With the success of R.E.M., Big Country and U2, it suddenly seems that neo-folk-rock bands are springing up everywhere. Upholding the reputation of the rock 'n' roll guitar in the face of the synthesizer onslaught, these bands center their songs on jangling, ringing guitar harmonies. They update the old Byrds sound, though, with a brooding drone that considers the world without any hippie sentimentality.
When a rock 'n' roll movement becomes a trend, the latecomers include both those who have caught the original inspiration and those who are just scrambling to climb on the bandwagon. The neo-folk-rock field contains both underrated great bands (Wire Train, Del Amitri, Dream Academy, True West, the Swimming Pool Qs, the Bluebells) and overly hyped shallow bands (the Armoury Show, Translator, Lloyd Cole & the Commotions, Smash Palace).
Before he became the leader of Big Country, Stuart Adamson was the backing guitarist in the Scottish art-punk quartet the Skids. The Skids' singer-songwriter Richard Jobson, and bassist Russell Webb, have now formed a new quartet, the Armoury Show, with ex-Magazine drummer John Doyle and ex-Banshee guitarist John McGeoch. The Armoury Show's debut album, "Waiting for the Floods" (EMI, ST-17163), obviously aspires to the heroic anthem sound of Big Country's first album.
Their two British hit singles, "Castle in Spain" and "We Can Be Brave Again," do boast contagious melody figures that are expanded to grand proportions by the harmony vocals in multitracked guitars. As he so often did with the Skids, though, Jobson sabotages the songs with lyrics that mean far less than they first appear to and with vocals that treat those lyrics far more pretentiously than they deserve.
A far better album from Glasgow is the self-titled debut album, "Del Amitri" (Chrysalis, BFV 41499). This young Scottish quartet uses Aztec Camera's refreshing combination of acoustic guitar with an electric rhythm section but without Roddy Frame's self-important archness. Justin Currie's vocals and Iain Harvie's circular guitar figures capture a youthful idealism in their bubbly, captivating melodies.
These melodies pull the listener into disarming confessions about the trials of growing up and falling in love. In "Deceive Yourself," Currie's quiet, understated voice contemplates suicide over a broken romance but rejects it. In "Hammering Heart" Currie laments that "not one girl in this whole town will ever love me" with the forlorn certainty that's possible only at 19. In "Crows in the Wheatfield," he accuses an old friend of replacing idealism with hipness: "It would take a heatwave to get you to take your jacket off." This is one of the best debut albums of the year.
One of the best early neo-folk-rock records was an overlooked 1981 release by the Act, "Too Late at Twenty." Nick Laird-Clowes, the singer-songwriter who led that London quartet, has a new trio, and their self-titled album, "The Dream Academy" (Warner Bros., 9 25265-1), is another of the year's better debuts. Produced by Laird-Clowes and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, the record wraps the basic folk-rock songs in thick arrangements of voices, keyboards and reeds to produce a reverie worthy of the band's name.
Laird-Clowes has a tendency to let his words and music get a bit too dreamy, and several songs drift out of focus. His most effective are those that focus on the collision between ambitious young people and Britain's collapsing economy. This "world" is a dramatic, bleak panorama of the street casualties of that collision; "life in a northern town" is a bittersweet view of a similar scene in a Scottish setting.
"The Party" is typical Laird-Clowes' methodology: the implications of his brooding vocal are fleshed out by layers of instruments, including Gilbert Gabriel's synthesizers, Kate St. John's sax and guest guitars by Gilmour and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck.
If George's R.E.M. often makes neo-folk-rock overly murky, San Francisco's Translator makes it overly obvious. Their third album, "Translator" (Columbia, BFC 39984) is full of the obvious folk-rock elements, yet there's no dramatic tension or concrete focus to make these appealing ingredients gel.
Steve Barton, the quartet's main singer and songwriter, has a knack for Beatles-style melodies that make this album pleasant background listening. His lyrics, though, abound in vaguely defined characters and situations; it's impossible to imagine a specific person in a specific place in any of his songs. His singing suffers from the same vagueness. Even the three songs about the nuclear apocalypse have the same detached quality as the blurry dreams about "strange shapes, strange shadows."
Much better is the second album by another San Francisco folk-rock quartet, Wire Train: "Between Two Worlds" (Columbia, BFC 40129). Kevin Hunter's lyrics jumble up images of great hopes and cruel disappointments until they seem one and the same. As he describes faded dreams and soured love, he tries to hold onto the memory of the "Last Perfect Thing" and to hope for the return of the "Skills of Summer."
Guitarist Kurt Herr captures this conflict between hopes and disappointments in lyrical guitar phrases that get caught in a disturbing tension before they resolve. He gives the album's one political song, Bob Dylan's "With God On Our Side," a convincing Big Country treatment. Swedish bassist Anders Rundblad makes an impressive songwriting debut with the evocative immigrant song "Home." The best songs, though, are those like "The Ocean" and "Love, Love," where Herr's aching guitar parts and Hunter's yearning lyrics are carried relentlessly forward by a propulsive rhythm in a buoyant melody.