It's a Beautiful Life

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Freebass seemed like a good idea when it was put together. Three formidable bass players -- Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order, Gary Mounfield of the Stone Roses and Primal Scream, and Andy Rourke of the Smiths would play music without a guitar player, letting the bass carry both rhythm and melody the way it often did in the groundbreaking work these three talents had done in the past. They announced they were going to use a number of guest vocalists rather than one lead singer, which they did on their first EP, Two Worlds Collide. By the time they cut their debut, It's a Beautiful Life, Rourke, who had moved over to guitar, had left and Nat Watson had replaced him. They'd brought on Gary Briggs from Haven as lead singer. The band splintered just after releasing the debut they'd been working on for five years, so this is the only music from this group that you're probably ever going to hear. Beautiful Life covers a lot of ground on its 13 tracks. The bright pop tune "Not Too Late" opens the album with its new wave feel augmented by subtle dub reggae effects. "Stalingrad" takes the dub effects to outer space with production worthy of Lee "Scratch" Perry. Twangy lead guitar, an atmospheric vocal, and plenty of electronic textures add to the track's smoky density. Briggs' pleading vocals give "Secrets and Lies" a fragile aura. A funky, stuttering guitar adds an '80s club feel to the proceedings. "I'm a Believer" is not the Monkees/Neil Diamond song. It sounds closer to a New Order track with Hook's staccato, melodic bassline propelling the track. "World Won't Wait" sounds like a forgotten late-'70s funk-rock hit; processed guitar bounces from speaker to speaker to fill up the sonic space, while synthesizer accents give the track a dark modern feel. "She Said" is another funky track with a dense, almost metallic guitar attack, intertwining basslines, and a minimal vocal. The New Order influence is also strong on "The God Machine," "Sister Surrender," and "Plan B," although the sci-fi keyboards and shifting rhythms of drummer Paul Kehoe on the latter keep things from sounding overly derivative. Still, with five years of work going into this opus, it's a bit disappointing, a good but not great collection. By the time this album dropped in September of 2010, the band had already broken up, so perhaps they included the bonus disc that accompanies what will probably be their only album as a consolation prize for their American fans. It includes tracks from three of the band's four EPs: Two Worlds Collide: The Instrumental Mixes EP, You Don't Know This About Me: The Arthur Baker Remixes EP, and Freebass Redesign, remixes/reinventions by Manchester DJ wizard Fritz Von Runte. The instrumental mixes of Two Worlds Collide include the New Order-like "You Don't Know (This About Me)," the bluesy "The Milky Way Is Our Playground," which sounds like the Animals gone new wave and the funky "Dark Starr" which appears later as a bit of new wavey dub called "Dub Starr." Fritz Von Runte reinvents "You Don't Know (This About Me)" twice. Arthur Baker gives us three more takes on the same tune, including a melancholy a lengthy a capella mix. Oddly, the American version excludes the original tracks from the band's first EP Two Worlds Collide.

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