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EDWYN COLLINS (Buy CDs by this artist)
Hope and Despair (UK Demon) 1989
Hellbent on Compromise (UK Demon) 1990
Gorgeous George (UK Setanta) 1994 (Bar/None) 1995
Hope and Despair/Hellbent on Compromise (UK Demon) 1995

After the Orange Juice ended its influential pop reign in the mid-'80s, sonorous Scottish singer/guitarist Edwyn Collins made a couple of false starts at a solo career before finally seeing Hope and Despair — produced and played on by old ally Dennis Bovell (with instrumental assistance from Aztec Camera-man Roddy Frame and others) — through to release in 1989. Between Collins' handsome conversational voice and skilled, offbeat songcraft (done up tastefully as everything from frisky country rock to downcast pop soul and Bowie bluejean bop), the album is wonderfully engaging, a strong statement from a precursor of many suave/hip crooners to come. As idiosyncratic and unselfconscious as Morrissey but equipped with his own set of emotional bristles, Collins climbs the album's titular poles in such songs as "You're Better Than You Know" and "The Beginning of the End."

Bovell's absence from Hellbent on Compromise is entirely too noticeable; while the record isn't strenuously different from the debut, too many keyboards, synthetic drums and the mildly unctuous tone of the bland arrangements unbalance Collins' precarious stylistic perch and leave the flat outing sounding like something Leonard Cohen was made to do against his better judgment. The songs go on too long; other than "It Might as Well Be You" and "Now That It's Love," there are few highlights: even Smokey Robinson's "My Girl Has Gone" is squandered by filling the track with incongruous Dobro slide guitar.

Collins spent the next few years producing other artists (A House, Vic Godard) and getting together a pair of Orange Juice reissues: Ostrich Churchyard, a collection of demos, and The Heather's on Fire, a singles retrospective.

Highlighted by "A Girl Like You," a catchy whiff of retro atmosphere used to primp up two different '95 films (Empire Records and Never Talk to Strangers), Gorgeous George introduces Collins to America as a smooth operator with a soulful side and a vicious cranky streak. Backed by Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and bassist Claire Kenny, Collins uses his composed baritone and diverse guitar sounds to vent bitterly at various buffoons and phonies: musicians in "The Campaign for Real Rock" ("the overrated hit the stage/Overpaid and over here/And their idea of counter-culture's/Momma's charge account at Sears") and "North of Heaven" ("Some mother's talking 'bout Guns n' Roses/As if I give a fuck/At best I think they suck/I'm too preoccupied with my memories/Not nonentities") and whoever the title track is about ("the last of the go-getters...a dandy to the letter/you really should know better"). All this snide condescension would be insufferably pompous or, at the very least, meaningless if the music weren't styled so ingeniously. "A Girl Like You" employs an Iggy-like croon, wiggly fuzz guitar, a cool vibraphone lick and echoey backing vocals to summon up an incongruous and distinctive lounge-pop groove. "Low Expectations" is a stately folksong, while "If You Could Love Me" beds down in comfy Philly soul. Collins' skill at conveying specific moods with simple implements is impressive — at times more so than his content — but it's ultimately Gorgeous George's cocky indifference that makes its translucent designs shimmer.

[Ira Robbins]