One of the finest debuts of the '80s, and possibly the defining album of the whole U.K. indie jangle scene that also included Prefab Sprout, Aztec Camera, and dozens of other bands, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions' Rattlesnakes is a college rock masterpiece of smart, ironic lyrics and sympathetic folk-rock-based melodies. The Glasgow-based band (Lloyd Cole on guitar and vocals, Neil Clark on lead guitar, Blair Cowan on keyboards, Lawrence Donegan on bass, and Stephen Irvine on drums) has a level of interplay remarkable in a group that had been playing for less than two years, and for all the attention given to Cole's hyper-literate lyrics, the album's finest moments are things like the slinky interludes between the wry verses on the Renata Adler-inspired "Speedboat" and Clark's glorious extended solo at the end of the album's finest song, "Forest Fire." Originally released in the U.S. by Geffen but reissued on CD as part of Capitol's acquisition of the Commotions in 1988 (with the original cover, which had been changed for the Geffen release), Rattlesnakes consists of ten perfect, or close to it, pop songs in just a hair under 36 minutes. Kicking off with the group's first U.K. single, the impossibly wordy, stream-of-consciousness "Perfect Skin," the album is basically a series of verbal snapshots of love gone wrong among the overeducated and underemployed. Cole's low-pitched and surprisingly soulful -- for a philosophy student from the University of Glasgow, anyway -- voice flits between earnestness, compassion, and arch derision ("Must you tell me all your secrets when it's hard enough to love you knowing nothing?"), while his lyrics sketch incisive character studies filled with smart and funny one-liners, near-obsessive name-dropping, and references to enough novels and movies for a semester-long pop culture class. The title track, for example, is based on a key image from Joan Didion's stark Hollywood novel Play It as It Lays, and its chorus compares the song's heroine to Eva Marie Saint's character in the film On the Waterfront. In less skilled hands, this would all be unbearably pretentious, but Cole's sly sense of humor and self-mocking wit keep things on the right side of ambitious. The German CD of Rattlesnakes (Polydor 823 683) will be of interest to North American Commotions fans. The disc not only contains the original versions of three songs Geffen had Ric Ocasek remix for the U.S. release (which are also on the Capitol reissue); it also features a unique version of "Forest Fire" with the guitar solo coda extended by nearly 40 seconds and four B-sides from British singles of the period: "Sweetness," the wry Warhol superstars portrait "Andy's Babies," "The Sea and the Sand," and the phenomenal "You Will Never Be No Good." In any incarnation, Rattlesnakes is a classic.
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AllMusic Review by Stewart Mason