Echo and the Bunnymen

Siberia

(Cooking Vinyl; 2005)

By David M. Goldstein | 6 October 2005

To the surprise of no one, U2’s last album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, sold a couple million copies. The band held that record’s lead single, “Vertigo” in such high regard that they felt the burning desire to include it twice in setlists on their recent tour, and its staying power as a stadium-filling jock jam seems assured. In a MOJO interview regarding the songwriting process of said hit single, I seem to recall bassist Adam Clayton describing his contributions to the track as “having a little Bunnymen in there,” and he’s correct in that "Vertigo’s" guttural, driving riff does indeed owe a lot to the early efforts of Echo bass stalwart Les Pattinson (since replaced by Peter Wilkinson).

But at least to these eyes, Clayton’s overall tone in the interview couldn’t help but seem to have a touch of derision, as if Ian McCulloch and his band were a dinosaur act to whom The Biggest Band In The World were paying mock tribute, oblivious to the fact that both U2 and Echo were contemporaries (not to mention competitive) at the beginning of their careers. But whereas U2 made a conscious decision to go BIG with their eventual Martin Luther King anthems and constant touring of North America, Echo simply retrenched, getting weirder with each consecutive release and relegating most of their live shows to British shores. Porcupine’s “The Cutter” simply wasn’t as populist an anthem as War’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and while U2 continue to sell out shows the world over, there are still plenty of tickets available to the Bunnymen’s upcoming gig at a 900 seat venue in Manhattan.

This is hardly to say, however, that they haven’t begun to receive their due. In fact, its arguable as to whether Siberia would even exist had Coldplay not started covering “Lips Like Sugar” at their shows, leading critics to suddenly refer to Chris Martin’s more esoteric tunes (all three of them) as “Bunnymen-esque.” 2003 found just about every questionable “new” new wave band you can name citing Echo as a major influence, and Chris Martin was even rumored to have worn Ian McCulloch’s trademark black trenchcoat when recording the vocals to his band’s uber-sappy single “In My Place.” Surely the torch has been passed?

So you go into Siberia hoping its going to be one of those records where the master smacks around his fawning students; resulting in a bunch of kids discovering how X&Y suddenly sounds a wee bit limp when compared to the entirety of Echo’s '80s back catalog. This will not happen. Despite early band puffery promising a “masterpiece,” Siberia basically picks up where 2001’s Flowers left off: lots of mid-tempo balladry about love and the aging process. The youthful fire of early Bunnymen efforts continues to be in short supply.

It doesn’t help that despite Ian McCulloch and Bono essentially being the same age, the former simply sounds old. Those listening to Siberia who are unfamiliar with any of Echo’s post-'80s albums could be in for a shock as McCulloch’s baritone is simply a sliver of what it used to be, worn down by a notorious Marlboro red habit that could give Kim Deal pause. His now gravelly vocals are ideal for adult topics such as reminiscing on how awesome you were in your twenties (“Parthenon Drive”) and the comfort that grown up love can bring (everything else). Unfortunately, such sentiments can’t help but weigh things down, resulting in much of Siberia sounding like a band that’s actually chasing Coldplay’s coattails, as opposed to the other way around.

What keeps Siberia from being more of a snoozer is the fact that there’s more Will Sargeant guitar to be found here than on any other recent Echo outings, and Heaven Up Here producer Hugh Jones returns to give the band what’s arguably their fullest production values since 1984’s Ocean Rain. Further, a few of the songs actually do manage to hold their own against the classics. “Parthenon Drive” announces itself as the obvious standout, mostly on the strength of a trademark muscular bassline and plenty of Will Sargeant reverb, including the requisite backwards guitar solo at the bridge. “Sideways Eight” and the jangle pop of “Stormy Weather” are both upbeat and loaded with hooks, and despite a considerably corny set of lyrics, “Scissors in the Sand” legitimately rocks out; building to an exciting climax.

If there’s a significant difference between modern-day Echo and the ‘80s version, it’s that the current incarnation is seemingly unable do the big ballad thing without slipping into overbearing sentimentality. McCulloch and co. fare much better nowadays on the up tempo stuff as opposed to six minute goopfests like “All Because Of You Days” and closer “What If We Are,” the latter of which I’m guessing most Bunnymen fans will listen to but once.

The one adjective which keeps springing to mind to describe Siberia would be "classy." It’s a well-crafted record from a group of aging professionals who seem perfectly content to soothe their fanbase nowadays as opposed to whipping them into frenzy. It’s not exactly what you’d call an exciting record, but it does achieve a commendable degree of warmth and is a worthwhile listen for longtime fans, though I can’t imagine any of them not preferring the older material. Start out with Crocodiles and go from there.