When I last saw Modern English three years ago, the band’s appearance struck me as if they were the wise college professors of new wave and post-punk.
And they truly strike quite the air of a band that has seen it all. Vocalist Robbie Grey with his simple black ensemble, sports coat, and shock-white hair certainly looks like he could break out into a philosophy lecture at any time. Bassist Michael Conroy emits a similar sort of stoic wisdom, while guitarist Gary McDowell strikes you as someone who may have lived a more bohemian life and would have some wild tales to share of walks in more artistic and spiritual places.
Add the extraordinary keyboardist Stephen Walker and touring drummer Roy Martin and you have a significant group of musicians with remarkable gravitas. In 1981 and 1982 respectively, the band (minus Roy Martin) recorded two very intellectual albums, their first two, for the legendary label 4AD; they visited Ottobar in Baltimore on Saturday night to perform songs from those two albums.
And the performance proves that the band were well head of their time 35 years ago. If anything, the band have grown into their deeply affecting songs, which are about self-assessment, placement, individualism, and questioning societal expectations. It is in fact remarkable that Robbie, one year younger than Ian Curtis, could have sung songs with such depth at the time. Not that he surely didn’t mean them when he sang them then but his older voice, professorial appearance, and convictions as an older man give you the impression that he has caught up to these songs all of these years later rather than vice versa.
And some terrific songs they are. The band hits its stride early with selections from Mesh & Lace, including first single “Swans on Glass,” evoking a feeling of isolation despite reflections everywhere, “Black Houses,” a sort of condemnation of acceptance, and “The Token Man,” an ode to being a loner.
Well, the songs could have very well have sprung forth from the songbooks of contemporaries Joy Division, but Modern English are less concerned than Ian and company about what they are going to do with their lot. Instead, they occasionally shrug, occasionally grimace, and take their selves to the next stop on their journey over the din of rolling drums, shiny guitars, and sparkling synths.
And therein is an important distinction in the sound of Modern English. First and foremost, they are a fantastic *group* of musicians, and as an audience we should be thankful the stars aligned to reunite most of the original lineup in the past six years. They have an easy and pleasant chemistry with a workmanlike focus on their craft that makes watching them sublime.
Their talent shines through on favorite “After the Snow,” the title track of their second album. Michael’s spare, powerful bassline and Robbie’s plaintive yet wonderful voice give us the impression that Robbie has indeed seen something beautiful. Even if we don’t literally witness it, the level, pleasing trot of the song transports us to a place where we too “can see its beauty.”
Another factor that distinguishes Modern English well: Like many of their new wave contemporaries, they are acolytes of David Bowie. And I mean that in the most sincere and flattering way possible. Clearly affected in their song writing and presentation by the Bowie Berlin Trilogy of albums (Low, Heroes, and Lodger), Modern English have carried forward that Bowie aesthetic in a smart, fathomable manner. In tribute to their late inspiration, Modern English perform “Jean Genie” as the first song of their encore. It’s a pleasant surprise, and it’s heartfelt. (And amazingly, the second time I’ve heard it covered in a week as Boy George performed it also when at Wolf Trap on June 1.) But the band doesn’t dwell on it too much other than a simple, “Rest in peace” from Robbie at the end of the song.
Modern English close their show with their most recognizable song, “I Melt with You.” The audience is ecstatic and the band are pleased to hear the crowd chant along with the lyrics. Robbie turns the microphone to the crowd for a chorus, and they don’t disappoint him, delivering every word of the “love song in the apocalypse” without missing a beat.
The band close their US tour at the Middle East in Cambridge, Mass., an appropriate place indeed for them to visit, tonight, June 7. Let’s hope they return soon, and perhaps with a proper DC date, to share their thoughtful brand of individualism.
Here are some pictures of Modern English performing at Ottobar on Saturday, June 3, 2016.