When it comes to studio craft, the accepted wisdom is that every song could benefit from another hook, another coat of polish. Although some producers approach these makeup sessions as if they were cosmetic surgery, their true purpose is merely to improve what is already there, highlighting the attractive features while brushing over unsightly pockmarks and blemishes.
Not every band benefits from such a tarting up, however. Echo & the Bunnymen makes an excellent case for leaving well enough alone. Producer Laurie Latham hasn't done anything outrageous with the band, but the differences are significant. In Latham's hands, the band's sound becomes warmer and more intimate, as if to underscore the basic bunniness of it all. The guitars are given a softly phased fuzziness instead of the stark, brittle clarity of Porcupine and Ocean Rain, and the drums are contained and discreet, urging the beat along instead of brutally pummeling it. Latham has similarly softened Ian McCulloch's vocals, emphasizing the dark pastels of his croon instead of the plangent edge of his shout. And throughout Latham sprinkles keyboards, his favorite sweetener, so that shimmering synths and icy piano hooks prop up the melody at all times.
As product management, it makes perfect sense; now that the Bunnymen have been rendered cute 'n' cuddly, maybe they'll finally snag a chunk of America's burgeoning Pretty in Pink audience, those fashion-conscious suburban teens who think themselves punk for having moved up from Duran Duran to the Cure.
Unfortunately, Latham's version of Echo and the Bunnymen is as ineffectual as it is well mannered. There's no bite to these performances, none of the anxious energy or knife-edged irony that made the group's earlier albums so compelling. There are moments, sure; the overdriven sustain of Will Sergeant's guitar cuts nicely behind the bruised-my-heart chorus of "Over You," and the feverish "All in Your Mind" eventually erupts into a heartening approximation of the band's ferocious live sound.
But for the most part, Echo & the Bunnymen plays things all too safely. "The Game" opens the album on an unsettlingly upbeat note, with McCulloch spouting vacuous platitudes like a high-school chaplain giving a benediction, and things tumble downhill from there. "Blue Blue Ocean" is a semipsychedelic hodgepodge, "Lips Like Sugar" is unrepentantly saccharine, and "Bedbugs and Ballyhoo" is a Disneyized version of the Doors. ("That's the way the bee bumbles," indeed!)
The worst thing is that it needn't have been that way. Had the band been given a boot instead of a gauzy gloss, this album might have mustered enough strength to make these songs matter. As things stand, however, Echo & the Bunnymen is as vacant as it is pretty.