Friday, July 19, 2013

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark at Paradise Rock Club (July 15th, 2013)

It’s been three years since I’ve written a concert review for my blog, so it’s time again for me to crank out another one of those.  On Monday night I was totally excited to see OMD perform, having been a fan of their music for the past three decades now.  Even so, I’d have bought a ticket solely on the strength of their latest album, English Electric, one of my favorite CDs so far this year.  The songs are a futuristic throwback to their astoundingly good ’80s catalogue, with a number of the best tracks even stealing bits and pieces from their early hits, so an evening of live music with the duo is an ideal way to tie it all together and bring things full circle.

The crowd was understandably older than I’d usually expect to find at a pop band’s club show.  A scattering of younger listeners drifted around the venue, however, including one guy standing next to me who said that he’d never heard OMD’s music until earlier that day, when he listened to their songs online for a few hours in his office and decided to attend the concert.  He said he was there for the “’80s techno,” and I doubt that he left disappointed at the end of OMD’s 90-minute set.  Andy McCluskey (on vocals and guitar) whirled around the stage in jeans and a white button-up shirt, while Paul Humphreys (on keyboards) played the deadpan Chris Lowe supporting role dressed all in black.  The pair offered up a generous sampling of their classic crowd-pleasers like “Tesla Girls,” “So in Love,” “(Forever) Live and Die,” “Sailing on the Seven Seas,” and an encore of “Electricity.”

I was perhaps most excited to hear OMD perform 1981’s “Souvenir,” one of the most perfect electronic pop songs ever to come out of the United Kingdom.  Interestingly, it was also the only song of the night that was sung by Humphreys.  “Souvenir” segued sensibly into “Night Café,” probably my favorite song on English Electric, which borrows several different sonic elements from that earlier track; McCluskey mentioned during its introduction that the lyrics of “Night Café” were inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper.  The other songs featured from English Electric sounded equally fantastic in a live setting, especially the euphoric opener “Metroland” and the propulsive “Dresden.”  I also loved how electronic interludes like “Please Remain Seated” and “Atomic Ranch” were effectively woven into the set-list.

One more new song is worth touching upon because it captures OMD’s current thematic focus:  the cyber-transformation of contemporary culture and the ultimate destination of the cosmos.  “Our System” may be the most ambitious song that the duo played on Monday night.  It’s about the Voyager interplanetary space probe as it moves through our solar system and continues across the universe, “only to perceive / no one there at all.”  The rhythm is even based on the Voyager’s sound recording of Jupiter’s magnetosphere, “the sort of thing that we like to write songs about,” McCluskey joked.  (By the way, his singing voice has changed remarkably little over the years.)

The moment that I’ll remember best from the night, however, is hearing the audience sing along with the lyrics of “If You Leave,” easily OMD’s biggest commercial hit here in the United States, written for the soundtrack of John Hughes’ 1986 teen movie Pretty in Pink.  Yes, I’m aware that “If You Leave” is reviled as a sell-out song by many longtime fans of OMD’s music.  And yes, I’m also aware that OMD wrote it in under 24 hours when they realized a different song they’d composed wouldn’t be the right fit for the film.  But I was thirteen when I saw the movie at the cinema, so my own associations with the first time I heard “If You Leave” soar into Molly Ringwald’s prom scene finale are inviolable.

I’ve always been skeptical about anyone who’s overly critical of nostalgia.  Marcel Proust aside, in a sense nostalgia is impossible to intellectualize because it’s purely about feeling.  A recent New York Times article on the science of the phenomenon concluded that nostalgia — which literally means “the pain of going home” — is psychologically healthy to experience.  Those who nostalgize in times of depression overwhelmingly find themselves feeling better as a result.  There’s a clear correlation to the power of music as a tool for creating good memories, of course.  When the heroine of Pretty in Pink fashions her own prom dress and decides to attend the dance alone in defiance of the rich bullies at her school, OMD’s “If You Leave” underscores her bold proclamation to her dad: “I just want to let them know that they didn’t break me.”  I certainly felt that myself in high school, and judging from the audience’s reaction to hearing “If You Leave” in concert on Monday night, plenty of other people felt exactly the same way.