From Langley Park to Memphis – Prefab Sprout (1988)

From Langley Park to Memphis cover
From Langley Park to Memphis cover

I had pretty much worn out my LP of Prefab Sprout’s Two Wheels Good (my first LP ever to be damaged by too much use!), so when “From Langley Park to Memphis” was released just a few years later, I was ready for the next evolution of their unique sound.

During this period of the band’s career they were transitioning from the scruffy folk pop of the past to more lush pop and were on the verge of becoming pop stars. In sharp contrast to the folk pop rock of their masterpiece Two Wheels Good, their third album would point to Americana with all the musical styles that make Yankee music so intriguing to the rest of the world. With production team that included Thomas Dolby and band leader Paddy McAloon and others, “From Langley Park to Memphis” would try to make an appeal to everyone with rock, soul and even gospel wrapped up in Paddy McAloon’s emotive vocals. It also marked the beginning of lush orchestral arrangements that would underline the production of future albums.

While the approach may have diluted Prefab Sprout’s initial trademark style, it ironically produced the band’s biggest hit, the Dolby produced “The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll”. That song was huge in England (#7) while other singles like”Cars and Girls” did modestly well in America. There were five singles in all (all released in England). For the first time in the band’s career they were being played on American top 40 radio stations and it looked like they just might become proper pop stars.

Of course were’s talking Prefab Sprout, a band whose lyrical tendencies tend to be high brow thanks to McAloon’s English Literature degree. Clever song writing and challenging arrangements seldom sore big in America where radio programmers prefer what sounds familiar. But with “From Langley Park to Memphis” warm familiar musical styles ranging from show tunes, gospel to an Micheal Jackson beat reminded old fans that Prefab Sprout could mask any clever songwriting in infectious pop.

This is an album that should have been all over the radio, but wasn’t. “Enchanted” featured a Billy jean like beat while “I Remember That”, one of the album’s highlights featured Andrae and Sandra Crouch in a rousing gospel finale. The track “Nightingales” was capped off by a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo. Pete Townshend appears on the album also, but its contribution acoustic guitar on to “Hey Manhattan” is buried in the mix. The song recalls the wonder of NY to first time visitors with the vigor of a show tune. Even the slow songs like “Nancy” and “The Venus of the Soup Kitchen”had a kind of happy and familiar warmth to them.

By Prefab Sprout’s own high standards, From Langley Park to Memphis wasn’t the album they may have wanted to make as a follow-up to Two Wheels Good. The band actually recorded Protest Songs right after Two Wheels Good, but did not release it until 1989, a year after From Langley Park to Memphis. That album sounded hallow by comparison, mostly because it sounded like it was recorded on the fly and Thomas Dolby was not involved.

The follow-up Jordan: The Comeback, would be Prefab Sprout’s mid-period masterpiece. By refining the formula of From Langley Park.. the band returned to critical acclaim while making a small dent on the pop charts at the same time.

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