Reissue Review: McAlmont & Butler, “The Sound of … McAlmont & Butler”

Written by Music, Reissue Reviews

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Even the best laid plans never quite work out as expected.

When David McAlmont first met Bernard Butler in London’s Jazz Café in 1994, both were still reeling following acrimonious splits—McAlmont’s dream pop duo Thieves had just broken up and Butler had left Suede during the recording of the band’s sophomore LP, Dog Man Star—and  neither wished to enter a new musical marriage: the initial plan was only to record a pair of songs for a single and create what Butler described as a “perfect moment in pop”. That their collaboration immediately resulted in the majestic, transcendent “Yes”—inspired by Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to Be With You”—and the sprawling, soaring “You Do” threw bit of a spanner in the works: why stop at a single? Why not record a full album? With a bit of prodding from industry types, the pair returned to the studio to complete nine more songs and assemble enough material for an album that was never meant to be in the first place. By The Sound Of…McAlmont & Butler‘s release, ten of its eleven songs (“The Right Thing” was the lone exception) had already appeared as single a- or b-sides, and the duo was for all intents and purposes done. There were a few TV appearances, a BBC session, a single concert, and then… silence (until a 2002 reunion—but that’s another story).

Timed to coincide with The Sound Of…‘s twentieth anniversary, this reissue came about almost by accident: Butler discovered that the album had been featured on the 1p Album Club and justifiably concluded that it deserved a better fate than Amazon’s bargain bin. Two decades on, The Sound Of… is indeed ripe for discovery and sounds perhaps even better now than it did in 1995, when its dearth of new material was received with a tinge of disappointment. “Yes” and “You Do” are timeless classics and still inevitably tower over the rest of the album, but the other songs are all worthy of the listener’s attention. In fact, The Sound Of… is an exceptional showcase for the range and strength of both McAlmont & Butler’s rich songwriting and arranging skills, from the acoustic-based “Don’t Call It Soul” to the raging, glammy “The Debitor” to a cover of “You’ll Lose A Good Thing” where McAlmont is at his most vulnerable and eschews vocal acrobatics in favour of a gentle and deeply moving performance.

Since the original album largely cleared the cupboards, the bonus material included in the deluxe edition offers few surprises: the usual demos as well as single and alternate mixes are all accounted for, but the second disc offers no new songs other than a wonderful interpretation of Neil Young’s “Walk On” recorded for the BBC. The demos for the most part highlight how much the songs were fully formed before entering the studio—only “Tonight” experienced a radical evolution from its underwhelming Suede-era origins documented here—while the differences in the alternate mixes will be best appreciated by diehards (though, to be fair, a new 2015 mix of “What’s the Excuse This Time?” sounds noticeably shorter and crisper than the original one). A DVD adds promo clips, vintage Top of the Pops and Later…With Jools Holland performances, a newly filmed interview and acoustic performances of three songs.

For longtime fans of the duo, this reissue will be a no-brainer, gathering as it does in a single comprehensive package much of the material recorded during that first feverish burst of inspiration. For everyone else, it offers an excellent opportunity to discover an album that sounds as fresh and idiosyncratic today as it did when it was released at the peak of Britpop.

The Sound of…McAlmont & Butler is now available in a variety of formats from the duo’s official store (EU only) and from the usual online retailers.