Empire - Expensive Sound

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Munster Records present a reissue of Empire's Expensive Sound, originally released in 1981. Empire was an offshoot of Generation X, and their only LP Expensive Sound remains an obscure (yet highly rewarding) listen. Originally released in 1981, the same year Gary Numan and Soft Cell were raking in big bucks with their noir-flecked brand of retrofuturism, Expensive Sound was out-of-step with the climate of commercial music. Their music was raw, bare, warm -- distinct from the glacial, antiseptic pop that would dominate the decade. The album was neither totally forward-looking nor nostalgia embracing. Instead, Expensive Sound does what great albums tend to: preserves a specific moment in time. There's an arid, unvarnished quality to the recordings -- typified by front man Derwood Andrews's voice and words. He sang with uncommon fragility and in a soft, almost diffident voice. There's little reverb, almost no double tracking, and absolutely no attempt to Americanize his delivery. The subject matter is rendered in a similar, disarmingly plain way. Boredom, depression, unrequited love, and existential dread are treated in equal parts -- sans one song about playing the electric guitar (the aptly titled "Electric Guitar"). While Derwood's lyrics exhibit some of the doom-and-gloom sentiment of post-punk progenitors Joy Division, they are almost Holden Caulfield-esque in their simplicity. Empire's response to adversity is delivered with a shrug and a sigh. If Andrew's bashful vocals are part of the charm, his expressive guitar playing is the main attraction of Expensive Sound. As the sole guitarist on the record, he demonstrates a versatility unusual for the band's punk roots -- deftly maneuvering between chunky, minimalist riffing (like on "Hot Seat"), vast swathes of dark noise ("Empire"), and lacerating, tightly coiled leads ("Safety"). While Expensive Sound may be better known for the bands it inspired -- the neo-psychedelia of The Stone Roses and the athletic fretwork of Fugazi -- they deserve appreciation on its own merits: one of the finest guitar pop records of the era.