Red Lorry Yellow Lorry (“lorry” is a British word for “truck”) were postpunk also-rans who formed in Leeds, England in 1981. They put out about a half dozen singles before releasing their first album, Talk About the Weather, in 1985. The follow-up, Paint Your Wagon, arrived a year later. Two years after that, they switched labels and released Nothing Wrong and Blow in 1988 and 1989, respectively. Those four albums, along with the group’s various singles, have now been gathered into a four-CD box on the Cherry Red label. (Get it from Amazon.)

The A-side of their first single, “Beating My Head,” featured a live drummer and a tribal drumbeat, two things they’d abandon quickly. Vocalist Chris Reed tried his best to sound like Joy Division‘s Ian Curtis as the guitars clanged and the bass throbbed. Joanna Dobson‘s saxophone (sometimes overdubbed into a full-sounding horn section) was the most interesting element. On the B-side, the ballad “I’m Still Waiting,” Reed opted for a sneer recalling early Joe Jackson, and bassist Steve Smith deployed a Bill Laswell-esque envelope filter sound.

By their second single, “Take It All”/”Happy”, the group’s sound was starting to cohere. The guitars had more bite, and the drums sounded more like the machine they’d become on the next RLYL release. “Happy” marked the last appearance of the saxophone, too.

Talk About the Weather is a minimalist, but strong album. Reed’s vocals have dropped down to where they were on “Beating My Head,” but he’s developed the confidence to make it work, sounding genuinely angry at times. The opening title track combines the ominous power of Joy Division at their best with the slicing-sheet-metal guitar and ticking drum machine of Big Black as they existed on the Lungs and Bulldozer EPs. The second track, “Hand on Heart,” steals its vocal melody from Wire‘s “Reuters,” but it’s fine. The album concludes with a reprise of “Happy” that’s much more powerful, and about ten times rantier, than the single version. You won’t even miss the saxophone.

The first sound heard on Paint Your Wagon is a drum machine set to “Jourgensen”; it could have come straight off Ministry‘s Twitch. The song, “Walking on Your Hands,” has an almost rockabilly twang, though Reed is still aiming for “postpunk street-preacher.” “Shout at the Sky” has an even more jackhammering beat, and a chorus meant to be howled back at the band live. The album’s second half includes two instrumentals back to back: the dub-damaged “Blitz” and the title track, which is like Tackhead trying to go college rock.

Nothing Wrong comes wrapped in a cover that would be impossible to explain away today; it’s a decontextualized photo of a shirtless black man with his eyes downcast, his hands behind his head, and very possibly a cord or chain around his neck (it’s a blurry image). The back cover depicts three more African(?) men dancing around a fire. The songs go back and forth between the clanging, dub-noise postpunk of their early work and more conventional songs, except for the Sisters of Mercy-ish “World Around,” which kicks off with a lengthy field recording of unidentified women clapping and chanting, presumably while at work in a field or something (a baby can be heard, as well). The pummeling dance beats of Paint Your Wagon are mostly gone, though they’re still doing slow songs, a mistake they never learned to avoid. For some reason, the album concludes with a 53-second version of Booker T. & the MGs‘ “Time is Tight.”

By Blow, the group had transformed again, not for the better. They were stealing from the Police and the Cure, along with most late ’80s trends in alternative rock. They even had that jangling guitar sound New Order used on their boring, non-dance songs. They brought back a live drummer for two songs, “Heaven” and “Gift That Shines”—neither one gained anything by it. “It Was Wrong” is practically a campfire sing-along, and “Heaven” is actually reprised in an acoustic version at disc’s end. Consider this one a wash.

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry had their moments, mostly on their early singles and Talk About the Weather, though Paint Your Wagon is worthy of attention, too. This box is available cheaply enough that anyone idly curious about their work can probably justify the expense. The albums have been mastered nicely, too, with plenty of bass, though several of the singles, stuck on as bonus tracks, seem to have been ripped from vinyl. Who knows? Maybe the crackle will give nostalgics an extra thrill.

Phil Freeman

Stream Talk About the Weather:

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