Never as pretty as the Smiths, as anthemic or grand as their rival U2 or as suicidal as Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen fell between the U.K. post-punk cracks at the dawn of the Eighties. But the band’s proto-Brit-pop sound resonates today in bands ranging from the Stone Roses through Radiohead and Oasis. Frontman Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant dressed up the Stones’ “Glimmer Twins” template with all mod cons, and their formula has proved lasting. Two new releases, the studio album Flowers and the box set Crystal Days 1979-1999, help solidify the band’s place in rock history. More Byron than Bono, McCulloch danced between Bryan Ferry’s lounge lizard and Jim Morrison’s lizard king; on Flowers, he’s still in fine voice, and wonderfully louche. “King of Kings” finds him making tweaked Jesus Christ poses as he did on classic Echo tracks like “Thorn of Crowns.” And the aquatic six-string ambience that guitarist Sergeant brings to “Hide and Seek” proves he’s as innovative as ever.
All of the band’s classic moments are collected on Crystal Days. A completist’s compilation, this four-disc set features lots of unreleased songs, demos and alternate versions, along with witty tributes from Pavement and the Flaming Lips in the liner notes. But most important, Crystal Days suggests that Echo’s songwriting, with their evocative lyrics and sweeping Ennio Morricone-esque atmosphere, produced some contemporary standards. McCulloch mentions in the liner notes that he would have loved to hear Sinatra essay Echo’s haunting signature “The Killing Moon,” and gorgeous epics such as “Ocean Rain” wouldn’t have been bad by Ol’ Blue Eyes, either. Echo were unafraid to move from tribal drums to orchestras, and the swirling-dervish hit “The Cutter” may be the best pop utilization of Indian strings since fellow Liverpudlians the Beatles got into the mystic. Scrappy live versions of songs by Television, the Doors, the Rolling Stones and Jonathan Richman provide additional peeks into Echo’s source lab. The “Sweet Jane” chords of Flowers’ “Buried Alive” dovetail nicely with the box set’s Velvet Underground covers, and both releases prove that Echo’s crystal days haven’t shattered yet.