Martha and the Muffins – This is the Ice Age

Posted: December 14th, 2008 by | Filed under: In Print, Music | Tags: ,

This is the Ice Age (Album Cover)

Track Listing

  1. Swimming – 3:54
  2. Women Around the World at Work – 3:59
  3. Casualties of Glass – 5:17
  4. Boys Without Filters – 4:58
  5. Jets Seem Slower in London Skies – 2:36
  6. This is the Ice Age – 7:34
  7. One Day in Paris – 4:20
  8. You Sold the Cottage – 4:01
  9. 300 Years/Chemistry – 7:09

Album Information

  • Released: 1981
  • Produced by Daniel Lanois / Martha and the Muffins

This is the Ice Age is a New Wave album. This is the third release from Martha and the Muffins, and the major label debut for producer Daniel Lanois — the production presages a style listeners would come to know well from Lanois’s future collaborations with Brian Eno, U2, Peter Gabriel, and other major artists of the day. While Martha and the Muffins would not go on to quite as distinguished a future, This is the Ice Age shows just how much potential the band had in its original formulation.

This release defies any expectations set by the debut Metro Music and its unfocused followup Trance and Danc), which if anything have an exuberant and witty feeling that often evoke early XTC. This is the Ice Age is more carefully paced and guides the listener into meditation on its apocalyptic themes by exploring its icy landscape on a human scale. Structurally, This is the Ice Age works with mirrored imagery and production across the two sides of the record to add some interesting nuance that remains tastefully subtle.

Side A

This is the Ice Age opens with Swimming, perhaps the most cohesive individual cut here, which immediately establishes atmosphere and lays out the beginnings of the ice age symbolism. Women Around the World at Work, the album’s only single, is a very solid followup, and features the last standout sax solo from Andy Haas in the Martha and the Muffins discography.

This first side is decidedly the stronger of the two, with even the cryptic Casualties of Glass redeemed by a compelling second half with a quick shift uptempo – a strategy put to good use again at the closing of the second side.

Side B

The title track is unfortunately one of the weakest; some of the best crafted production and arrangement on the album cannot obscure the weak lyrics and an uneven vocal performance from Martha Johnson. I can’t help but think that a little more work on the lyrics would have made such a difference on this pivotal track.

One Day in Paris holds its own, while You Sold the Cottage has grown into a highlight of the album for me upon repeat listens — what at first seemed a startling break from the deliberate atmosphere becomes a visit back to the acerbic humor of the earlier albums just as it brings into focus the coldness of the ice age in contrast with the cottage “lifestyle.”

This review would not be complete without mention of the closing 300 Years / Chemistry, which begins as a somber instrumental before wrapping up with a powerful, driving buildup to a vocal section (whose lyrics are frustratingly absent from the sleeve) which I should admit to having listened to more than any other track on This is the Ice Age. The upbeat tone of the final moments of This is the Ice Age is set off by the lyrics, some of which I hear as “if we had the chance / would we do it again?” Given the theme of the album, the lyrics and the title of the song leave This is the Ice Age on an appropriately ambiguous note.

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