I really, really liked Strange Times and continue to today. In the meantime, though, I've found a cassette of their Peel Sessions collection and just recently, a used copy of their second album, What Does Anything Mean? Basically. Due to the timing of the John Peel sessions, there is significant overlap between them and the What album, but the versions are fairly different. In any case, every song I've heard by the Chameleons has been great, but Strange Times still has that charm of being the first thing I heard by them. Therefore, I shall review it and heap praise thereon.
Artist: The Chameleons (UK)
Album: Strange Times
Release Date: September 1986
Producer: Dave Allen
01. Mad Jack
03. Tears [Original Arrangement]
04. Soul in Isolation
05. Swamp Thing
06. Time/The End of Time
08. In Answer
10. I'll Remember
11. Tears [Full Arrangement] [Single, 1986]
12. Paradiso [Tears b-side]
13. Inside Out [Tears b-side]
14. Ever After [not available on all releases and apparently otherwise unreleased]
15. John, I'm Only Dancing [David Bowie cover] [Swamp Thing b-side]
16. Tomorrow Never Knows [The Beatles cover] [Mad Jack b-side]
Like The Sisters of Mercy's Floodland, this album contains several "limited edition" bonus tracks that somehow appear on every release of the album. I don't think anyone is complaining, as about half the bonus tracks are just as good as the rest of the album and the other half almost are. Sometimes, the bonus tracks were released on a separate, second disc, sometimes they were appended to the album, and some versions (including mine) omit "Ever After" for space reasons (since including it passes the old 74 minute mark). Anyway.
Strange Times is just full of great songs, and the production is marvelous. It opens with "Mad Jack", a fast and jumpy character description. The guitars really carry the song, but the drums help move the song along. It is followed by the slower, longer, and somewhat spacier "Caution", which apparently features improvised lyrics made up while recording the take. Heavily chorused and delayed interweaving guitars form a soundscape complimented by the bass and occasional keyboards to provide a good atmosphere for the rambling lyrics.
The album hits the first high point with "Tears". There are two versions of the song: the rockier, louder version was released as a single and is the first bonus track on the album; the more peaceful and acoustic version is the third track of the album proper. It's hard to say which version is better; both are fantastic versions. The acoustic "original arrangement" has some dual guitar work: one is very cleanly and proficiently picked and the other is played with an e-bow. Later, a harmonica is added to the mix. Considering the song was written as an emotional outpouring after the death of a friend due to cancer, the original version works very well. The more rocking "full arrangement" begins with a more distorted mix of guitars with stronger bass and drums, but then during the chorus, the song picks up significantly. There are also some lovely background vocals thrown in.
"Soul in Isolation" is another great track; it opens with a strong drum beat and then throws a delayed picking pattern over it. The bass comes in to make the chords clearer, and then Mark Burgess starts singing. It grooves along for another minute, then Burgess yelps and the tempo suddenly speeds up and the other guitar comes in. The song continues to drive along for another five or six minutes, but the great melody over the strong guitars keeps the song from feeling stagnant.
"Swamp Thing" again features a driving, dominant bass foundation, and keyboards and guitars form the textural landscape in the mid-range. An extended intro finally leads into some fairly hooky bridges and other bits. At least on this album, "Swamp Thing" probably comes closest to living up to the occasionally-made comparison of the Chameleons to Echo & the Bunnymen.
"Time/The End of Time" inexplicably has two titles, but since one includes the other, it's not hard to guess the theme with a quick glance at the lyrics: don't waste your time. It's a good song but not a highlight. It gets interesting at the end, where it suddenly switches tracks to a restrained acoustic outro reprise. A keyboard hits the final note and then the curious "Seriocity" begins. Supposedly, drummer John Lever supplies what sounds like a drum machine via the human beatbox technique. The song is less thickly arranged than many of the others and is also the shortest (on the album proper), at a mere three minutes (compared to the average of about five).
Then comes one of my favorite parts. "Seriocity" hits its final note right as "In Answer" begins with a keyboard intro. The keyboard fades a bit and suddenly the full band comes in, rocking with their full atmospherics. "In Answer" is perhaps my favorite track on the album, considering the wonderful driving force of the song and the fairly catchy lyrics. I also enjoy the lyrical take on sexuality: instead of the traditional pop/rock attitude of absolute hedonism and unabashed sexual abandon or the traditional moralist stance, the song simply says, "One cold grey afternoon / A part of me parted too soon / It slipped away / I don't know what to say / In answer". I appreciate the thoughtful perspective of acknowledging what is but also not accepting it at face value (or why else would he say, "too soon"?). It ends on a weird fading sound effect.
"Childhood" is another good but less notable song, and it fades into guitar feedback, which in turn serves as the beginning of the instrumental "I'll Remember". The song lightly pulses along with some pleasantly delayed guitar picking and some background sounds. Some synthesized choral bits appear before the song fades into a coda of a song I am still yet to identify.
The bonus tracks are an interesting bag. I already mentioned the full arrangement of "Tears", but the other three originals are fairly similar to each other. Each is pretty driving, with solid drumming and bass work and some nice guitar bits. The best is probably "Paradiso", which has a great keyboard and guitar chord turn. It just sounds cool.
The cover of Bowie's "John, I'm Only Dancing" is clearly just the band messing around. Apparently the drums were done on the cases, as the band didn't want to bother setting up the full set. The lyrics are scatterbrained and partially improvised, possibly due to forgetfulness, but the arrangement is otherwise faithful to the original, which makes it work alright.
The final track is also quite notable: a cover of the Lennon-composed Beatles song "Tomorrow Never Knows". The Chameleons were far from messing around here. Songwriter Burgess is a clear Lennon fan ("Here Today" from the first album was a tribute to his death), and this song is quite likely the best cover of the song I've heard (even better than the "T.N.K." version done by Brian Eno and 808 on their live album). Lever is completely up to the task of providing the right drums, the bass puts down a great groove, and the guitars (with some keyboard and sound effect production) do an amazing job of recreating and re-imagining the soundscape that the Beatles had created for their version. Burgess takes some liberties with the lyrics, but it only helps to solidify the song as their own. They also managed to double the length of the original.
The Chameleons do have something of a trademark sound that is somewhat predictable: driving bass providing some foundation, interweaving dual guitar work, usually with some effects like delay and chorus, maybe some e-bow or keyboards, and solid drumming. Burgess likes to write a bit of social commentary when he's not writing about personal experiences. What perhaps makes me connect to so many of his pieces, though, is his fascination and reverence for nostalgia. This is made most clear on the b-side of the bands' first single ("In Shreds"), via a song titled "Nostalgia". I actually fully intend to add the song to my repertoire of covers because I like it that much. That and "Looking Inwardly" focus on the concepts on looking at oneself and the memories that serve as your foundation. I've tried myself to deal with some of the related ideas, but Burgess has returned to the theme in plenty of creative variations. Clearly, "Tears" and "In Answer" follow the theme, and the instrumental "I'll Remember" seems to both in title and in atmosphere.
Strange Times is a long listen when coupled with its seemingly-omnipresent bonus tracks, but it's such a great listen that I see no reason to complain. If the length really is bothersome, just stop at the "proper" end ("I'll Remember") but consider playing the fantastic full arrangement of "Tears" and the thoroughly developed cover of "Tomorrow Never Knows". As I said before, even the songs are quite long; most of my favorites are around five minutes or more. The songs never drag, though, and they always keep moving along, keeping things interesting. This is a great album to get lost in, though, since they are long pieces and many fade right into the next. The producer, Dave Allen (known for co-producing many of the Cure's big albums and the Sisters of Mercy's First and Last and Always), is probably to thank for that, and what a great touch he added to the already full-sounding band.
I can't recommend this band and album enough. Think of the Church, if you know them (they did "Under the Milky Way"), only shorter-lived and better.
Without bonus tracks: A+ (for consistency)
With bonus tracks: A (for high quality but a lower awesome-per-minute ratio)
PS: Word on the street is that the Chameleons' first album (Script of the Bridge) is to be reissued. Cool.