Listen to this track by Hull-based popsters and Housemartins splinter group The Beautiful South. It’s “Rotterdam (or Anywhere)”, a smash UK single from 1996 as taken from the band’s fifth album Blue is the Colour, the second record by the band to feature its newest member and co-lead vocalist Jacqui Abbot
This is a gentle, lilting song that is barely conceals some pretty bitter misanthropy. It’s classic pop music contrast for which this band, and writers Paul Heaton and Dave Rotheray, are known.
The Beautiful South’s back catalogue shows a track record of bright, sunny pop songs that are lyrically opposite, with the love song to the names of several women in “Song For Whoever” being something of a non-love song, just as a for-instance. To me, this contrast makes their material very three-dimensional, further developed by the sonic textures of male voices and female voices sharing leads.
Along with Heaton’s lead voice, the band employed singer Briana Corrigan, who was then replaced by Jacqui Abbot, who was a less-than-minimum-wage shelf stacker in a supermarket before she was heard singing karaoke in a club, and recruited by Heaton.
A cover version of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” the previous year had shown that Abbot had a feel for classic pop music from eras gone by. And she brings that ability to this tune as well, one of my favourites from the band, and a pleasant reminder of my first year living in Britain. But, what a bitter, petulant song it is, wrapped up in such a sweet package of pristine acoustic guitar, laid-back accordion, and crystaline piano lines. Really, it’s a song about feeling excluded, about being lonely in a crowd.
The tonal trend of bitterness and melancholy, matched with bright tunefulness would continue in earnest by the next album, Quench, and beyond. Here on this song, as filtered through Abbot’s welcoming and clear-as-a-bell alto voice, the darkness swimming only inches underneath isn’t noticed right away. It just sort of lurks there, waiting to be discovered.
The band recorded four records with Abbot singing co-lead, producing solid radio-friendly hits in Britain including “Perfect 10”, and “Don’t Marry Her”. By 2000, Abbot left the band, citing the standard “musical differences”. And after seven years with a new vocalist Alison Wheeler, the Beautiful South broke up after 19 years as a band, citing “musicial similarities”.
Contrary to the end, then.