For those who know SSQ, they likely only know the ‘80s synth act in terms of two things: either as “the band Stacey Q was in before ‘Two of Hearts’” or “that one band from the Return of the Living Dead soundtrack.” They’re both of those things, but also, something more: a band who had everything working for them, only to never quite make it, despite one well-received video (for “Synthicide”), as well as a slightly more notorious one (for “Screaming in My Pillow”).
That said, for all of the history and imagery, what of the music on this reissue of their sole full-length release, Playback? The more upbeat numbers, like opener “Synthicide,” or instrumental “Clockwork,” show best. They’re dancefloor movers, although they frequently become victims of the era in which they were released — the electric guitar flourishes in the latter half of “Clockwork” kill its rather excellent, early vibe, which is that of a Kraftwerk LP played at 45.
As Playback winds along, you kind of understand why it never quite broke through. While the songs are solid, it never really determines whether SSQ is supposed to be a synthy pop act or a dance band or what. While “Synthicide” is darkly poppy, and probably the album’s highlight, “Screaming in My Pillow” isn’t nearly as forthright, and comes across as a less-intense knockoff of Berlin’s “The Metro.”
“Anonymous” comes closest to really figuring out SSQ’s sound. Blending, as it does, the more mellow aspects of the band with the downbeat lyrics and moods of the vocals, it walks a fine line between pop and goth, and comes across as a hint at what the band could have been. “N’importe quoi,” meanwhile, is a look at why some tracks might not make an album — while the music is good, especially the synth work, Stacey’s French vocals sound quite like they were recorded or learned phonetically.
French pronunciations aside, Stacey’s vocals are really what make even the lamest cuts, like “Big Electronic Beat,” have some sort of interesting edge. She gets a little dirty with the breakdown, which distracts from the fact that “Big Electronic Beat” doesn’t actually have one. It’s more of an oompah rhythm, and it’s pretty simplistic.
All the cuts were remastered from the original tapes especially for vinyl, and Playback sounds absolutely fantastic. “Tonight (We’ll Make Love Until We Die)” sounds a little lower-quality than the rest of the album, but having not heard the recent vinyl repress of Return of the Living Dead, I can’t really speak as to whether it’s this particular source or the song itself. It does have that ‘80s tendency for even dance music to be a little high-end. The music of that era falls in this weird dead zone between ‘70s funk and ‘90s hip-hop, wherein it seems like people forgot you needed a little low end to make that backside move. I mean, Playback is as crystal clear as the vinyl it’s pressed on, but I found myself futzing with the EQ on my stereo pretty much constantly from the instant “Synthicide” started, looking for some bass.
The vinyl pressing is crystal clear, and the the gatefold packaging looks pretty good. If you get really close, you can tell the art was likely scanned in, rather than reproduced from the original elements, but the tell-tale graininess is minimal. The jacket’s solid, too, and by no means chintzy.
The liner notes by Strange Disc’s Cameron Dean and Stacey Q on the printed inner sleeve (along with some candid vintage photos) really round out a nice package. No download code, though, but there was a 2014 digital remaster, if you’re looking to play it somewhere other than your living room.
“Playback” is available on pink vinyl and black vinyl (crystal clear was limited to 100 copies) from Strange Disc.