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Heads of Their Time: Glenn Tilbrook and Kevin Wilkinson occupy half of Squeeze's rogue's gallery.

Squeeze makes a 'Ridiculous' new album and rereleases its strangest hits

By Nicky Baxter

If you've any doubts as to the coldblooded nature of the music industry, consider this: But for the grace of rock godhead/I.R.S. chief Miles Copeland, Squeeze, one of Britpop's most important precedent- setters, might never have resurfaced with a new album.

In their bottom-lined wisdom, the suits who control things decided that the punters from London were out of time and out of pace with the new breed. Hence, A&M Records red-lighted the release of the groups latest effort, Ridiculous, in the United States, giving it the go ahead only for UK release instead. The album's title could not have been more prescient.

In an interview with a trade paper, Squeeze co-chief Chris Difford managed to keep a stiff upper lip about the situation, allowing that although he was "annoyed" at first, he had come around to the company's way of seeing things. Yet, he also conceded that major labels "are run mainly by accountants."

By stepping into the breach, Copeland rescued Squeeze from the eventual fate of irrelevence, for surely, the present resurgence of perky song-centered music won't last forever. Best jump in when the going's good. Nor does it hurt that Ridiculous sports archetypal Squeeze tunesmithing. Nothing as brilliant as what you might find on, say, East Side Story or Sweets From a Stranger, mind you, but miles and miles ahead of the packs of Fab Four fascimiles coming to America.

Then, in what appears to be a willfully perverse move, last month A&M did release some Squeeze. Piccadilly Collection is a compilation of hits, odds and sods spanning the group's entire catalogue, including vinyl B-sides heretofore available only in the UK and digitally remastered tracks from 1989's gratuitously neglected Frank and 1993's Some Fantastic Place. Piccadilly Collection is far from a total wash--how could it be with such classic tracks as "Tempted," "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" and "Annie Get Your Gun?"--but it is decidedly inferior to 1982's Singles 45's and Under, an absolutely indispensable collection of Squeeze at its cheekily witty best.

Taken together, Ridiculous and Piccadilly Collection could be the one-two punch Squeeze needs to pole-vault itself back into the ring with pop upstarts like Pulp, Supergrass and Blur. Last month, Difford and partner Glenn Tillbrook were here pressing flesh, giving gab and doing the odd radio spot. In September, the boys will return, this time promoting product by playing it. It's a well-reasoned plan of action, but only time, hype and, more significantly, label support will tell whether Squeeze can regain the fame it earned in the 1970s and early '80s.

And Lest We Forget: Keith Wilkinson and Chris Difford complete the pantheon of performers on "Ridiculous."

THE NEW ALBUM is a(nother) return to form for the band. At the core are ingenious, short-story lyrics (Difford's) and music (Tilbrook's) that embrace everything from upbeat Beatles-owned melodies to Motor City soul, from punchy British pub-rock to sounds that are uniquely Squeeze. What puts Squeeze over the top is Tilbrook's supple choir-boy tenor. Only XTC's Colin Moulding comes close to capturing Tilbrook's wrenching panache.

Since the unduly harsh criticism of Sweets From a Stranger's hyperliteracy, Difford has been paring away at his storytelling. This reducing tactic has, at times, worked against the band's best interests; luckily, it is nowhere in sight on Ridiculous. A man in love with words, Difford makes even the most banal subjects worth reconsidering.

Musically, Tilbrook's guitar playing is as succinct as ever, a Byrdsian line here, a bit of Mersey Beat strumming there. Never a blindingly brilliant lead guitarist, Tilbrook plays in a offhand way that rarely distracts from the song itself. Difford's rhythm guitar playing is steady-on, sometimes burrowing itself into the mix; at others, supplying forceful second voicings for his partner's equally tough-minded fretwork. There are other sound reasons for getting Ridiculous: the dreamy flick-a-Bic ballad "I Want You" and the sunnyside-up pop of "This Summer."

Piccadilly Collection is a "best of" with a twist. Rather than the old gambit of front-loading the hits to suck you in, appending the "rare and/or unreleased" (read "filler") material at the tail end, Picadilly Collection works in reverse.

The first six or so songs are culled from Some Fantastic Place and Frank. The material reveals Difford and Tillbrook's continuing fascination with soul music. Difford and Tillbrook have always been well suited to Motown's lighter shadings. Indeed, it was Berry Gordy's intention to make music that Europeans from wherever could enjoy. Squeeze is merely returning the "gift." "Some Fantastic Place" displays Squeeze at its best, blending English pop with otherworldly--screw it, churchy­backing, replete with an oohing chorale and syncopated handclaps.

Piccadilly Collection's strangest entry is its transitional seventh track, "Squabs on the Forty Fab," a wickety-wack medley of some Squeeze's brightest moments ("Goodbye Girl," "Is That Love," "Pulling Mussels") augmented with a kitschy disco track. It's been said that in order to more fully appreciate pleasure, a little pain will do you good. "Squabs" surpasses pain's threshold long before its 4:48 running time is up. Happily, from that point on, it's beat city: "Annie Get Your Gun," "Tempted" and a roll call of welcome pristine pop for these untidy times. You could ask for more, but it'd cost you.

It's likely that neither Ridiculous or Piccadilly Collection will translate into the kind of sales that spell "resurgence" with a capital "C," but don't allow that to prevent you from basking in their ample charms.

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From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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