Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 31, 2003)
Today’s Fact That Makes Me Feel Old: 2003 marks the 20th anniversary of my first encounter with the music of Big Country. When I heard them in the fall of 1983, I immediately felt captivated with their soaring rock songs. This began an affection for their music that continues unabated until this day.
Although their first album (The Crossing) sold well in the US, future releases all failed to obtain much of an audience here. While I continued to buy everything they produced, this meant that I didn’t get to see many of their music videos. I knew a couple of clips from The Crossing and also took in “Look Away” from 1986’s The Seer. Otherwise, I never watched any of the music videos created for the band’s songs.
Because of that, I eagerly greeted the opportunity to check out Big Country: The Ultimate Collection, a package of 22 music videos that span the band’s 17-year career. Maybe fans overseas already know these clips by heart, but as an American, I took in most of them as brand-new material.
Ultimate covers six of the band’s eight studio albums as well as two singles from 1990 - one of which also appeared on that year’s Through a Big Country compilation - and 1984’s single/EP release “Wonderland”. From The Crossing, we find four songs: “Harvest Home”, “Fields of Fire”, “In A Big Country” and “Chance”. After “Wonderland” we get three tracks from 1984’s Steeltown: “East of Eden”, “Where the Rose Is Sown”, and “Just a Shadow”.
When we jump to 1986’s The Seer, we get five videos for four songs: “Look Away”, “The Teacher”, “One Great Thing”, and “Hold the Heart”. “One Great Thing” offers the standard video as well as a reedited extended dance mix version. On 1988’s Peace In Our Time, we find “King Of Emotion”, “Broken Heart (13 Valleys)”, and the title song. 1990 provides those two singles I mentioned: “Save Me” and “Heart of the World”.
The remainder of the Nineties becomes a little more complicated. 1991’s No Place Like Home gives us “Republican Party Reptile” and “Beautiful People”. The package finishes with two more numbers from 1999’s Driving to Damascus: “Fragile Thing” and “Perfect World”. However, we get no tracks from 1993’s The Buffalo Skinners or 1995’s Why the Long Face. Two videos from Skinners appear on the PAL version of Collection, as it includes “Ships” and “Alone”. However, rights issues apparently prevented their inclusion here. As for the Home clips, they were withheld because not all of them could be located in time; Ian Grant, the band’s manager, states that they will likely show up on a DVD EP at some point.
Despite those omissions, Collection offers a lot of fun material. The videos seem like representations of the various eras, which makes this package something of a trip through the format’s history. The first video – “Harvest Home” – seems pretty simple, as it mostly presents some performance lip-synching. Big Country expands with the next pair of clips. “Fields of Fire” provides a somewhat nonsensical but still intriguing concept in which the band appear as part of a child’s toys, while “In a Big Country” sets them off on an adventure to recover some treasure. Both videos display loose narratives, but they provide enjoyable attempts at storytelling.
For the next two clips – “Chance” and “Wonderland” – we get basic lip-synched performance pieces, but Big Country try to tell another tale with “East of Eden”. Set in 1852, it features a dysfunctional family with a sick father. It doesn’t go much of anywhere, but at least it gives us something unusual. Disappointingly, the anti-war “Where the Rose Is Sown” presents a simple performance clip; it doesn’t attempt the expected dramatic route, despite the many opportunities for that kind of material afforded by the song. “Just a Shadow” tries for a vague story of some young lovers and a cat rescue. In this case, I’d have preferred more images of the band and fewer of the lame romantic drama.
For “Look Away”, the band go back into the past for a tale of bandits. It illustrates the song fairly well and provides a reasonably entertaining drama. “The Teacher” also melds a story with lip-synching, but it seems sillier and less coherent than “Look Away”. “One Great Thing” offers a quirkier experience, as it mixes band shots with lip-synching from various oddballs. The extended mix of the song provides a very similar video; it structures the scenes somewhat differently, but comes from the same pool.
For something somewhat different, “Hold the Heart” seems simple but uses some intriguingly complex methods. Mostly Stu lip-synchs in front of a mirror bank, but it features video techniques that appear cool and clever. “King of Emotion” goes back to a more basic lip-synch clip, and the other two videos from Peace in Our Time don’t alter that much. The title song comes across as a little more ambitious, as it shows Stu in DC and other cities, but it remains a fairly rudimentary piece.
Some of the more dated videos in the collection, the two from 1990 stick with lip-synch performances but they try to spice up matters with some trippy visuals like a singing sun. Those methods don’t work, and they just make the videos more annoying than usual. The pair from No Place Like Home seem a little stronger. “Republican Party Reptile” feels predictable, as it combines performance clips with shots of a character represented in the song, but at least it seems more interesting than the last few. “Beautiful People” follows a similar format, as we watch some actors build a bridge and emote. It doesn’t come across as anything too compelling.
”Perfect World” follows the standard lip-synching format, but “Fragile Thing” seems more elegant and winning. It shows Stu and guest vocalist Eddi Reader as they visit various spots and sing. Given the sad circumstances of Stu’s demise, the clip now feels eerie, but it works quite well for the simple song.
For the most part, my comments about addressed my thoughts about the videos themselves. So how about the music? As I’ve already noted, obviously I adore Big Country, so I can’t claim not to feel biased. Overall, the Ultimate Collection displays some highs and moderate lows but seems like a fairly good representation of Big Country’s work.
BC’s first two albums presented their strongest material. Each of the four songs from The Crossing offers top-notch music. “In a Big Country” remains possibly my all-time favorite song by any artist, and the other three tracks – “Fields of Fire”, “Harvest Home”, and “Chance” – also seem terrific. As an album, I prefer Steeltown to The Crossing, but the former’s selections here aren’t as good. “Where the Rose is Sown” and “Just a Shadow” are excellent, but I’ve never much cared for the album version of “East of Eden”. The extended remix appears vastly superior, a factor that affects “Wonderland” as well.
As a whole, The Seer almost matched up to the standards of The Crossing and Steeltown; while those provide five-star records, The Seer comes in at four or four and a half. As with “Wonderland” and “East of Eden”, the album version of “Look Away” comes across as substantially inferior to the remix; I think the former sounds decent, but in that rendition, the song doesn’t do much for me. (I highly recommend a compact disc release called Greatest 12” Hits; it packages all of BC’s top remixes, and these are literally the best extended versions of songs I’ve ever heard by any artist.)
Both “The Teacher” and “Hold the Heart” offer above-average tracks, but “One Great Thing” never moved me in either album or extended versions. In addition, none of these four songs represents the best of The Seer; I like the four tracks reasonably well, but the album works better as a whole.
Frankly, The Seer represented Big Country’s last great album. Their work over the subsequent five records certainly demonstrated some excellent material, but each release seemed a bit spottier than the first three. Peace In Our Time suffered from somewhat trendy production, and it sounds like a fairly generic hard rock record from 1988. “King of Emotion” has a few nice hooks, but I thought it sounded bland in 1988 and I haven’t changed my mind since then. Of the three Peace songs on the Ultimate Collection, the fine “Broken Heart” clearly works best; the production renders it less effective than I’d like, but it’s still a solid tune. The title track feels dated – and the video’s Cold War visuals don’t dilute that impression – but it remains a reasonably good song.
My least favorite “Big Country” material comes from the early Nineties, so the four tracks from that era don’t do a lot for me. Of the four, “Save Me” is probably my favorite, as it offers a moderately spirited track; it’s still somewhat bland, but it’s a step up from “King of Emotion” at least. “Heart of the World” always felt like a forced attempt for the band to branch into a combination of rock and soul, and it didn’t work. The folkiness of “Beautiful People” leaves me cold, and “Republican Party Reptile” displays some more of the generic tones that mar a few other songs. It still rocks decently well, though.
Probably the band’s best album of the Nineties, the two Driving to Damascus tracks end the Collection on a reasonably high note, though they aren’t my favorite numbers from that release. “Perfect World” chugs along fairly nicely; some other Damascus tracks rock harder and more effortlessly, but it provides an above average number. Interestingly, “Fragile Thing” works better for me as a video than as an audio-only song. I never got into it through album listenings, but I like it substantially more now that I’ve seen the moody video.
By the way, Driving to Damascus never received a US release. However, an altered version of the album retitled John Wayne’s Dream did come out in the States back in 2002. It offers remixes of some songs and a few non-album tracks as well. It doesn’t replace Damascus for compulsive collectors like myself; enough differences exist that make me happy to have both Damascus and Dream in my collection. However, for less obsessive US fans, Dream provides the most easily available and cost effective method to pick up the band’s last album. It’s a solid set, and I definitely recommend it.
If you desire groundbreaking, innovative music videos, you probably won’t think much of Big Country: The Ultimate Collection. These clips tend to represent the styles of the eras in which they were created, and they generally follow trends rather than set them. Nonetheless, the package includes scads of great music, and the videos mostly seem fun and compelling. The best clips seem quite entertaining, and most of the rest also come across as interesting and winning.