Music News

Union Men

Erasure's Union Street, a CD featuring semi-obscure tracks from the veteran synth band's past as rendered on acoustic instruments, has earned a handful of negative notices -- including one printed in these very pages. Last month, reviewer Jason Heller dismissed the disc as a "joke," ending his assessment with the question, "Wasn't this whole thing a bad skit on Saturday Night Live?"

Vince Clarke, who partners in the group with keening vocalist Andy Bell, takes news of this pan in stride. "You make the record, and you're never sure how people are going to react," he says, his light British accent making him sound like the BBC's most erudite announcer. His tone is politely bemused as he adds, "But the best thing to do is to e-mail me his home address and phone number, and we'll have a word."

In truth, Clarke isn't the least bit interested in putting critics on the spot. After more than two decades in Erasure, not to mention briefer but still memorable shifts with Depeche Mode and Yazoo, he knows that his career is too sturdy to be derailed by the occasional slam. Yet behind his confidence lurks frustration that Erasure's music is frequently judged on the basis of its instrumentation rather than on the tunes at its center. He sees Union Street as a way to adjust the focus.

"I think we've written some fairly good songs over the past few years," says Clarke, whose resumé includes "Sometimes," "Chains of Love" and other noteworthy '80s hits, "and we wanted to showcase them. That way, people could see them as songs and melodies and good lyrics as opposed to us supposedly being just an electronic, gimmick type of band." The new long-player has been characterized in some quarters as a country recording, but Clarke admits this description is a product of "the PR department. I think it's more of a folk album, actually." He finds this territory more familiar than most fans might expect. "The thing that really got me started in music were the very early songs of Simon and Garfunkel," he reveals.

Not that Clarke wants to become a throwback troubadour on a full-time basis. He and Bell are working on more dance-oriented songs, as well as a collection of sinister nursery rhymes that may or may not be titled Fractured Fairy Tales. "That's what a fan told me yesterday," Clarke says, "so I guess that's what Andy's calling it."

Bell, who's HIV-positive, is now fully recovered from hip-replacement surgery he underwent in 2003 after suffering an adverse reaction to medical treatment. "He's got two new legs," Clarke notes. "He's the bionic man." Clarke is built to last, too, but he's uncertain about how long his reputation will survive.

"If people forget me next week, that's okay," he allows. "I've got no complaints, and I don't necessarily expect to be remembered after I die. But if I'm remembered for anything, I'd like it to be as a reasonably good songwriter. That would be nice."

As for that nasty review of Union Street, put it out of your mind.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts