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Black Box Recorder “Life is Unfair” (2018 Box Set)

I picked up this wonderful box set back in August 2020 and I must say: my mind was blown by how wonderful it sounded. When I dropped the needle on the record, my first reaction was literally “WOW!”

Sonically, this is a fantastic release! The vinyl is among the cleanest and clearest sounding in my collection and the mastering is top rate. It blows the sound of my original CDs (and my original vinyl pressing of “England Made Me“) out of the water! Like others have said, Sarah’s vocals have never sounded better.

It’s disappointing that there was so little material recorded by this wonderful band. They really had a vibe all of their own. The music is hooky and the lyrics are almost always dry, tongue-in-cheek, and downright subversive (the title of the box set comes from the lyrics to their first single, “Child Psychology“:  “Life is unfair/Kill yourself or get over it”).

For those of you who have no idea who I’m talking about, Black Box Recorder were musicians Luke Haines (The Servants, The Auteurs, Baader Manhoff),  John Moore (Jesus and Mary Chain, John Moore and the Expressway, Art Brut), and Sarah Nixey. 

Their music is beautifully produced, though minimal. Its rare to hear a Black Box Recorder song that sounds too busy. The lyrics have a flair for being clever and thought provoking. The topics are generally slightly off-kilter, and never quite go where you think they should. Many songs feature spoken word portions that are accentuated by sing-along choruses. Sarah’s vocals are often done in such a way that it somehow feels like she is singing/speaking gently into your ear with some of the clearest enunciation you will every hear. Trust me. Listen for yourself if you don’t believe me. (As always, a Spotify playlist is provided below, and I have also embedded the promotional video for “The Art of Driving”).

The lyrical content of the songs are therefore, in my mind,  exaggerated by her huge, delicious, posh pronunciation of every syllable that leaves her larynx. It’s practically ASMR (before that was a thing). She sounds like a seductive school mistress who you would expect to be telling you about your upcoming exams, but instead she’s actually singing about having a staring contest with a spider she has captured and will probably kill later for fun. The incongruity is part of the charm.

The music tends to be a little slower tempo than I usually go for, but it has a unique charm that has really endeared itself to me.

During the years they were active, they only produced three LPs worth of material, and only the first was ever released on vinyl.

All their other material was exclusively released on CD, even the singles.

Their first album, “England Made Me” (1998) and their second album “The Facts of Life” (2000) created enough of a following that to this small discography was added a 2001 compilation released through an American company, Jetset Records, entitled “The Worst of Black Box Recorder“, which pooled together previously released singles, remixes, edits, and B-sides, and rounded these out with a couple of exclusive, previously unreleased tracks for good measure!

In 2003 the band returned with their Swan Song, “Passionoia” and then quietly faded out of earshot. They got together with fellow indie band Art Brut for a Christmas single in 2007 (cheekily titled “Christmas Number One“) and called themselves “The Black Arts“, taking parts of each bands name to make a new moniker. They reemerged from hiding once more as Black Box Recorder in 2010 with a 2-track one-off which they called “Final Statement” and then…. well… that was it. So I guess this was a good title for their last release.

Perhaps the lack of apparent enthusiasm for writing, recording, and touring had something to do with the interpersonal dynamics of the band? Nixey and Moore got married in 2001 and had a daughter together, but by 2006 they had split. Priorities naturally change when a baby is dropped into the mix. Whatever the case was: Black Box Recorder was no more.
Maybe life *IS* unfair.

That doesn’t mean they weren’t worth discovering and aren’t still one of my favourite artists of all time.

In total, less than 50 recordings make up the entirety of the band’s studio output and nearly all of it is included in this fantastic box set. The box set not only features the aforementioned vinyl editions of the band’s three albums, but a Live CD recorded in 2003 (entitled “Live is Unfair“), and a CD (entitled “BBRexit“) that brings together many of the various singles, b-sides, and other “orphaned” tracks that were not released on the albums themselves (including their 2010 “Final Statement” single).

If I were to make any changes to the release, I would have asked for the two CDs worth of material to have been given this fantastic vinyl treatment as well, though! (If I’d wanted CDs I’d have bought the box set on CD, right?… although, funny enough, the Live CD is exclusive to the vinyl box set and isn’t included with the CD box set… funny, that. *shrug*)

As if all of the above is not enough, the box set also includes a poster (reproducing the artwork from “Final Statement“) and an exclusive live DVD filmed in 2008.  I wasn’t terribly impressed with either of the live releases, but truth be told, the box set is pretty damn thorough, and it was very cool of the band to add them.

In reality, only a couple of things could have made this box set a 10/10 instead of a 9/10, and since the both involve album artwork and other printed materials, I guess these are purely esthetic concerns.

I really wish the artwork on the LP jackets had been made from higher quality source material. With the exception of “England Made Me“, they look very pixelated, as though the cover art was downloaded off the web and enlarged. They actually look like someone just enlarged the CD cover as opposed to printing it LP-sized from the original. It gives them a vague “bootleg quality” feel. My best guess is that the album covers were probably created as CD-size images since the original releases were CD-only. Nevertheless… maybe with a bit of sleuthing they could have found the original images and recreated the album covers using slightly higher quality graphics? Bit of a shame, really.

I would have preferred it had the LP sleeves more closely replicated the original artwork, including lyrics and inner photos as they were presented in the original CD releases. Especially “Passionoia“! A gatefold sleeve featuring the full photo with the band chilling in the sun while a dead guy floats naked in the pool would have been awesome!

Instead, we only get the front cover photo that features Sarah sunbathing by the pool . Yes, there are some mysterious feet in the pool, off to the left of the image, but if you haven’t seen the original artwork, you’ve no idea what they are and would likely assume it’s some random swimmer. The whole concept of the covert art is lost. Rather than relaxing beside a pool, blithely ignoring the fact that the pool contains a dead man floating naked, she just looks like she’s on vacation somewhere. The back cover photo of Luke Haines and John Moore sipping drinks beside the same pool, with the same dead man, is nowhere to be seen. Yes, these pictures can be found in the teenie-weenie CD-sized booklet, but it would have been nice to have them reproduced on the LPs, replicating somewhat the original presentation of the CD release, and keeping the spirit of the original concept for the album cover intact. The resulting artwork (or lack thereof) feels a bit cheap and turns an amusingly subversive album cover into something completely banal.

It would also have been classy to produce a slightly larger booklet… but, as I said, these are all esthetic complaints. The box set itself is ABSOLUTELY worth having and it is a MUST for any fan of the band, and for any fan of indie pop that isn’t afraid to experiment with pop, rock, and whatever else takes their fancy on any given day!

What always matters most is the sound, and in this regard, this box set is exceptional. Here, they spared no expense. What is also so impressive is that they managed to create a box set that features all three of the band’s albums despite the fact that each one of the albums was released on a different record label: first Chrysalis in 1998, then NUDE Records in 2000, and finally One Little Indian in 2003.

I can’t imagine the negotiating that must have taken place behind the scenes in order to bring everything all together in one place.

That said, there are at least 5 official Black Box Recorder songs *NOT* included in this box set, all from the US-release of “The Worst of Black Box Recorder” CD… so perhaps negotiations with Jetset Records were unsuccessful? It’s a bit of a missed opportunity to me, but it is what it is. To be honest, I never thought I would see the day that I’d own all three of these albums on vinyl, and certainly not sounding as good as they do! So, I’ll take the win!

These are the songs that are not included in the box set: “Season in the Sun“, “Lord Lucan is Missing (Studio Version)“, “Jackie Sixty“, “Wonderful Life“, and “Factory Radio“. There are also a couple of “radio edits” not included, but these are literally edited by only a few seconds, and not remixed in any way to my knowledge, so really for insane completists only.

Speaking of completists, I bought a used copy of the “England Made Me” single on 7″, specifically to get the studio version of B-side “Lord Lucan is Missing“, which is one of the missing tracks, and one of my favs!

What did you think of this box set? Are you now, or have you ever been a BBR fan? Leave a comment below!

 

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