Clan Of Xymox
The prospect of a Clan of Xymox covers record seemed pleasant enough when I first heard learned of it. Even when Ronny Moorings’ songwriting isn’t up to snuff, Xymox’s instrumentation almost always delivers that dreamy darkwave atmosphere I love, so a collection of tried and tested material given the Xymox sheen sounded appealing. I wasn’t expecting said material to be this tried and tested, however. Dominated by songs so well-known that even the most casual goth clubgoer has them etched into their brain with acid, and marked by arrangements which are equally conservative, the majority of Kindred Spirits comes across as not so much bad, but unnecessary, and in the case of a few tracks, that might be worse.
It’s frankly shocking how straight down the pipe the track listing is: The Sisters (“Alice”), The Cure (“A Forest”), Siouxsie (“Red Light”), Depeche (“A Question of Time”), and both Joy Division (“Decades”) and New Order (“Blue Monday) all show up like clockwork. For the most part, Xymox’s renditions of these famous numbers cling so close to the originals that they can’t help but appear weak in comparison. Ronny strains and sings out of range trying for the high keen of Seventeen Seconds era Robert Smith on “A Forest” (as a Cure obsessive may I instead suggest Children Within‘s version which nods to the Mixed Up remix or Carpathian Forest‘s faithful yet grim take?), and gulps and swallows his words to ape Trent’s youthful angst on “Something I Can Never Have”. The slow, slow swing of “Red Light” is lost, replaced by a trip-hop by way of oompah vibe that never gels. The worst of the rote offenders, however, is the final track, “Blue Monday”. Thin and limp, Xymox’s version reminds me of the tinniest, most poorly produced darkwave tracks which were floating around in the late 90s: in other words, not the outfit one wants to be wearing on a date with the best-selling 12″ of all time, which defined dance music for nearly a decade.
To be fair, not all of the obvious choices fall victim to poor comparison. “A Question Of Time” puts a staccato synth bass square in the middle of the mix while doing a good job of recasting the big, alarming lead. “Alice” adds a hint of gauzy atmosphere and tinkle to things while the core drum beat stays in keeping with Doctor Avalanche’s early simplicity. These are classy, no-fuss renditions. However, when Kindred Spirits isn’t slavishly derivative, it’s too often painfully perplexing. Radiohead’s “Creep” surfaces with an arrangement that switches out the textbook 90s soft-loud-soft alt-rock formula for dainty keyboards that sound like they’d be more comfortable playing “Chopsticks”. Lest I give you the impression that this sounds irreverently clever or droll, take my partner Alex’s word for it when he opined that he’d expect to hear this version emanating from a karaoke booth rather than a veteran darkwave act.
Two tracks do break these moulds and deserve to be singled out. The previously released version of Bowie’s “Heroes” does a good job of speeding up the beat to a nodding tempo and nudging Robert Fripp’s emotionally yowling guitar into a chiming refrain which suits Xymox’s history and helps bring the whole track into their overarching sonic domain. Secondly, their cover of Department S’ “Is Vic There?” is a great track, full stop, and is everything that the rest of this album isn’t. A zippy bit of minimal, stripped down (and lesser known!) new wave that owes something to Neue Deutsche Welle, it’s got a great minor guitar lead and an incessant post-punk beat. It’s right in Xymox’s hot zone, and I wish there had been more tunes like this on Kindred Spirits.
A covers album should teach the listener something, either about the band doing the covers and what has guided them through their creative process, or about music in general, tipping them off to songs, artists, and even genres they’d have missed in their regular listening habits, or to hidden motifs and dimensions of well known songs which benefit from being drawn out in radically different incarnations. By that metric, Kindred Spirits can’t be seen as anything less than a failure. If you’re into Xymox, you won’t be making any great discoveries about what gets Ronny’s synapses firing in the studio, nor, with the exception of Studio S, will you have heard anything you haven’t heard a thousand times before. The old cliche about poor covers records, that you’ll want to dig up the originals to cleanse your palate, sadly holds true here, though with a selection this obvious all you’ll have to do is poke your head into your most conservative local goth club for half an hour.
(…Oh, and while “Venus” may be properly credited to original psych songsmiths Shocking Blue, don’t be fooled. Xymox are simply attempting a dark inversion of the Bananarama cover, a move which will have you asking the question which hangs over much of Kindred Spirits: why?)