‘Letter From America’ is a double vinyl compilation album and cassette released in the US in 1982 that gathered together all of the tracks from two of the wonderful Thomas Leer’s original UK releases for Cherry Red records, the ‘4 Movements’ four track 12″ EP and the ‘Contradictions’ 2 x 12″ album, in a sleeve that adapted the Matisse cut-outs inspired design of the ‘4 Movements’ EP.
The ‘4 Movements’ 12″ EP had been my entry point – specifically, the track ‘Tight As A Drum’, which I had heard played on the BBC Radio 1 John Peel show one night, August 1981. It sounded amazing – such a busy, unique sound and structure, its no surprise that that track in particular has had something of a renaissance by its inclusion on various post-punk compilations over the years. The sound has movement alright – like it’s been plugged into the voltage and animated into life as some form of echoing dub that is both coming and going at the same time.
The other three tracks on the EP were equally captivating though – the opening, melancholic ‘Don’t’ with its jittery drum machine programme and the sounds – were they synths, were they guitars, were they synths played like guitars? The sonics on these tracks were pretty unique to my ears. Ambitious – real craft here in the music and arrangements. Perhaps like a low budget shot at a proto sophisti-pop before it became a thing. The atmospheric ‘Letter From America’ was exciting to these young ears that were already accustomed to scanning the radio dial of a late evening tuning into the world and its voices beaming out over the airwaves and this track somehow conjured up mental images of those exciting far off voices and places to be discovered. The closing electronic synth funk of ‘West End’ was the one instrumental to be found and seemed already familiar as some exciting end theme to a spy or crime television series – except it wasn’t. The synthetic horns here were good and give The Human League / Martyn Ware and his Boys of Buddah a run for their money.
Sonically, this EP was pretty unique and hung together quite cohesively, be it the odd drum machine/electronic percussion (which wasn’t sounding much like anything else on the go at the time), the stop/start electronic rhythm fragments and bleeps that form ‘Tight As A Drum’ and of course the wonderful singing of Thomas over it all.
Come early 1982, the ‘Contradictions’ album was a curious one though. Sonically, this was very much a continuation of the same sounds and feel that ‘4 Movements’ had introduced, but as well as the uptempo, outrageously funky tracks there were moodier, almost eastern sounding elements to it – the latter somewhat showcased on the closing near instrumental, ‘Gulf Stream’ especially – a definite eastern feel to its melodies atop its kitchen sink and all electronic percussion barrage. As with ‘West End’ from the EP, that wonderful synthetic brass was allowed plenty of space to roam free and wild – check out ‘Hear What I Say’, ‘Choices’ and the title track in particular. Leer sings of “I feel like machine and soul” on ‘Mr Nobody’ and its a good way to describe the musical fusion of his work in this period. This is funky, sophisticated stuff despite its obvious low-fi instrumentation – there’s clearly ambition to build something bigger here. The arrangements are even more ambitious on this outing. Take ‘Hear What I Say’ and ‘Mr Nobody’ for example – both have latter sections to the songs with chorused vocal arrangements – the kind of feel that had been earning Talking Heads, for example, much praise on ‘Remain In Light’, but here done to a far more minimal production and budget.
I’m not sure what the reasoning was behind the decision to pack the album as two x 12″ singles as opposed to a more conventional single album. Sound quality aspirations? Or just to be, in the spirit of the title, contradictory? I wonder if it may have affected sales perhaps. ‘Letter From America’ as an album slices and dices the tracks from the EP and original album into a whole new running order. Does it work any better? Difficult one – I guess if you came across this version first of all it maybe makes sense. Being so familiar with the EP and album in their separate forms, its trickier.
Cherry Red have reissued nearly all of the material (plus other extras) on a CD, ‘Contradictions – The Cherry Red Collection’ – I say nearly all because where it misses out is with the funky ‘Contradictions’ itself – on vinyl, the original album’s title track clocks in at 14 minutes duration, but on the CD it is edited down to just a shade under 5 mins. The full length 14 minute cut remains AWOL on CD format. Extras added include the debut single ‘Private Plane’/’International’, the 12″ A side of his last Cherry Red single release, ‘All About You’ and also two obscure instrumentals – ‘Kings of Sham’ which had a release on a Cherry Red various artists compilation in 1981 and ‘Dry Land’ – clearly from the same period but something of a discordant, churning guitar driven number.
As I write, it is a week away from the London opening of an exhibition that celebrates the work of both Thomas Leer and Robert Rental – ‘From The Port To The Bridge’, taking place at London’s The Horse Hospital from Friday 21st January until Thursday 10th February 2022. It first ran in Greenock, Scotland in late 2018. I wasn’t able to visit that, despite planning a rather crazy train itinerary that coincided with a trip elsewhere north of the border – so it is welcome to see a second life for the exhibition in London. Well worth a visit if you can make it – more details about the exhibition available here.