The debut album by this unjustly overlooked band is a piece of classic British psychedelia that transcends its origins. Most British bands trying to achieve a psychedelic sound in those days simply played softly and sang in a very effete and poetic manner. The Idle Race, by contrast, play hard here and don't sound effete so much as just cheerfully trippy, a lot like the Beatles of "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever"; indeed, "End of the Road" from this album sounds like a rewrite of "Penny Lane." Jeff Lynne is the dominant personality in the group, as composer, guitarist, and singer, and, as one might expect given his presence, the music all has a Beatles-like quality of playfulness amid the musical invention. The single "Skeleton and the Roundabout" may be a little over-produced, but it is beguilingly innocent in its zaniness, and the softer middle section anticipates the structure of Lynne's later work with ELO. Much more indicative of his future direction are "Morning Sunshine" (one of the prettiest songs to come out of the entire Birmingham music scene), which displays a languid guitar flourish that anticipates any number of ELO songs circa A New World Record, and "The Lady Who Said She Could Fly," an orchestrated Beatlesque jewel that sounds like a lost ELO track. As demonstrated here, the Idle Race weren't quite as powerful a band as their rivals the Move -- who also loved to cover American soul and folk-rock and thus had a wider variety to their sound -- but this album is steeped in beautiful melodies and even prettier embellishments in the singing and playing, yet never loses sight of its rock & roll underpinnings. Once in a while, as in "On with the Show," the sound effects are a little more prominent than one would like, and there's a certain music hall ambience to a few songs (such as "Lucky Man") that is somewhat distracting -- but those two numbers are followed by the joyous and pounding "Pie in the Sky," so it all balances out and, overall, this album is very solid and a great deal of fun, as well as full of little surprises and signposts pointing toward Lynne's future.
[In 2020, Grapefruit Records gave The Birthday Party a remastered and expanded reissue certainly befitting its status as a cult favorite among fans of U.K. psychedelic pop. The new edition is a two-disc set, with one featuring the original mono mix as well as an alternate stereo version; both have been remastered with care, and a discerning listen will reveal plenty of subtle but significant differences between the two. (There's even a reprocessed stereo version of "Sitting in my Tree," which for some reason never got a stereo mix.) The package also includes six non-LP single sides, three alternate takes of Birthday Party songs, and a booklet full of rare photos and a thorough history of the Idle Race and the making of The Birthday Party. This is the definitive edition of this overlooked classic, and it's a must for folks with a taste for psychedelic pop and anyone curious about Jeff Lynne's pre-ELO career.]