Long before he became the self-styled “greatest motherfucker you’re ever gonna meet” with his two magnificent solo albums, John Grant was the lead singer of The Czars. One of Simon Raymonde‘s earliest signings to his Bella Union label, the six-piece band had an erratic and not wildly commercially successful career, but still managed to stay together for a decade, producing six albums’ worth of material.
This compilation isn’t a particularly exhaustive retrospective of The Czars, despite its 18 tracks. There’s absolutely nothing from the band’s first two albums, which is no surprise given that these records preceded the Bella Union deal. Instead, there are four songs from the third album (and Bella Union debut) Before… But Longer, plenty of selections from both The Ugly People Vs The Beautiful People and their swansong Goodbye, before rounding things off with three cover versions from their posthumous release, Sorry I Made You Cry.
All these songs are presented in chronological order, and that soon becomes a problem. For The Czars were one of those bands who became better as time went on – indeed, Goodbye is widely regarded by most long-term fans (and Grant himself) as their best work, and so we’re over halfway through the album before we come to the its standout songs. Not that what precedes it is bad; it just becomes a bit dourly homogenous. Anyone who’s familiar with Grant’s solo work will have worked out by now that The Czars were never in the business of producing club bangers, but the generally downbeat sense of melancholy feels a bit suffocating at times.
Of those early tracks, it’s only really Get Used To It that and opening track Val that stand out. Side Effects also has a beautifully dramatic arrangement, and the opening harmonica break of Killjoy (sounding eerily like an out-take from John Barry‘s score for Midnight Cowboy) is just breathtaking. Yet there’s not much sign of Grant’s dark sense of humour or his force of personality – two aspects of his music that are, perhaps understandably, more indelibly stamped on his solo work than they are here. Tracks like Drug and Anger are ultimately rather dirge-like and soon become a chore to listen to.
The jump in quality when Paint The Moon kicks in comes as a breath of fresh air, and continues through the remainder of the album. There’s a new lightness of touch, a sense of Grant and company throwing off the shackles, which suits them enormously. Goodbye sounds crushingly sad, but with a twinkle in the eye, while Los is doomily portentous, exuding a sense of tension that becomes genuinely gripping.
The album is rounded off with three cover versions from Sorry I Made You Cry. Although the seven minutes of Tim Buckley‘s Song To The Siren eventually outstay its welcome (even if Grant’s delivery is nearly comparable to Elizabeth Fraser‘s on This Mortal Coil‘s cover version), there’s a beautiful version of Abba‘s Angel Eyes in which Grant plays with the protagonists’ genders to give it added poignancy.
There’s not much on here that comes close in quality to either of Grant’s solo albums – like a fine wine, he’s become better and better as he’s aged. Yet there are some hints of his early promise on this compilation: if you’re suffering from withdrawal symptoms from hearing that gorgeously rich baritone, or just want a taster of his earlier work, then this is as good a place as any to start.