by Brian Wise - dig online, 13 August 2004
"When I left the Sports," writes Stephen Cummings, "I left the Sports. That was it. I left the songs behind and I never looked back."
It's an attitude that Cummings has shared with many other musicians and is not uncommon. It is spurred by a variety of factors. Often it is difficult to face the future when a career is so embedded in the past. Lou Reed has toured here and performed almost none of his older songs, preferring instead to focus on his new work. For many years John Fogerty refused to perform his old Creedence Clearwater Revival songs because of his bitterness about losing the publishing to them early in his career. It took a long time for Ross Wilson to re-embrace his old Daddy Cool classics like 'Eagle Rock' and 'Hi Honey Ho'.
It is only in the past five years that the Rolling Stones have admitted to themselves what we all knew all along anyway - that almost everything new they have recorded since 1982 has been relatively mediocre (to put it politely) - and have put on spectacular shows featuring mostly their 'hits'.
Not that Stephen Cummings has suffered from a lack of good songs in his solo career, just the reverse. You can't blame Cummings for refusing to spend much time looking back when he has written so many gems over the past two decades. But The Sports were an exceptionally talented group - as you can tell from the careers of the original members who are all still pretty much vitally involve in music (and also writing in the case of Cummings and Martin Armiger) - and they are worth some contemporary recognition.
Close Ups is one volume in the Liberation Blue series - 'unplugged' if you will. Other artists include Joe Camilleri (in Black Sorrows guise), Mick Thomas and Diesel. Basically, the series is a chance for the label to showcase artists that it feels still have something to give to an older audience, with the familiar material offering a comfortable setting in which newer songs might also be heard. (One might also suggest that it saves the record company a packet not having to record new albums with full bands but surely that would be too cynical, even for me).
Now 13 albums into his solo career, Cummings has decided to have a peek over his shoulder and, just to make sure he has the best of both worlds, has also re-recorded some of his favourites from his considerably longer post-Sports era. When you consider the Sports songs included on this 14 track selection - 'How Come', 'Don't Throw Stones', 'Suspicious Minds', 'Who Listens To The Radio', 'Twist Senorita', 'Strangers On A Train' and 'Live Work & play' - it is not only easy to recall what a fine band it was but when you revisit those early albums you'll find an energy, attitude and literacy that still echoes down the years.
If you have any doubts about the effectiveness of the project then the best place to start is at the reborn 'Who Listens To The Radio', with its opening backwards guitar loop and rhythm which, to my ears, is patterned on Cornershop's infectious 'Brimful of Asha' single of a few years back. As the song unfolds, a chorus joins in and by the end you have almost forgotten its first incarnation (but not quite). Rather than try to overshadow the original it gives the song a completely different slant.
Not all of the Sports revisits work so well - 'Don't Throw Stones' is a little clunky - but generally it is nice to hear them in their new musical contexts with Shane O'Mara's adventurous guitar, Howard Cairns rock-solid bass, Peter Jones' effortless drumming and Rebecca Barnard on backing vocals. It is also gratifying that the writing of Andrew Pendlebury, Martin Armiger and Ed Bates is also given a new life. Cummings and Pendlebury in particular were a mighty combination.
All that would be pretty impressive in itself but what gives Close Ups its special character are the newer songs (mostly co-writes) which nestle snugly amongst the vintage material. 'Fell From A Great Height' is an obvious standout but its companions attest to the fact that Cummings' songwriting prowess remains a potent force.
Sometimes a close up reveals the wrinkles, the lines and the aging but in this case the picture is flawless.
4.5 stars out of 5
by Sean Sennett - Time Off
Stephen Cummings remains one of this country's finest songwriters. For two decades he has turned out a slew of impressive solo albums. Prior to that he earned his stripes as frontman with legendary Melbourne outfit The Sports. Along the way they scored a US hit with "Who Listens To The Radio" and, alongside Elvis Costello, were signed to UK label, Stiff.
Here Cummings takes a rare look over his shoulder to record fourteen tunes from his back catalogue in an acoustic setting. Alongside guitarist Shane O'Mara, vocalist Rebecca Barnard and an uncluttered rhythm section, Cummings turns in stellar versions of Sports' favourites "How Come", "Suspicious Minds", "Strangers On A Train" and the Latin fused "Twist Senorita". "Who Listens To The Radio" has been given a Cornershop groove.
A smattering of solo favourites include "Fell From A Great Height", "She Set Fire To The House" and "Carrying A Torch For You". Anyone that writes a line like "you spend my love like loose change in the city rush hour" deserves to be part of your CD collection. Terrific stuff.
by Bronius Zumeris - issue 926, Beat magazine, 1 September 2004
Who listens to the radio? Not those wanting to hear any new material from Stephen Cummings.
Cummings has been steadfastly ignored by commercial radio for years. No matter how many corporate format restructures they undergo, Cummings seems to fly under the radar of commercial radio playlist decision-makers. Not that Close Ups is a record of new material. Rather it is Cummings taking a fresh look at his entire body of work. An acoustic retrospective spanning three decades condensed into 14 songs and presented in a slightly different light. From The Sports to his solo work, the best bits are here. This is a smooth, sophisticated album carrying a lot of force. When Love Comes Back to Haunt You is possibly one of the saddest songs ever written. Especially as it appears here, stripped back and naked, as something which would not be out of place on Leonard Cohen's Songs Of Love And Hate. Who Listens To The Radio is a radical reinterpretation using a melody uncannilly similar to Cornershop's Brimful Of Asha. Another Sports classic, Don't Throw Stones, is delivered in Cummings' usual deadpan way, reminiscent of Nick Lowe and Dylan. Equally, a big-beat extravaganza like The Big Room is brought right back, with its wonderful "A loser's just a player who does not want to win."
The beauty of Cummings' work is that it is so easy to relate to. It is so small scale and local. Laundromats, train travel, cafes, mortgages; all mundane, routine activities that can immensely impact a person's life. "Ours has been a growing together apart relationship" he sings with some reservation on Walk Softly But Carry A Big Stick. Just another of his simple lyrical couplings that keep Cummings ahead of the pack of budding street intellectuals. But don't expect to hear this on the radio.
by Bernard Zuel - Metro, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 2004
A Medicare jingle notwithstanding, Stephen Cummings's natural metier is not the upbeat bouncy pop song. So when he takes 14 of his songs, some from as far back as his days with the Sports, and strips them down, many are in beautiful if desolate settings. How Come could rip your heart out; Walk Softly But Carry A Big Stick excavates that hole thoroughly; and When Love Comes Back To Haunt You could fill that hole with tears. There's an overall sense of intimacy on the album that pulls you close, where you can revel in often brilliant lyrics.