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Minny Pops "Sparks in a Dark Room" & "Secret Stories"

The LTM label seems to have dedicated itself to reissuing work by Factory Records bands of the early 1980s who never quite became the next New Order, Joy Division, or Happy Mondays. So far, they have heroically compiled full CDs for bands who might only have had only one 7" on Factory, or whose work might have been overshadowed by the dominating mythos of that label or of producer Martin Hannett. Lately, LTM has exhumed a band who were one of Factory's strangest signings, a Dutch trio called Minny Pops. These two CDs comprise the group's second LP, 'Sparks in a Dark Room' (here coupled with contemporaneous 7" and demo material) and 'Secret Stories,' which is a collection of more 7" singles, demos, and excerpts from their third and fourth albums.

The question now is, since collectors have been clammoring for these records for so long, have they actually been worth the wait? I'd say so, but with some reservation. Minny Pops' yet-to-be-reissued debut album, "Drastic Measures, Drastic Movements" from 1979, was a bizarre mix of noise, new wave, synth pop, and Yello-like cabaret goofiness. It is one of the most genuinely tweaked documents of DIY electro-pop, a record which to this day causes heads to be scratched in satisfying bewilderment. As the group's members aquired careers as record label executives (at Boudisque, Play it Again Sam, etc), the music that they produced became more accessible, the noise nearly vanished, and recognizable industrial-funk genre trappings emerged. If you're aware of the music happening in Belgium in the early 1980s (particularly Siglo XX, the Neon Judgement, and A Blaze Colour) then the gloomy monotone grooves of 'Sparks in a Dark Room' will immediately sound familiar. But there's something different here; on 'Sparks,' there exists an implacable note of self-awareness and humor which seperates the album from those by other practitioners of the style. Tunes like "A Feeling" and "Night Visit" are perversely catchy, with lyrics that tend toward self-effacing. I like that. The humor, however subtle, offsets the otherwise overbearing gloom.

The "Secret Stories" compilation is problematic, though I am glad that it exists. In other words, if tracks from the band's 1985 reunion LP, '4th Floor,' and their 1983 soundtrack to 'Poste Restante' were not reissued in some form, there would always be someone crying "Why doesn't someone reissue those other two Minny Pops records I can't find?". The tracks from both of these albums, which make up the discs's second half, recall some of Tuxedomoon's post-Ralph schmaltz, with the humor replaced by opaque melodrama. My curiosity about these long out-of-print LPs is now satisfied, but I don't particularly want to hear the music again. Perhaps that's why the albums were not reissued in their entirety (a smart move on LTM's part). However, what's great about "Secret Stories" are the 7" tracks that make up the disc's first half, including the classic "Dolphin's Spurt" (a different version than the one on 'Drastic Measures'), and several wonderfully rough 1981 demos. These show the band at their best, a balance of bizarre electro-funk and edgy industrial disco. The comparison to early Yello isn't so far off (and, though I don't really want to validate the venomous English journalists of 1980 who sought to destroy Factory bands by comparing them all to Joy Division... well, with these 7"s, the comparison is tough not to notice), but Minny Pops were more subtle and much darker. With hindsight, it's easy to imagine which other bands might have listened to these records before starting bands of their own (especially the Neon Judgement), adding more bombast to the grooves. Listening to both CDs makes me yearn for the profound oddness that marked 'Drastic Measures, Drastic Movements,'which is simply not present here. 



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