It’s a Saturday night nearing the end of March 2018. A crowd has gathered outside the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. The night’s star turn is Jim Bob, one time of Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, here to play an acoustic solo set to a sell out crowd. Figures stroll up and down in the cold. A typical Saturday night pre-gig scene, you might think… It’s the norm on these occasions to wander past those with flyers and not make eye contact, but tonight, something is different. A flame haired woman is dishing out glossy pieces of paper and yelling “SALAD IS BACK ON THE MENU!” in a way that’s impossible to merely shrug off.
Recognising her as Salad’s own Marijne Van Der Vlugt, various people seem taken aback. Her band have reformed and are about to play some of their first full shows in almost two decades. Marijne is keen to shout about it, quite literally. Leading up up to the full reunion, it’s been a busy time in Salad world: the archives have been raided and the excellent ‘Lost Album, Vol 1’ has been issued. A fantastic look at what might have been, the disc presented some invaluable unreleased gems and demos. In addition, Van Der Vlugt has played various acoustic shows with guitarist Paul Kennedy as Salad Undressed, where the duo have revisited old Salad classics and road tested some newly written songs. At some point near the beginning of 2018, Salad Undressed have also released a full album of brand new material, ‘Good Love Bad Love’.
‘Good Love Bad Love’ isn’t the full acoustic release Salad Undressed’s 2017 live shows suggested. It’s better than that. In fact, it’s far better. In a lot of places, it allows Marijne and Paul an opportunity to experiment with a few styles the younger and more bombastic Salad mightn’t have contemplated. The most notable of the experimental tracks is ‘Moonshine’, a world of big beats and trip hop-ish flair, where a mechanised and unshakable rhythm is built upon to create a landscape of alternative sounds, fleshed out with a few nods to the more grandiose end 80s pop. Taking the weight of the vocal, Paul sounds at once assured, but at the same time sort of like a man who isn’t necessarily a natural frontman, choosing to deliver his lines in a loud, almost spoken fashion. At the point it feels as if this could fall flat, Marijne steps in for the chorus and the more polished edge of a strong pop melody carries everything off nicely. If not for Marijne’s sultry charm, there’s not a lot here that would suggest this had links to the likes of ‘Diminished Clothes’ or the lemon-slicing ‘Motorbike To Heaven’, but it’s good to hear that they’ve been able to move on and that ‘Good Love Bad Love’ is more than a pure nostalgia trip.
Also exploring new territory, ‘Hyacinth’ is a moody piece that uses drums and reverbed guitar in a way that suggests inspiration might have been drawn from Ennio Morricone. As the song builds – and builds seems to be the most appropriate word here, since it doesn’t do anything especially quickly or heavy-handedly – Donald Ross Skinner’s vocals add an extra sense of unease, but it’s the music that wins out; music so well crafted, carrying a dark yet warm air, with touches of influence from Scott Walker’s early solo records. The chorus is simplistic, but it doesn’t need to be flashy, since this is already one of the album’s highlights. The harmonies are fantastic…and those alone are appealing enough to really draw in the listener for repeat plays. Fans of Marijne and Paul’s harmonies will not want to miss this. Delving into more of an adult, radio-friendly vibe, lead single ‘Evergreen’ fuses acoustic and electric guitars to create an instantly pleasing jangle, over which some shamelessly retro keyboards and fuzz guitar come together in hugely melodic fashion. Taking a lyric that concerns strength, the vocals are among the album’s finest, with a once breathy style rising to a full on natural cry. It may be some twenty five years since Salad’s breakthrough but, if anything, Van Der Vlugt’s voice has improved with age. Not just an album highlight, but a prominent electric piano riff also makes it an instant classic.
For those looking for a more “traditional” Salad sound, ‘Being Human’ will more than please. Following a few uneasy chords, the track expands into a relatively speedy, rhythmic affair where Kennedy’s hard chords provide a solid base for a few harmonies. More importantly, though, it’s a tune on which Marijne’s breathy voice sounds truly at ease…almost as if she’d never been away. There’s not much instant gratification when it comes to hooks, but the increased presence of a melodica should transport everyone back to older Salad tunes. Recounting a messy break-up, the hard strummed acoustic-based ‘Relationship Dust’ sounds like something that could have been an old Salad b-side and, as such, is a short but welcome addition to this long-player. The use of call-and-response vocals is key to its overall appeal, but a wry humour is also essential to its enjoyability. There’s a quirky nod to ‘The Invisible Man’, Paul gets the short straw and ends up with paper plates. There’s also an errant Steely Dan collection to contend with. As Neil Sedaka once suggested, breaking up is hard to do, be might have put it more strongly if his missus had taken all the good china.
‘Door’ does a good job of mixing up more acoustic and electric vibes in a natural way, reworking the reverbed guitar sound that gave ‘Hyacinth’ a strong backbone. Again, the arrangement is lifted to a new level thanks to a slightly floaty vocal, on a tune that at times seems far removed from 90s Salad while at the including a kind of off-the-cuff lyric that could only really be a Kennedy/Van Der Vlugt composition. With a rhythm suggested by rockabilly, it sounds like knockabout fun on the surface with a descending scale atop a great pulsebeat, but a look into the lyric suggests something more serious… It’s another break-up song; in this case, it’s possibly even the aftermath of ‘Relationship Dust’, though Donald Fagen doesn’t play a part… Also going for retro, ‘Nowhere Near’ takes an acoustic riff, percussion and a fantastic vocal to weave the Salad equivalent of a kitschy samba. The quieter strains of the music allow Van Der Vlugt to take centre stage, but the music should not be overlooked; the bass is beautifully warm on the few occasions it rises, while the guitars are tastefully applied with a minimalist twang. After a few plays, this asserts itself as one of the album’s most adventurous tracks; almost a throwback to Sandie Shaw’s easy listening pop from years gone by.
Most albums have a weak track and ‘Good Love…’ is no exception. Best described as maudlin, worst described as miserable, ‘I Love The Doctor’ is an uninspired acoustic tune that ends up a three minute mope. It’s interesting to hear occasional chords that are a direct throwback to ‘On A Leash’ providing the track’s heart, but even with that knowing musical wink, it doesn’t really sustain long-term interest. A keyboard solo replicating the sound of a glockenspiel provides brief respite from the otherwise humdrum, but ultimately this is one tune destined for the skip button… Reviving a very 90s chord progression but recycling it with a clean acoustic sound, ‘Princes & Fools’ is almost pure in its delivery, relying on little more than guitar and vocals to make it work. The live in the studio sound really highlights how good Marijne’s voice can be – the genesis of Salad Undressed surely started with this and ‘Relationship Dust’, so it’s mildly disappointing when this lovely piece fades out seemingly prematurely. Luckily, with a bouncing bass and more 60s meets 90s flair, ‘Blue Cold Eyes’ quickly picks up the slack with a full band arrangement that’s lovingly retro. Sort of a left-field homage to The Cardigans, it’s another track where Marijne really shines…and along with ‘Evergreen’ makes the album worth the price of admission. Last up, ‘Fine’ is the epitome of introspective, featuring Marijne at the piano throwing out sparse chords, allowing the higher registers of her voice plenty of breathing space. With this particular track, the appeal comes just as much from what it doesn’t do, especially once you’ve clocked the unnaturally long pauses between verses. The live recording also captures the odd creak here and there but, most importantly, there’s plenty of audible breathing which really helps to accentuate the intimacy and fragility of this final performance.
‘Good Love Bad Love’ might not always quite have the bluster, bells and whistles of a full Salad album – and especially not the bombast suggested by the ‘Lost Album’ collection – but what it does, it does very well. Even at it’s weakest point – the oddly unnerving ‘I Love The Doctor’ – it’s far better than the Salad Undressed live sets at the Star Shaped Festival in August 2017 suggested it would be. In fact, despite a more low-key feel throughout, it’s almost every bit as good as a fourth, proper full-scale Salad album could have been had one been issued at this point in time.
Fans rejoice: Salad is back on the menu.
[Read a review of Salad’s ‘The Lost Album, Vol. 1’ here]