Nikki Sudden and the Jacobites / Nikki Sudden

Dead Men Tell No Tales

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After the critical success of Nikki Sudden's collaboration with Dave Kusworth on the two Glass Records-issued Jacobites records -- self-titled and Robespierre's Velvet Basement in 1984 and 1985 -- Creation Records signed Sudden. Though no longer working with Kusworth, he continued to use the band's name. Texas, issued in 1986, featured a full band with brother and drummer Epic Soundtracks, bassist Duncan Sibbald, and help from Rowland S. Howard on slide guitar and feedback. It too was well-received, particular for its single "Jangle Town," the ballad "Death Is Hanging Over Me," and a cover of Neil Young's "Captain Kennedy's Lament." By contrast, 1987's Dead Men Tell No Tales is a shock. Legend has it that Sudden told Creation of his plans to cut 200 songs for his next album and keep the best, but was told this wasn't financially feasible. No matter the credibility of the tale, what he turned in was a 27-minute, eight-track set culled from three years of recording. Unlike the band's taut balance of rockers and ballads from the previous album, Dead Men feels very much like a loose solo affair, though Sibbald and Howard are credited. Mostly it's Sudden on guitars, dulcimer, and bouzouki, with sparsely utilized percussion, harmonium, and organ. "When I Cross the Line" is one of his finest ballads and vocal performances. An exceptionally dark love song, it's narrated by a man so grieved for his departed beloved, he claims he'll drink himself to death -- yet in the end knows he won't. It sounds like it's from an earlier Jacobites session due to its relatively high fidelity and finished production. "Before I Leave You" and "How Many Lies" both sound like they came from yet another studio date due to a leaner sound, yet the mix seems finished. Sudden's way with a twisted romantic narrative is in fine form on both songs. On the former, organ, 12-string, bouzouki, dulcimer, and strummed six-string frame his layered fragile vocals. On the latter, slide guitar, lead acoustic, dulcimer, tambourine, and chord organ create the perfect backdrop for his protagonist's impossible conundrum. "Dog Latin" and "Dog Rose" are rough, seemingly improvised Eastern-tinged drones (each less than a minute) that serve alternately as intro and outro to "(Girl with The) Wooden Leg," a wry acoustic ballad drenched in feedback and reverb. It's one of the three selections that feel more like demos than finished tracks. The others are the lovely "Cupful of Change" and the desolate, nearly seven-minute closer, "Kiss at Dawn," where Howard gets to do his sonic, post-psych thing on guitar. It's one of the eeriest tracks in Sudden's catalog. As bent and dark as it is, Dead Men Tell No Tales is thematically consistent, but not as focused as his very best work, yet as an album it remains a necessary -- if transitional -- part of his discography.

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