a-ha: Hunting High and Low, Scoundrel Days (Rhino 2-Disc reissues)

RIYL: Duran Duran, Keane, Coldplay

For many, a-ha is this:

A trio of well-coiffed lookers who scored a worldwide #1 smash in 1985 thanks in large part to a revolutionary, eye-popping video. For an entirely different generation, though, a-ha is this:

The one-hit wonder is now distilled down to a “Family Guy” cutaway. A very funny cutaway, but a marginalization of the band’s legacy just the same. But here’s the thing about a-ha that most people don’t know:

They were one of the most underrated pop bands of their time.

Underneath those drum machines, Fairlight samples, rubber bracelets and gel – it’s no coincidence that their 1986 US tour was sponsored by Agree shampoo – was a damn smart band, with a dark side to boot. That they came to prominence in the mid-’80s is both the best and worst thing that could have happened to them. Best in that they were able to capitalize on the video medium and reach the hearts of teenage girls everywhere; worst in that many of their songs were crippled by dated production that prevented the band from reaching a larger audience. Still, that dated production didn’t stop a new generation of bands from finding inspiration in their songs, and with a couple FOA (Friends of a-ha) currently dominating the charts, our friends at Rhino decided the time was right for a little revisionist history. Please bear in mind that star ratings are for the overall package. Subtract half a star for the rating of the albums themselves.

Hunting High and Low (1985)

With all due respect to Tony Mansfield – his work on that first Naked Eyes album forever puts him in our cool book – we can see why the band chose to go with Alan Tarney for their sophomore album. Mansfield’s production does not feature much in the way of sonic experimentation, despite the fact that sampling and drum programming were still very much in their infancies and the ones who went for broke (Art of Noise, Shannon’s “Let the Music Play”) reaped the biggest rewards. All the same, you can hear the births of both Keane (“Love Is Reason”) and Coldplay (the title track, which Chris Martin has performed live) in these songs, and “The Blue Sky” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an OMD record from that period. Still, the Tarney productions “Take on Me” and “The Sun Always Shines on TV” are playing a different sport than the rest of the album on a number of levels. They even sound like an honest to goodness band on the latter song, and its fast but melancholy tone would serve as the perfect springboard for the band’s follow-up album, which came a little over a year later. Even better, the success of the Tarney singles encouraged the brass to pony up for an orchestra on the remix to the title track, a genius move by all accounts.

Extras: Sweet Jesus. This set is absolutely packed. Remixes of three of the album’s four singles are tacked on to Disc 1, including an incredibly rare extended version of “The Sun Always Shines on TV” and the original single issue of “Take on Me” that was issued a year before Tarney’s version became a smash. We can see why they didn’t include the Dead or Alive-ish remix of “The Sun Always Shines on TV” that was issued on 12″ in the States (it just doesn’t fit in with everything else), but the exclusion of the promo-only 12″ mix of “Take on Me” is unfortunate. Still, the demo versions of every song that made the album, along with 13 others that didn’t, atone for this oversight. The original version of the title track sounds nothing like the final version, and one wonders why songs like “The Love Goodbye” were not considered for the album. Better yet are “Lesson One” and “Never Never,” which would ultimately evolve into “Take on Me” and “The Sun Always Shines on TV.”

Scoundrel Days (1986)

Chart success (or lack thereof) be damned, Scoundrel Days is actually better than its predecessor. It may not have, as the Warner suits were quick to observe, a clear hit single, but it boasts a far stronger overall set of songs – and despite none of them achieving worldwide hit status, the three singles released from the album were still damned good – and the production, handled by Tarney this time around with additional help from a-ha guitarist Paul Waaktaar and keyboardist Magne Furoholmen, eschews Hunting High and Low‘s bedroom pop aesthetic for a more muscular approach. Embracing the darker aspect of their songwriting, a-ha is like a more pinup-friendly Ultravox here, skillfully blending full-blown melodrama with vaguely danceable beats and the occasional burst of guitar. “Manhattan Skyline” is still the band’s oddest and finest song, with waltz-driven verses and a slamming, guitar-laden chorus. The more rock-driven “I’ve Been Losing You,” meanwhile, shows that the band could come up with a good lyric as well. “I can still hear our screams competing / You’re hissing your s’s like a snake / Now in the mirror stands half a man / I thought no one could break.” If Ben Gibbard had written that, it would be called poetry.

Extras: Like the Hunting High and Low issue, Disc 2 contains demo versions of each Scoundrel song, some better preserved than others (“The Swing of Things” and “Cry Wolf,” to name a couple, are pretty rough). Most of the songs are pretty faithful to their final counterparts, though the version here of “I’ve Been Losing You” sounds like The Hurting-era Tears for Fears and “Maybe Maybe” sounds like a lost Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis track. B-side “This Alone Is Love” is here, along with the ultra-rare “Days on End.” The rest of the disc is fleshed out with live performances from a show in Croydon, where the trio takes full advantage of their backing band and fleshes the songs out (i.e. each track is over five minutes long). They don’t best the original versions, but they’re not without their charms. Rhino (2010)

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