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Chris Pope and The Chords UK - Take On Life

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 17 / 10 / 2016

Chris Pope and The Chords UK - Take On Life
Label: Epop
Format: CD


Unsatisfying new album from Chris Pope, the songwriter and lead guitarist for late 70's mod/power pop quartet The Chords, who has revived the name for his latest set of songs

On first listen it would appear that Chris Pope had found the answer to the question that perplexed Jam fans for decades. Why did Paul Weller split the band when they were at their most successful? Maybe it was because he wanted to move away from the observational type songs that his band were known for and move on to pastures new, while also understanding that eventually his core audience would mature and welcome a change of direction. The first play of ‘Take On Life’ finds Chris Pope still banging on about the same things that his band The Chords were articulating so well as the 70s turned into the 80s. It also reveals that his punky pop melodies, which at the time equalled any that Weller and the Jam came up with, have lost much of their spark. To make matters even worse it’s obvious that vocally Pope is no match for The Chords' original vocalist Billy Hassett, sounding as he does here like Jake Burns at times. The fact is that ‘Take On Life’ initially sounds more like a sub-standard Stiff Little Fingers album than a Chords one. And if Pope didn’t want comparisons to The Chords he should have dropped the name completely. Oh, the arguments come flooding back. Many a pint was downed as this writer stood his ground and tried to convince others that The Chords were so much more than the second-rate Jam copyists that many of my colleagues had them down as. Granted, like The Jam the band had a run of first-rate singles, chart placings were lower than those of their label mates but that didn’t mean that Pope’s astute lyrics about the ordinary Joes of Britain were any less incisive than Weller's. The lyrics were always boosted by memorable melodies that highlighted the passion in Pope’s words. There’s no denying that The Chords owed a debt to the same bands that The Jam did and for a short period back then both The Jam and The Chords were of equal standing. Even if you disregard the mod thing, The Chords played a passionate, urgent instantly likeable form of pop music with energy that was almost impossible to ignore or be taken along by. The reissue labels have not served the Chords too shabbily. Those who loved the band back in the 70s and 80s have no doubt already replaced their original vinyl with the CDs issued on Captain Mod and Polydor, both excellent compilations, in which songs of the calibre of ‘Now It’s Gone’ and ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ still stand up today. As for the closing, title track of their only album, ‘So Far Away’, it still has the punch and power first felt back in 1980. It had the same effect as ‘Away from the Numbers’ on The Jam’s debut, and is proof that there was more to the band than classic, urgent three minute pop singles. Maybe initial expectations were too high for ‘Take On Life’, expecting that lost second album years later was just wishful thinking. Maybe The Chords were just too bloody good yet too under-rated the first time around. Maybe Weller did do the right thing. Pope not moving too far lyrically from the songs he penned in 1979 was the first sign that maybe this wasn’t going to work. The inclusion of two songs, ‘Burning All Around’ and ‘Home Sweet Home’, which were planned for that second album and part of the inspiration for ‘Take On Life’, also suggests that Pope was aiming, at least partly, to recapture some of the energy and passion that the band captured way back then. Of the new songs ‘Man On The Northern Line’, to take but one example, is about exactly what the title suggests. The boredom of the 9 to 5, the little man trying to make ends meet at the end of the month. Fortunately the majority of Pope’s original audience has probably left much of that behind. As the main audience for this album will surely be The Chords' old followers will they still relate to Pope’s (still cutting) lyrics? There is doubt to begin with. But then thinking about it…we can still appreciate ‘Something’s Missing’ and ‘The British Way of Life’ so why not newer vignettes on the same subject? And those glorious melodies that hit you round the head like a hammer before, this time they are a little more subtle, they take a little time before they are permanent fixtures in your head but after a couple of plays they start making their presence felt. The production by Pope and bassist Mic Stoner isn’t as sharp as it was on the older recordings; it’s muddier with less punch despite help from Pat Collier. Then there are Pope’s lead vocals. If only he’d done a Foxton and drafted in his own Russell Hastings these songs would have shone from the very first play. While Pope is still more than capable of writing interesting melodies they are not so instant these days it seems; while his astute lyrical observations of everyday life are still as sharp coming from a different voice they’d have a more immediate effect. ‘Take On Life’ is more rock less power pop; It’s as simple as that. So revisiting two ‘lost’ Chords songs, one of which has already been heard sounding better on the ‘This Is What They Want’ compilation and injecting one of the new songs, ‘I Can’t Let Go’ with a line from the classic ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ just goes to show how this latest batch of songs pales when set up against such a strong back catalogue. The single, ‘Get Me To Saturday Night’, is typical of the album, a tune that eventually gets under the skin, Pope almost spitting out lyrics about the thrill of the end of the working week coming up fast it’s an energy-filled furious slice of rock’n’roll but nothing that moves the listener like the band’s earlier work did. ‘Man On The Northern Line’ has its moments. At his less shouty, Pope’s vocals are more effective and there are times when melodically, lyrically and even vocally Pope and company touch on past glories but they are all too rare. ‘Pillars of Society’ again could have been a Chords classic given a different vocalist and the rock clichés kept in touch. The introduction to ‘Famous’ gives notice that the band are trying to break entirely new ground but it’s not long before the song mutates into yet another rock-by-numbers track. It could be any number of bands playing, not in our wildest dreams would we have labeled it as a Chords song. But the most frustrating thing about ‘Take On Life’ is the closing track, ‘Dreams of Yesterday’. Pope’s gruff vocals are more suited to this type of confessional song. Slowing down the tempo, using controlled emotion to get his lyrics across instead of shouting shows just how great this album could have been. Yes it’s as far removed from the classic Chords sound as the everyday rock’n’roll of what has just gone before but there’s more of the true passion and feeling of The Chords in this one song than there is throughout the rest of the album. The Chords take of Ian Hunter’s more reflective Mott The Hoople moments might seem a bad move on paper but it works so well; almost seven minutes of pure heaven that shows what Pope should have spent his time expanding on. If Chis Pope had refrained from adding The Chords' (slightly amended) name to this album maybe it would have been viewed differently; as another addition to his solo work and a change of direction maybe, but by using a couple of old Chords songs, referencing them in these songs and using the same themes he’s inviting comparisons to the band's past work. And ‘Take On Life’, despite some shining moments, a handful of inspired songs and one absolute classic in that closing track, just doesn’t live up to expectations.

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