CD Review of A Life Less Lived: The Goth Box by Various Artists

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A Life Less Lived: The Goth Box
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Rhino
Released: 2006
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You can’t possibly review A Life Less Lived: The Goth Box without making almost-immediate mention of the packaging, so we might as well get it over with in the first paragraph: it comes wrapped in a black leather corset, and it looks freaking awesome! Seriously, before you’ve even looked at the track listing, let alone put the first of its three CD’s in the player, you’re already confident that this is a labor of love by someone who knows their Goth.

To say that A Life Less Lived is probably the most definitive compilation of Goth rock ever to emerge is accurate…but, then, the competition is pretty weak, mostly because so few labels would be willing to take the time and money to license the necessary tracks to do such a project justice. It’s no surprise that the first label to step up to the plate and do the job right…mostly, anyway…would be Rhino Records. Produced by Liz Goodman, the set attempts to encompass the entire Gothic movement, and while some of the choices might be a little arguable (more on that in a moment), by the end of the proceedings, you feel as though you’ve got a bit of a handle on what Goth is. A fair amount of that education comes from the booklet, which is phenomenal. It takes just the right tactic, combining a serious appreciation of the music with a knowing smirk at the too-serious attitude of some of the bands who played it and the fans who listened to it. In particular, the latter is best shown by an article entitled “How to Dance Gothic,” which highlights such dance-floor maneuvers as “Stuck in the Coffin,” “Washing the Windows,” “My Artificial Hip Joint,” and “Ow! I Cut My Wrists!” Brilliance.

So what’s included on this three-disc monster? Well, the usual suspects are all here: Bauhaus, the Cure, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Sisters of Mercy, the Mission (U.K.), the Cult, and Fields of the Nephilim. Less commercial but equally influential names from the movement who get their turn in the spotlight include Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Christian Death, Alien Sex Fiend, and the Virgin Prunes. Pleasant surprises include the Bolshoi’s “Away,” the Lords of the New Church’s “Open Your Eyes,” and tracks from not-generally-considered-Goth artists by the Cocteau Twins, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Chameleons (U.K.)…but, really, Flesh for Lulu’s “I Go Crazy”? I realize they dressed in black leather, but, still, surely something from their earlier, less poppy work would’ve been a more sensible inclusion than such a shiny, happy song as this one.

Continuing on the “con” side of things for a moment, Goodman appears to have gone on a tear of treating anything done by anyone affiliated with Bauhaus to be Goth by affiliation; Tones on Tail is unquestionably safe here, but Daniel Ash’s solo work is iffy, Dali’s Car – Peter Murphy’s collaboration with former Japan member Mick Karn – is more art-rock than Goth, and, frankly, Murphy’s got a closet full of more appropriate solo material to include here than his one big commercial hit, “Cuts You Up.” Some will also no doubt cry foul at the decision to have the collection close with a cover of the Cure’s “The Hanging Garden” by A.F.I. – as far as I know, they generally aren’t considered to be Goth revivalists – but as Cure covers go, it could’ve been so much worse. (311’s “Love Song,” anyone?) Still, the set would’ve been better served by offering up an original track from one of the current crop of Goth bands; one call to either Projekt or Cleopatra Records would’ve resulted in plenty of possible contenders.

The DVD that’s included with the set doesn’t succeed nearly as well as the CD portion; while it’s full of undeniably great songs, it suffers from two major flaws, the first of which is the decision to include videos for songs that aren’t actually included on any of the CD’s. For instance, as you’re watching Bauhaus perform “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” you can’t help but think, “Hey, why didn’t they include this on one of the CD’s instead of ‘She’s in Parties’? This is a much more definitive Goth song!” And you’ll be right. Same with Siouxsie, whose video for “Cities in Dust” reminds you that, all in all, it would’ve been a better selection for the CD than “Spellbound.” The other problem with the DVD’s selections is the flip side of the coin, where the videos that do make the cut are woefully un-Goth; the biggest offender is the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On,” but the choice to have Nick Cave represented via the video for “Where The Wild Roses Grow,” a duet with Kylie Minogue (!), is rather a dodgy one as well.

Quibbles and annoyances aside, however, you won’t likely find a better three-disc summary of Goth outside of one that you make yourself It might not be perfect, but, frankly, the ones doing most of the complaining are going to be the ones who already have all of the original albums, anyway.

~Will Harris