Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Steve Lillywhite

My apologies for the delay in posting this, but there was a last-minute change in plans – a happy change in plans, as it turns out, because it directly relates to my radio show tomorrow (Wednesday at 10 a.m. Eastern Time) on Orchard Radio.

I've decided to devote a full hour to music produced by Steve Lillywhite – one of the most influential music producers of the last 30 years, but also one of the most controversial in several cases.

The songs showcased in today's post are Lillywhite at his best – and perhaps his worst. And they both came out in the same year: 1983.

We start off with The Crossing (1983), Big Country's first and still most successful LP. To be sure, former Skids guitarist Stuart Adamson had a lot to do with developing the Scottish band's unique bagpipe-style guitar playing. But you have to give a lot of credit to Lillywhite, particularly on the last song of the first side "The Storm."

Play "The Storm" by Big Country

While "In a Big Country" gets most of the attention, this is the song where Big Country should have earned most of its plaudits. Moody and atmospheric like the Scottish moors it is supposed to evoke, the song is an epic composition that receives just the right touch from Lillywhite. He knows when to go all out and when to simply pull back to let the song speak for itself.

Later in that same year, Lillywhite crossed the Atlantic to work with singer/songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, whose debut 1982 album had garnered critical raves and surprising amount of popularity on the burgeoning college radio scene. (He even managed to hit the Billboard Top 40 with "Someday Someway"). Many were anticipating great things from Crenshaw.

Instead of sticking with 60s traditionalist Richard Gottehrer, whose cleaner sound had been featured on Crenshaw debut and had also helped The Go-Go's reach the top, Crenshaw tapped Lillywhite and his denser sound. To many, it was a huge mistake. Crenshaw's hooks and lyrics got lost in the murkiness of the production of Lillywhite, who the following year would almost bury Jim Kerr's vocals in the many layers of Simple Minds' Sparkle in the Rain (1984). The album's lead-off track "Whenever You're On Mind" should and could have been a bigger hit than it was. It is one of the most beautiful pop songs ever, but a crisper sound probably would have made it more palatable on the airwaves

Here's one of the songs from Field Day I'll be featuring on Wednesday's show:

Play "Hold It" by Marshall Crenshaw

Time has been kinder to this record as it has passed. Robert Christgau gives Field Day a rare "A+" based not only Crenshaw's superior songwriting, but his quick maturity as an artist. The fact is, Crenshaw never was interested in letting his first LP turn him into someone whose records would be blaring out of every dorm room. As subsequent releases have shown, Crenshaw is still a pop musician – but he's a serious one interested in setting his own path. And that path doesn't include selling out concert halls and landing all of his CDs on the Billboard charts. I still wish that Lillywhite hadn't produced this record, but I now understand why Crenshaw made the choice that he did.

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