It seems like curious timing to release a one-or-two-disc greatest-hits collection mere months after the release of a ten-disc super-comprehensive box set for the same artist. That said, one has to imagine that there are plenty of people who profess to like or even love Marc Almond and/or Soft Cell without wanting to spend 10 CDs’ worth of money or time on them. Hits and Pieces is for those people. It is a fine collection in both its one and two-disc configurations. It will never satisfy the die-hard fans, who will happily point out its many omissions, but those fans already bought the ten-disc set anyway.
Few artists have done so much with so little. Marc Almond’s voice is a limited instrument, on its own not particularly strong or emotive (nor always completely in tune), though it does carry a rapid vibrato that has become a signature to this point. The mind behind that voice, however, is full of enough imagination, drive, and sheer creativity to overcome the limitations of the instrument. It’s unlikely that Almond will ever be widely seen as anything more than a new wave artifact of the ’80s, but his output spans industrial and cabaret, classical, and rock. Even a two-disc compilation is bound to leave out facets of his catalog that fans would consider essential.
Hits and Pieces concentrates on the commercially-appealing aspects of Almond’s recordings, painting him as the pop star he has always been so reluctant to be. A full nine tracks — two of them the nearly nine-minute 12″ single versions of the songs — are devoted to Soft Cell, the outfit that Almond is most famous for. In a way, this makes sense, in that this is the portion of his career that the majority of this compilation’s consumers will identify with. Also to be fair, these are great songs, and it’s difficult to pick one to leave out.
Opening with “Memorabilia” is an inspired move, as its disco beats and glitchy electronics foresaw the direction of electronic music for decades to come. “Say Hello Wave Goodbye” is a beautiful piece of work, showcasing both Dave Ball’s adept touch with bouncy electronics and Almond’s flair for a plebian sort of high drama. It’s also easy to see where Almond and Ball started to lose their audience with songs like “Where the Heart Is” and the cover of Jack Hammer’s “Down in the Subway”, from the underappreciated latter albums The Art of Falling Apart and This Last Night in Sodom, respectively. They’re both great songs, but it’s tough to put on your dancing shoes to songs about broken homes and suicide.
The Soft Cell portion of the compilation is hurt a bit by spending a full eight-and-a-half minutes on the unspectacular “Torch”, which features a trumpet solo, a casual conversation, and a coda that seems to go on forever.
Before diving into Almond’s proper solo work, there is also a cover of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” that Almond guested on with Bronski Beat, and a tune he did with his own collective Marc and the Mambas called “Black Heart”. The Summer cover is an excellent and faithful one, though Almond is something of an afterthought; it’s a surprise that it would be included on a compilation that’s supposed to highlight his career. The Marc and the Mambas tune, likewise, is an unspectacular offering, considering that the Mambas often seemed to serve as Almond’s creative outlet for ideas too out there for Soft Cell.
That said, when he branched out on his own, he had plenty of time for such ideas, and a few of them even make their way onto this compilation. “Melancholy Rose” is a lovely little piano-pop tune with rolling snare drums, an accordion, and just the right amount of falsetto. “A Lover Spurned” and “Jacky” are Almond at his most cinematic, with entire orchestras at his disposal, even if they do end up turning into synthpop numbers by the time they end. Some of his later-period work is worth hearing as well, like the sweeping and beautiful “Brilliant Creatures”, whose transformation from ballad to fast-paced dance tune is as satisfying as one could hope for. “The Dancing Marquis” just oozes the sort of swagger that Almond could only play at in the early ’80s, and “Scar” is a perfect piano ballad.
Unfortunately, new track “A Kind of Love”, whose sickly-sweet melodies aim for something pleasing and nostalgic, only ends up coming off as ordinary and a bit pandering. It sounds like cutting-room-floor fodder, pushed to the compilation as an extra treat for the completists.
Most of Hits and Pieces is fine, it’s just a shame that songs that don’t necessarily add anything to Almond’s story like “Stories of Johnny”, “Hand Over My Heart”, or heck, the last four minutes of “Torch”, couldn’t have been left off for things that dive into other facets of his personality. Nothing is included from Jacques, his tribute to Jacques Brel, or Absinthe, an album whose utter departure from synth work makes it stand out in Almond’s discography. Perhaps a touch of his work with experimental outfit Coil, or a different Marc and the Mambas song (perhaps the quirky and off-balance “Untitled”) would have done wonders for the level of variety on display here.
Instead, we get the safe material, songs with low barriers to entry, songs for trendy dinner parties and retro nights in neon dancehalls. It’s fine, but it’s rather by-the-numbers for an artist who might never have been described as by-the-numbers.