As the eighties dawned, the lights went out in punk rock’s most prolific era.While most music headed in the direction of New Wave, a few artists began looking back. The Mekons, for example, began heading toward 1985’s 'Fear and Whiskey', and The Swell Maps’ Nikki Sudden started recording in the vein of Keith Richards, Marc Bolan and the sources they had in turn drawn on in older blues and folk.

Back in 1979, ’80 and ’81, this was turning back the clock, but with the rise of alternative country, Americana, and blues-inspired groups like the White Stripes and Ryan Adams, Nikki Sudden has gone from retro to ahead of his time.

Much like their contemporaries The Dream Syndicate and the Soft Boys, whose seminal works 'Day of Wine and Roses' (Rhino), and 'Underwater Moonlight' (Matador, have also been rereleased, Sudden’s old is now new again. Sudden hasn’t enjoyed quite the profile of those other two bands, even while still recording; Secretly Canadian has rectified that in part by releasing these two sets. The rest of Sudden’s 1980s output is supposed to follow.

Both double CDs contain great liner notes (Sudden has written a paragraph on the origins of each song) and in the case of 'Texas/TBB' a super essay by music journalist Karen Schoemer that is entertaining, touching and leaves you feeling you understand Sudden better. There are also several colour photos of Sudden and company lounging about dressed like Keith Richards and smoking to add to the atmosphere. The music has been remastered and sounds excellent — any band would kill for the guitar tone on these CDs.

The first contains 'Waiting On Egypt'and 'The Bible Belt'which came out in 1982 and 1983 and the Abstract and Flicknife labels respectively; in addition to the two albums are 11 bonus tracks: The A-side to his first single, 'Back to the Start' ; a compilation track, a single B-side, some unreleased tunes (including another Keith Richards cover) and four delectable alternative versions of tracks on 'The Bible Belt.'

The second contains two records done for Creation records in 1986 and 1987,'Texas' and 'Dead Men Tell No Tales'.There are 12 bonus tracks, some of which are different versions of songs released on other albums, e.g., a shorter version of 'Back to the Coast', lead track on 'Waiting ...' instrumental versions or, in the case of 'Breaking Lines', a song intended for 'The Black Belt' that ended up on another album.

'Waiting On Egypt', the first album by Nikki Sudden solo begins as a continuation of his Swell Maps work. The names on this LP are identical to those on a Swell Maps LP. His brother Epic Soundtracks, Richard Earl, David Barrington, and Jowe Head all appear, along with nine other performers; quite a crowd worked on this album, no doubt because it was recorded over three years. With riffs repeated and distorted like a bent T. Rex and Sudden’s flat, sometimes nasal voice indulging in some snotty vocalising, it sounds a lot like a Swell Maps album as well. Most of this album flat out rocks; it’s no surprise to read that several of these numbers were intended for the Maps.

The real change in direction comes on the fourth track; a cover of 'I’d Rather Be With The Boys', a song written by Keith Richard and Andrew Loog Oldham;according to Sudden the band learned to play it from Johnny Thunders’ Gang War version. That alone provides a good roadmap for the direction Sudden would take. (Speaking of Thunders, while attempting to get that “Heartbreakers Sound,” Sudden recorded the thundering 'New York' the heaviest track on 'Waiting ....')

The countrified lick in 'Channel Steamer'(Sudden’s Hank Marvin attempt, he saysin the liners) is another signpost ... there’s the female backing vocals by Max(Lizard) Edie; saxophone by Anthony Thistlewaite and Steve Tayton; the guitarpicking instrumental 'Curfew Island' ; lots of acoustic guitars; the roots rock ballad 'Johnny Smiled Slowly.' While the music isn’t stuck in the past (witness the bonus track 'Redlands', originally the '“Channel Steamer'” b-side 'Chelsea Embankment', 1:23 minutes of backward guitars over a party conversation) it’s willing to look backwards.

'The Bible Belt' is a logical follow up, another step on the march away from guitar scree, and well-named, with songs like 'The Angels are Calling', 'The Only Boy in Heaven' and 'Missionary Boy.'

'The Black Belt' also ropes in the only Swell Maps alumnus not on 'Waiting...', John Cockrill, and marks the first appearance of Dave Kusworth, Sudden’s longstanding Jacobites co-conspirator; their first cowriting effort, 'English Girls, sounds strikingly like a Television Personalities tune.

Lizard’s mark is greater on this album; she takes a lead vocal role on 'The Angels Are Calling', the driving 'Missionary Boy' and 'Chelsea Embankment' (you can see why Sudden changed the name of 'Redlands'). Although she might have a better voice than Sudden — greater range and cleaner tone — Lizard sounds a bit too clear to suit the songs, and overall this album seems a bit more mannered than its predecessor. But you can compare for yourself, there’s a Sudden vocalized version of 'The Angels ...' to compare and contrast.

The joy of guitar noise returns on the 'Texas/Dead Men ...' double set. Barring Epic Soundtracks the other Swell Maps alumni have left, and the Birthday Party’s Roland S. Howard has signed on to bend some strings and add slide guitar tracks for that extra-western feel.

There are only six people credited on 'Texas',which was recorded in a two-month space in the summer of 1985. The album was co-produced with Epic, who essayistSchoemer credits with giving it a Phil Spector pop feel. Judging from the sound of the songs he wrote or cowrote — the energetic, out of time drums and piano of '“Glass Eye', and 'Dumb Angel/Stuka', a track created by playing a bass guitar with drumsticks that wouldn’t be out of place on David Bowie’s 'Diamond Dogs'— he also added a touch of experimentalism to the production.

While 'Dead Men Tell No Tales' was released in 1987, it was actually recorded over the previous three years; this album has the most acoustic feel — Sudden acompanies himself alone on guitar on two bonus tracks 'Cavaliers' and a cover of T. Rex’s 'Sailors of the Highway.' There are two eastern-flavoured companion pieces, 'Dog Latin and Dog Rose', but the bulk of the album is given over to lovelorn ballads with acoustic guitars proding most of the musical body.

Swell Maps love of dissonance is evident only in the echoing treated guitar that serves as a bed for '(Girl With the) Wooden Leg' and the feedback which does the same for 'Kiss at Dawn.'

All four albums are great testaments to Sudden’s music-making skills. 'Waiting On Egypt' is the most vital to Swell Maps fan. 'Dead Men Tell No Tales' to those who prefer Sudden’s romantic side, but they’re all recommended, and Secretly Canadian deserves a round of applause for making them widely available — and at a very reasonable price, to boot.

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