In Britain, pop has long been viewed as being musically distinct from rock, tied to a tradition that emphasizes melody over rhythm, gloss over content and frivolity above all. For all that, though, pop's melodic allure continues to fascinate British rockers. Some, such as producer Trevor Horn, try to co-opt pop's appeal through technical wizardry; others, such as conceptualist Malcolm McLaren, seek to subvert the pop process. But the most fascinating fusion of British pop and rock comes from the fringe with such groups as Prefab Sprout, the Cure and the Fall, which avoid the mainstream while acknowledging the pull of pop.
"Two Wheels Good" (Epic BFE 40100), Prefab Sprout's new album, has many of the hallmarks associated with pop products. The production, by Thomas Dolby, is graceful and impeccably detailed; the songs, by Paddy McAloon, are resolutely melodic; the performances are professional and assured. Yet there's nothing slick about the Sprout's sound, or facile about their songs, and that's largely what keeps "Two Wheels Good" from tumbling headlong into the obviousness of pop.
Instead of the rigid verse/chorus construction the pop format insists upon, McAloon's songs unravel at their own pace, as if the band were more interested in developing the narrative than in hammering home a hook. "Moving the River," for example, opens with a lean, anxious pulse that dramatically underscores the tensions of McAloon's chatty lyrics. Similarly, "Horsin' Around" wends its way from a samba beat to a jokey jazz passage and back again, all in abeyance to the song's underlying logic.
The funniest thing about this allegiance to narrative structure is that McAloon's story lines are almost impossible to follow. Sometimes, as with the bouncy, country-tinged "Faron," the vocals have been so heavily treated that making out the words becomes difficult. But mostly it's McAloon's elliptical lyrics that elude interpretation.
Still, "Two Wheels Good" is one of the most musically alluring albums of the year. A good deal of the credit belongs with producer Dolby, who manages tricks such as the vaporous textures of "Desire As," where brief stabs of saxophone, guitar and piano are seamlessly blended with a host of synthesizers to unobtrusively support the vocal line. But even the best production would be wasted without worthy song writing. And at bottom, that's where these Sprouts really blossom.
Song writing, of course, can make all the difference in a band's sound. When the Cure, which will perform Tuesday and Wednesday at the Warner Theatre, started out, the group displayed a sturdy, if offbeat, melodic sense through such singles as "Killing an Arab" and "Boys Don't Cry," but soon drifted off to indulgent atmospherics. Over their last few records, though, the band has returned to a more tuneful approach, which, though still obsessed with the sound for its own sake, structures ideas around more conventionally memorable hooks.
That's not to say that the Cure's new album, "The Head on the Door" (Elektra 9 60435-1), is a serious candidate for the top of the charts, for despite his catchy choruses, Robert Smith's voice is still too quirky to attract a mainstream audience. Further, his points of reference are hopelessly skewed to the new wave; "Inbetween Days," for instance, recalls New Order, with its bass-driven groove, while "The Baby Screams" uses a sequencer figure to allude to the Thirteenth Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me." But any song writer capable of concocting a melody as unassumingly charming as that tune "Six Different Ways" deserves wider recognition.
The Fall, by contrast, seems almost to spurn accessibility, having throughout its career made music of unstinting difficulty. Yet even this band seems to be working toward a reconciliation of sorts, if "This Nation's Saving Grace" (PVC 8940) is any indication. As usual for the band, the songs are not neat chorus/verse arrangements, but are structured around a series of instrumental vamps that support Mark E. Smith's near-tuneless vocal rants. As a musical model, it's somewhat daunting, but proceeding in the path of the 1984 single "C.R.E.E.P.," the Fall has perked up its guitar vamps to make its sound somewhat more approachable.
Granted, most of "This Nation's Saving Grace" will strike the average pop fan as little more than noise, but at its best -- "My New House," "L.A.," "Cruiser's Creek" -- it marks the strongest fusion of melody and noise since P.I.L.'s "Metal Box." "Cruiser's Creek" in particular, with its stinging stuttered guitar lines, throbbing drums and sarcastic vocals, suggests that even at rock's fringes, a little pop sense can go a long way.