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Manfred Mann's Earth Band - Soft Vengeance CD (album) cover


Manfred Mann's Earth Band


Eclectic Prog

2.74 | 67 ratings

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2 stars Manfred Mann appears to have pulled out all the stops in trying to generate one more hit record for his Earth Band, or at least something more relevant than anything released in the group's name since the seventies. Award-winning producers, writers and accompaniment all converged for Mann's most lengthy and ambitious effort, at least in terms of expense and length of studio time. Too bad it was all largely for naught as the final result barely made a blip on the music radar, even in Germany where the band had somehow managed to retain a respectable fan base despite having issued no new music in nearly a decade. There is a vague hint of sexual ambiguity woven throughout much of this record, possibly intentional but more likely just a byproduct of Mann's song selection as well as the backgrounds and reputations of some of the supporting cast.

Things get a little weird right off the bat with the opening Divinyls cover. Drafted by the songwriting pair Mike Chapman and Holly Knight, "Pleasure and Pain" was intended to be the song that launched the Divinyls into stardom after a promising debut that included the libido-stroking hit "Boys in Town". Chapman and Knight had kept both Tina Turner and Pat Benatar at the top of the charts in the mid-eighties with the back-to-back Grammy-winning singles "Better be Good to Me" and "Love is a Battlefield" respectively, both of which were power pop tunes that became legendary in the MTV pantheon. The Divinyls weren't quite as fortunate, but this was at least a minor hit for them that managed moderate MTV rotation for a few months. The Earth Band's delivery is decent enough, but unlike their many Dylan and Springsteen covers the group can't quite make this one their own, possibly because it's too hard to forget the picture of the diminutive Australian sex-bomb Christina Amphlett in her skimpy sailor outfit, black garters and pouty lips churning this one out on MTV in the mid-eighties. Really after hearing this song coming from the lips of Earth Band vocalist Noel McCalla I just want to shut it off and go watch Amphlett's "I Touch Myself" video. A little disturbing frankly, and exactly the reason why Mann should have left this one alone.

"Play with Fire" is another sexually-charged tune originally recorded by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as sort of a dig at one of Jagger's highbrow lady friends, although which one has always been a little unclear. The Stones version is very well-known and really Mann and company show respect with their interpretation, but in the end don't add anything to song other than over-production and a vaguely Springsteen-sounding vocal track that fails to capture the intimacy of Jagger and Richards' original.

And over-production is pretty much the problem with the Del Amitri cover "Nothing Ever Happens" as well. Del Amitri developed something of a following based on their understated and largely acoustic folk/country/pop sound as a counter-balance to grunge in the late eighties, something apparently lost on Mann as he applied layer after layer of studio sheen on this version. Clearly an attempt at a radio single, and in fact it was released as a single but appropriately nothing ever happened with it.

There is at least one small flash of the old Earth Band sound on this record. Not enough to save the album of course, but at least worth acknowledgement. Mann went back to his roots with an old Dylan cover ("Shelter from the Storm") delivered with mellow backing vocals, a slow and moody instrumental arrangement and understated keyboards. I personally wouldn't include this on a Best-of collection, but it is a reminder of the band's strengths and a modest ray of sunshine on an otherwise boring album.

I suppose "Tumbling Ball" was another pop single attempt, this one from the forgettable 80s synth-pop crooner Mark Spiro, a guy who was much better known for writing and producing for the likes of the late Laura Branigan, Anne Murray and Pia Zadora. Once again Mann reaches for a random cover but clearly his ability to squeeze magic from turnips has waned and this one falls flat. The fact this is also one of the longest songs on the album is doubly puzzling. Suffice to say if Mann was trying to pull out another hit single he failed miserably. Same goes for the Robert Cray cover "The Price I Pay", a song that was written as a somber blues number but that became in Mann's hands a smooth adult contemporary tune in the vein of Michael McDonald, Don Henley and Peter Cetera's later solo work.

I don't really know who Cyril Schumann is but the two tracks credited to him ("Lose the Touch" and "Miss You") both come off sounding like Icehouse tunes thanks to the Footloose-like rhythms and cheesy synth keyboard bleating. Both sound much more like something the band would have released in the mid-eighties than in 1996, and both are rather confusing inclusions on an album that had enough material without them. Quintessential filler as far as I'm concerned.

Mann does manage a couple of originals ("Adults Only" and the two-part "Wherever Love Drops"), both of which demonstrate he had pretty much lost his inspiration as a writer by that point. "Adults Only" is a smooth-pop instrumental almost completely devoid of any soul, while the "Wherever Love Drops" duo consists of a couple brief spoken-word bits of fluff with lame backing keyboards that add absolutely nothing to this album.

And speaking of obscure, random inclusions "The Complete History of Sexual Jealousy" is another one. Written and recorded in several parts of several years by the nut-job avant artist Momus, this one features a pretty decent guitar track courtesy of Mick Rogers but otherwise comes across as a middle-aged dude trying to hard to be hip, and one who doesn't realize that no one says "hip" anymore at that. This one is just awkward.

I don't know the story behind "99 lbs.", a popish soul tune about a hot chick who apparently is bordering on anorexic (or maybe she's just tiny like Christina Amphlett). This was written by Dannie Bryant who I've never heard of, although I checked and he apparently wrote a few tunes for the Pointer Sisters so that gives you an idea of the caliber and style of the music. Possibly this was a song commissioned by Mann, but in any case there's nothing to distinguish it whatsoever.

The only other thing on the album is a fairly decent version of "Nature of the Beast", a song I know I've heard before somewhere but can't quite place. There are no credits for this song on the album, but it's clearly not a Mann original. I suspect it may have been written as a metal tune given the energetic tempo and rock-based rhythm but I really don't know. There's nothing wrong with this song really, it just doesn't sound much like the Earth Band. This would have sounded much better on 'Angel Station' than it does in 1996.

Anyway, the end was clearly in sight for the band by the time they popped this album out. It made nary a splash anywhere except apparently in Germany where fans had inexplicably not abandoned the band yet. They would though. I'm going to say two stars for this one. There's nothing horribly wrong with it I suppose, but the covers are mostly poorly chosen, and the weakest three tracks are the ones Mann wrote himself so overall it really doesn't deserve more than that. Not recommended, just move on to '2006' to hear the final death rattle on the band.


ClemofNazareth | 2/5 |


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