey.