Ambient Pop. It's a sub-category of music that you rarely hear on radio, or have the opportunity to hear in a live venue, maybe because it's all about mood and to me that means low-lighting and no distractions. There are two '80's bands that I still turn to today for a fix: Talk Talk and The Blue Nile. Both of these groups have achieved a sort of cult status among Pop fans and fellow musicians seem to be their biggest supporters.
Talk Talk came out of the box with a synth-heavy sound on their debut single "Talk Talk" from the record "Talk Talk". All that eponymous chatter was about a moody rumination on relationship blather set to a club beat. Mark Hollis, the group's lead singer and main visionary explained later that their goal was to create "dense" music - thick tapestries of sound that define a mood without having a blatantly obvious (or even clearly audible) lyric. He noted that due to a limited budget, the dense approach was best served by using synthesizers. A fake string section is much cheaper than a real one, and a composer can afford to experiment more if he does not need to pay and feed 30 musicians every time a string section is required.
As their career progressed, Talk Talk got ever closer to maximum density. "It's My Life", recently covered by No Doubt, was a minor MTV hit. Fat analog synth sounds and a killer bassline over what sounds like a Simmons electronic drum kit made a catchy yet moody single. That album had other, quieter gems like "Renee" and "Tomorrow Started" and another excellent bass workout on "Dum Dum Girl". I had that record on vinyl, the modern day afficionado's badge of honor, I suppose.
Talk Talk's subsequent record, "The Colour Of Spring", had singles like "Happiness Is Easy" and "Life's What You Make It". The sounds got warmer as real instruments crept in. Somebody at EMI must have been a fan of the band, because the music got less commercial and more experimental. Still an emphasis on hooks and grooves, but dissonance began to maker longer and bolder appearances.
Then came the payoff. Two records that are still in heavy rotation on my Dell DJ: "Spirit of Eden" and "Laughingstock". Gone are the synths, dance club beats and any semblence of Pop song structure and in come strange noises, odd processing of analog sounds, and Hollis' singular guitar style, perhaps best described as a six-string manifestation of dissonance and beauty. Listen to "Ascension Day" or "Runeii" on "Laughingstock".
I don't even care what the lyrics are, though they are interesting. What gets me is the moods the melody and chords create, then destroy, then re-build. Their startling use of a distorted blues harp (harmonica) and solo trumpet(!) are without precedent in my experience. It's hard to describe the music in these two records, but if you do decide to investigate, please set aside some time and make it an event. Don't judge them by an MP3 download over your laptop.
The Blue Nile are less demanding of their listener, but no less satisfying. Their debut "A Walk Across The Rooftops" has moody songs for lovers galore, and the follow up, "Hats" is more of the same. Paul Buchanan has a deeply emotive voice and the textures they use in fleshing out a song are a treat. I find it challenging to imagine writing a song using the instruments and sounds that eventually end up on the final product - the backgrounds are so much more suggestion instead of definition. Sounds and grooves can suggest a mood and help the process, but I suspect they use traditional guitars and keyboards to get the harmonic structure of a song together. What they do in creative reduction and expansion of that is a wonder.
It's just beautiful, moving, music - much better experienced than talked about - but if I can steer a few more folks to these under-appreciated masters I am doing the work of a true fan.