Viva Bananarama: ‘Drama’ and ‘Viva’ (Expanded Editions) reviewed

Two of Bananarama’s most stylish albums finally receive the expanded edition treatment.

When 1993’s ‘Please Yourself’ criminally failed to set the charts alight, Bananarama and London records finally parted ways for good; a turn of events that would see the group slip into relative obscurity in their homeland – at least as far as new material was concerned. Their next two albums, 1996’s ‘Ultraviolet’ and the 2001 offering ‘Exotica’ never saw an official UK release and, despite occasional flashes of brilliance, both albums saw the band effectively kicked into the long grass of the retro circuit for a good few years.

All that was to change, however, with the release of 2005’s ‘Drama’; not only was this their first post-London album to gain a major-label release in the UK, but it also saw them collaborate with some major song-writing and production talent, giving them a sizeable shot in the arm creatively.

The opening tracks Move in My Direction and Look on the Floor (Hypnotic Tango), were obvious lead singles, and both performed well, giving the group their first UK chart placings in several years, reaching #14 and #26 respectively. This chart resurgence was certainly deserved: both are great songs and over time have proven not just to be highlights of the album but also of Keren and Sara’s entire catalogue.

Had there been a third single, an obvious choice would have been the pleasing tapestry of Love Bite – its alternating low and high vocal ranges and breathy backing vocals giving texture to one of the album’s stronger songs. Similarly, Rules of Attraction’s blend of sultry verses and frenetic choruses is the core of another superior album cut. Frequency mines a similar seam, albeit to lesser effect, but it’s still a track that would fit well on many electropop albums of the time.

Of the remaining tracks, Waterfall is pleasingly loose and laid back, although it does get dangerously close to being actually horizontal. It’s gorgeous if you’re in the right mood, however. Middle of Nowhere, is of a similar style but somehow feels a little bland. I may be biased, though, as I have heard a demo version where a gorgeous twangy beach guitar lifted the arrangement enormously; it was a bad production decision to remove it.

As for the other tracks, the best word is probably “serviceable”. There’s nothing that could be accused of being bad but also there’s nothing which hits the heights of the tracks already mentioned. The Ibiza-esque Live in the Sun is pleasant, as are I Love the Way and Don’t Step on My Groove. Sadly Your Love is Like a Drug registers only because the title is an overused cliché you’ve heard one too many times before.

And then there’s Feel for You which is, perhaps, very good – albeit not single-worthy. But it’s tight and it’s polished and this early collaboration between Bananarama and producer Ian Masterson would later prove to be a pivotal one.

With every expanded edition these days, of course, most of the hype surrounds the bonus content. Sadly, though, in this instance the reissue suffers – but for a change it’s not because there’s too little in the package. Given the period they were released in, it was inevitable that Look on the Floor (Hypnotic Tango) and Move in my Direction would have a slew of remixes commissioned, and this reissue’s two extra discs mean we get to collect every single one of them.

Now… I love remixes, trust me (and if you don’t trust me, trust my long-suffering partner, family and friends) but even I have my limits. Wading my way through the – admittedly comprehensive – tracklist, I found you really can have too much of a good thing. This is partly because the club-styles chosen manage to drain the shimmering life from their originals and feel bland and characterless. The Angel City mixes are pretty much the only exception, and it’s a shame they didn’t get a crack at some of the other tracks on the album.

All in all, ‘Drama’ proved to be a respectable comeback. There’s much to enjoy in a number of tracks, and there are definitely some solid standouts, but you also get the feeling that we’ve all heard this sort of thing before. Let’s face it: Kylie and Sophie Ellis-Bextor pretty much nailed the glossy electro-album template with their albums ‘Fever’ and ‘Read My Lips’ – both of which arrived on the scene over four years prior to ‘Drama’’s original release. Even so, ‘Drama’ makes an undeniable statement of the band’s continued relevance and increased sophistication.

When compared to its predecessor, however, ‘Viva’ (originally released in 2008), is a much dirtier and more muscular electro-pop album, and one which feels somehow much fresher. The smorgasbord of producers present on ‘Drama’ is replaced here by a more consolidated approach as Ian Masterson takes over all the production duties – and what he brings to the table is worth its weight in gold: his heavy beats and the less-clinical synths underpin the effervescent song-writing to winning effect.

Love Comes is undoubtedly the standout track. Frankly you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve played this song when DJing and see people compelled to ask me who it’s by. It’s a stonking electro number, and catchy as all hell; although, that said, the album version pales slightly when compared to the easily more punchy and focussed Radio Edit also included on this set.

The next single from the album was Love Don’t Live Here, which proves to be another slice of superior melodic pop. Like Move in My Direction it features a set of Strictly-friendly opening bars, which ultimately begs the question: are the girls submitting audition tracks? If so, fair play: to see Sara and Keren dancing round the Blackpool floor to this song with the professionals whirling around them would be amazing. (And their former choreographer Bruno Tonioli may possibly explode along with the rest of the UK’s gay population.) It’s a sublime pop track and, again, a standout in their catalogue.

One of the interesting things about ‘Viva’, however, is that it started life as a covers album. This remit seemingly changed as the collaboration with Masterson reinvigorated all concerned, but there are still some vestiges of this original manifesto. One of them is a gorgeously hands-in-the-air remake of the Three Degrees’ The Runner which turned out to be the third single; and the suitably pounding remixes provided by Buzz Junkies are also bundled into this reissue. Similarly, Fox’s S-S-S-Single Bed gets a seductively snake-hipped spin and iiO’s Rapture gets a refreshed Bananarama interpretation.

This reissue also includes a number of covers dropped from the original album, although some were included as bonus tracks on vinyl or download. The Sound of Silence is one track which may prove divisive, although I personally love it. For those who find it not to their taste, however, it’s worth remembering that the Simon and Garfunkel version usually remembered is not the original but an unauthorised remix that Paul Simon loathed. The other remaining covers are versions of Bryan Adams Run to You and Bryan Ferry’s Tokyo Joe, both of which are totally respectable. The only minor disappointment is the version of Desireless’ Voyage Voyage which sounds a little too sludgy for this reviewers’ ears.

The remaining original tracks are solid enough, with Seventeen, Twisting, Tell Me Tomorrow, Extraordinary and, Dum Dum Boy proving worthy additions to the Bananarama catalogue. We’ve Got the Night is possibly the only disappointment; it’s not bad by any means but it feels a little like filler, albeit filler that this writer just found himself dancing around the living room to as he did the final draft so it’s obviously not that bad.

Of the bonus mixes, the Ian Masterson extended versions shine the most; for me a good extended mix is a masterclass in production – letting you see exactly how the wall of sound was achieved – and his takes on the singles are no exception. Unlike on ‘Drama’, however, we also aren’t swamped with a remix overload which is, frankly, a blessing.

Some interesting additions to this release are some remakes of classic Bananarama tracks. The classic Cruel Summer and Every Shade of Blue from ‘Ultraviolet’ were given the Masterson treatment around the time of the album’s release and so became b-sides, as well as versions which fit right in with the production style of the ‘Viva’ era. Sadly the tracks from the 2012 single ‘Now or Never’ (including a stonking remake of Movin’ On from ‘Please Yourself’) don’t make an appearance, leaving that release painfully orphaned.

For these editions both ‘Drama’ and ‘Viva’ are agreeably presented with lavishly illustrated booklets. The booklets, however, slightly disappoint since all that’s really new is a very short intro from Keren and Sara, not the intricate notes, history and commentary we get from so many Cherry Red/SFE releases. Also, it would have been nice if these albums were proper digipaks; instead we end up with card sleeves inside bigger card sleeves which feels a bit cheap compared to other rereleases from the label.

In the grand scheme of things, however, it’s the content that wins, and both ‘Drama’ and ‘Viva’ prove Bananarama are still a force to be reckoned with when it comes to producing classy powerhouse pop. With their next album ‘In Stereo’ due in April, now seems a perfect time to revisit two all too frequently overlooked albums and shout “Viva Bananarama” once again.

❉ Bananarama: Drama (3CD Expanded Edition), is out now from via SFE/Cherry Red Records, RRP £12.99

❉ Bananarama: Viva (2CD Expanded Edition) is out now from via SFE/Cherry Red Records, RRP £16.99

❉ Rob Morris is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He is also the writer of several audio dramas for Big Finish Productions and What Noise Productions, and was one of the contributors to the bestseller 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die.

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