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New orders

Bernard Sumner and Electronic

Word has it there's a new New Order album in the works. I'll believe it when I see it, since that's been rumored for a few years now. One new song surfaced on the soundtrack to The Beach this spring, and by all reports seven others have emerged from the studio so far. New Order's sound has always been influenced by dance-music trends, so some of the band's recordings have aged strangely. Nevertheless, they've quietly distinguished themselves as songwriters of the first rank.

It's hard to say who in New Order is the real songwriting wizard. If it's bassist Peter Hook, you sure wouldn't know it from his dismal albums with Revenge and Monaco, or from the very New Orderish album that keyboardist Gillian Gilbert and drummer Stephen Morris made as the Other Two. But new evidence -- namely Electronic's unexpectedly amazing Twisted Tenderness (Koch) -- would seem to position singer/guitarist Bernard Sumner as New Order's star songwriter. Twisted Tenderness is the third album by the duo of Sumner and former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, a project that seemed like a one-off by a couple of smart, bored, new-wave club rats when they debuted a decade ago. Now, Electronic sound like The Last Of The Great Guitar Bands.

The first thing you notice about Twisted Tenderness is the full-throttle production by Arthur Baker, who made some memorable singles with New Order back in the early '80s. He emphasizes the attack and counterattack of loud guitars and drums here. There's also a salient cover of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" midway through the CD, and it points up how the new Sumner-and-Marr songs are in the same vein, only better. Indeed, the material is strong enough to carry all sorts of stylistic baggage, and Electronic take advantage by adopting New Order's penchant for having melodies and guitars and rhythms and synthesizers argue with one another more than they agree. As for Sumner's lyrics, whereas before he always squirmed about, here they're emotionally specific.

A number of other bands have recognized the strength of New Order's songwriting and put it to good use -- like Orgy, who had a sizable hit with their mook-metal cover of "Blue Monday" a few years ago. "Blue Monday" on its own is pretty weird -- jury-rigged from a sequencer test program, with confusing, personal lyrics (though maybe they're about the Falklands War: "I see a ship in the harbor/I can and shall obey"). Orgy's version was entirely unweird: they were trading on unfettered '80s nostalgia, so they sang the words as if they meant nothing at all. Even so, the song's simple, bitter power was more effective than anything else on their album.

A much odder version became a minor European hit in the early '90s. The Times' "Lundi Bleu" is a half-parodic Manchester shuffle with a squealing metal guitar solo and French lyrics. The single appended versions in Japanese, German, Spanish, and "Brazilian" (i.e., Portuguese). The joke was that it was an exercise in style over substance: crowd the arrangement with formal gestures, remove the listener's connection with the lyrics, and "Blue Monday" vanishes like an ice cube baked into a cake.

A better-known New Order cover is the sugary acoustic take on "Bizarre Love Triangle" that was a hit for the Australian band Frente! in 1993, after similar arrangements appeared on Devine and Statton's 1988 The Prince of Wales and a 1991 single by fellow Aussies Even As We Speak. Whoever thought this up, it's a marvelous idea, stripping away New Order's hyped-up, Latin freestyle-inspired arrangement to reveal the tender little melody encased within.

My vote for the prettiest New Order cover, though, is Galaxie 500's "Ceremony." The original is a single, breathless dive, an elegy that's still in denial. Galaxie zero in on what they think is interesting about "Ceremony": it's got only two chords, which alternate all the way through, serving the song's verses, choruses, and instrumental breaks in different ways. The band turn it into a gentle jam, treating the words as almost incidental and switching between the chords as if they were paddling a canoe.

More proof of the malleability of New Order's best tunes comes from the Oyster Band, who heard "Love Vigilantes" as a widow/ghost ballad in the Celtic folk tradition and played it that way (with a lead accordion part). There's also the Get Up Kids, who divined a pained, squirmy emo subtext beneath the shiny surface and flat delivery of "Regret"; and Chappaquiddick Skyline, who noticed something very like Americana in "Leave Me Alone." It's revealing, actually, that almost nobody who's covered a New Order song has made it sound much like the original. The band's stylistic shadow is so imposing that you have to spirit the songs away from it so they can bloom.

Last updated on 2005-03-07 9:42:00 PM - 9:42:00 PM
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