|Erasure - The Tank, The Swan and The Balloon Live!|
|Written by Dan Macintosh|
|Tuesday, 07 December 2004|
Since Erasure is strictly a synthesizer-based act, it would have been foolish, and probably impossible, for it to have created an entertaining concert DVD with just Clarke and Bell alone on stage doing their thing. Granted, Bell is a flamboyantly charismatic performer. But there just aren’t enough dynamic elements in this act’s chosen style of music to keep both the ears and eyes engaged for too very long. This is probably why these experienced performers wisely invited a troupe of dancers along to create this visual and aural document. In fact, at one point during an instrumental version of Ennio Morricone’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” these dancers take center stage and go through their routine for one whole song without the benefit of either Clarke or Bell performing with them.
This brief ode to Morricone’s familiar spaghetti western theme song, by the way, is also a part of this concert’s most ambitious song segment. Against a backdrop made to look like the Southwestern plains, these various dancers and singers are presented dressed as familiar cowboy and cowgirl Western characters. Outfitted in a sequined and butt-less blue cowboy jumpsuit, Bell also sings the Tammy Wynette standard “Stand By Your Man” during this extremely Wild West series of tunes. It comes off a little bit like a modern and musical-ized John Huston film, albeit with Liberace playing the John Wayne role.
The members of Erasure might just be proud of this Liberace comparison, however, since Bell is an openly gay performer who clearly enjoys participating in these big production numbers. Although Clarke is also onstage the most of the time, he prefers to stay in an odd-looking mobile keyboard contraption where he tinkers with computerized sounds throughout much of the show.
Bell, on the other hand, obviously loves the camera. At the show’s outset, he walks onstage wrapped in a feather boa, and then proceeds to wear many other bright outfits throughout the show; costumes that especially highlight his trim physique. During one song, he even steps into a pair of ruby red slippers to sing Judy Garland’s classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” In addition to standing out because of his attire, he’s also in nearly constant motion, dancing, prancing and mugging for the audience from start to finish.
Erasure is heavily reliant on such eye candy, because its music is so often repetitious and simplistic. In fact, some of the best songs here include “Voulez Vous,” “Take a Chance On Me,” “S.O.S.” and “Lay All Your Love on Me,” which are taken from this group’s recent (at the time) recorded tribute to the music of ABBA. It’s hard to tell if these oldies go over so successfully because they’re performed well, or simply because they offer a brief nostalgia rush. Come to think of it, one is surprised Erasure didn’t also include “Dancing Queen” here, since that song was seemingly written specifically with the likes of Bell in mind. But as pleasant as ABBA was, it would be a gross overstatement to suggest that that Swedish quartet had a whole lot of lyrical depth to it. Heck, English was its second language.
Like ABBA, Erasure primarily creates songs about the familiar ups and downs of romance. Hits such as “A Little Respect” and “Who Needs Love Like That” highlight the way love’s downside usually gets the lion’s share of Erasure’s artistic attention. Bell, with his sad eyes and pouting mouth, plays the spurned lover again and again here. Yet such an overriding sexual tension makes “The Soldier's Return,” which hints at a rare political perspective, feel all the more out of place when the group plays it.
Since this document was filmed in 1992, back when electronic keyboard sounds were omnipresent, the music of Erasure now sounds more than just a little dated. As you may recall, this concert occurred right around the time that the grunge guitars of Seattle were on the brink of hijacking the music world. True, Clarke – who briefly also recorded with Depeche Mode and later formed the group Yaz – is a respected synth pop innovator. Nevertheless, two hours plus of nothing but peppy electronics wears on nerves of the average listener after a while. For instance, one of the true pleasures of any typical concert experience is in watching musicians stretch out and improvise upon what they’ve previously recorded. But since this synth musical style is mainly pre-programmed, its live presentation is almost exactly the same as what was originally put onto compact disc. In fact, Clarke is spotted dancing around the stage right along with Bell in many places, not even pretending he’s playing any instrument. It makes one wonder just how much (if any) of this music was actually played live.
Although this release has a vaguely story-like title, which might suggest that this concert also tells a tale of some sort, there isn’t actually a storyline to follow. Rather, it’s a lot of dressing up merely for the sake of dressing up. A few times, these visual elements are matched perfectly with their musical soundtracks. In addition to the neon “ABBA” sign that announces the ABBA tribute section and the aforementioned western motif, there is also a unique encore scene right at the end of this show. When Bell and Clarke come back out to play “Perfect Stranger,” they’re both clothed in bathrobes, and the two backing singers even have towels wrapped around their hair. It gives the distinct impression that these performers were just about to wash up and call it a night before being called out to the stage one last time.
In the end, unless you’re a synth pop fanatic or a diehard Erasure fan, getting all the way through this concert DVD might be more than a little bit taxing. Concert videos – and concerts in general – are oftentimes excellent opportunities for artists to expand upon the presentation of their music. For example, brief verbal song introductions during a show can make even old familiar lyrics come alive in new ways. Additionally, anyone who has ever attended a Bob Dylan concert has experienced firsthand the way he restlessly rearranges even his most popular songs. Rather than just going through the motions, intriguing live performers like Dylan turn each and every concert into a new creative endeavor. Erasure, on the other hand, has somewhat painted itself into a fairly limiting corner. Success or failure of their live performances is almost entirely dependent upon how well the original studio recordings sounded in the first place. What you heard originally is what you now get in concert. Nevertheless, with their ambitious incorporation of dancers, costumes and stage sets, Erasure at least deserves props for doing its very best under such restrictive circumstances. Somehow, Erasure makes an indelible mark with this particular DVD outing.