Echo & The Bunnymen
Crystal Days 1979-1999 (Warner Archives/Rhino)
Echo & the Bunnymen are the second most successful rock & roll band from Liverpool, but exist today in the same limbo occupied by OMD and the Pet Shop Boys as retro-night regulars. Their career isn't technically over, but they're nonetheless fated to be forever associated with heavy overcoats and Anthony Michael Hall hair. Which is a shame. Not to say they didn't bring some of it on themselves, trying so overarchingly to avoid being taken for U2's stunt doubles early on. That wasn't even entirely their fault, both bands sharing an affinity for Television, Joy Division, and Dylan. Better still, the lot of them understood a song doesn't need all that much to spring to life: a lick and a half of guitar, a driving beat, lots of angels, devils, and killing moons, and you're in business. In other words, the best way to see Echo & the Bunnymen must have been live, because the last disc of this 4-CD Crystal Days
anthology is easily the most fun. The other three are a poker-faced trip from early drum-machine demos and the gloom-pop glory days of 1983's Heaven Up Here
and '84's Ocean Rain
all the way up to most recent album What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?,
which came out in 1999. On the closing disc of live covers and alternate originals, singer Ian McCulloch unveils a bizarre Bela Lugosi affectation for "Paint It Black" and gets Motown on Eddie Kendrick's "Action Woman," while axeman Will Sergeant grinds out the Velvet Underground's "Run, Run, Run" and Television's "Friction" in all their cement-mixing urban-blues majesty. The Bunnies' own songs, such as "The Cutter," "Bedbugs and Ballyhoo," and "Crocodiles," seethe with a tense frustration that makes the band at least partial post-punk architects, even while McCulloch is quoting "Thank Heaven for Little Girls." VU's "Heroin," Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour," the Doors' "Soul Kitchen," that's where they're coming from. Where they're going is to be determined. Disc three plucks the 1987 self-titled album that spawned "Lips Like Sugar" and both post-Electrafixion efforts; in particular, "Bring on the Dancing Horses" and "I Want to Be There (When You Come)" only reinforce the debt owed by latter-day comers like Travis, the Charlatans, and the Verve. A recent one-off with the Spice Girls for a soccer single isn't here. (Damn!) What is, is a pleasant reminder that, from modest beginnings pillaging Bauhaus, the Stones, and the Violent Femmes, Echo & the Bunnymen were able to become and remain a potent force in British pop. One day they may actually smile.