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Pop Music Review : The Human League's Best At Play

March 02, 1987|STEVE HOCHMAN

Despite its track record of enticing songs, no one should expect the Human League to live forever in the annals of pop music.

But it was easy to see why the Friday's Pantages Theatre crowd--which looked like a casting call for a John Hughes film--was inspired to show fierce devotion for the vocal trio. There is an endearing quality in the anyone-could-do-this manner of Phil Oakey, Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley.

Frankly, anyone could do what this English group does--anyone, that is, with access to the top-notch producers it has worked with. There is little doubt that producer Martin Rushent played a large part in the League's first big hit, "Don't You Want Me," which in 1982 marked the breakthrough of English synth-pop onto the American charts.

And the latest album, "Crash," and its No. 1 single, "Human," bear the unmistakable stamp of Grammy-winners Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Without such accomplished hands behind them, the League would rank just above the level of clever amateurs.

But it's the amateurism that was the Human League's most delightful feature Friday--and its major problem. When it played up its most lovable points--flat, working-class English voices, the silly but fun choreography--on such flavorful pop trifles as "The Real Thing," "Don't You Want Me" and the neo-Motown "Look Back in Anger" and "Mirror Man," the League was quite charming.

But when it tried too hard to sound like real pros it often fell short. This was particularly true on such Jam and Lewis material as "I Need Your Loving," which is virtually indistinguishable from the producers' work with Janet Jackson.

On the "Crash" album, the League often sounds dominated by the producers. On stage Friday (the first of two nights at the Pantages), the trio and its five musicians were unable to re-create the taut funk of those recordings, leaving little of interest.

The group wasn't even able to pull off the bouncy "Don't You Want Me." The song deserves some measure of sensuality, but was characterized by Sulley's campiness (this was the sole lead spot for either of the women, whose role was mostly subservient to Oakey).

Still, there were moments when the Human League's inherent qualities and its ambitions came together effectively. On "Seconds," a song about President Kennedy's assassination, Oakey added dramatic tension by pacing the stage anxiously as the music built to a siren's wail.

And though its assessment of the Mideast situation is a bit simplistic, "The Lebanon" also came off as a successful mix of message and beat. And the singers were able to conjure up enough emotion to make the Jam-Lewis ballad "Human" an excellent change of pace from the otherwise dance-oriented tone.

But the Human League is clearly at its best when most playful. Oakey, his voice a bit hoarse, was a congenial front man as he paraded in his red leather gaucho jacket through the flashy lights and stage smoke. Meanwhile, Sulley and Catherall bumped and shimmied behind him, not far removed in spirit from the early-'80s London disco where Oakey "discovered" them dancing together.

And that's the spirit they should stick with. The Human League is definitely a case where "Hey, let's put on a show" is preferable to "Hey, let's make art."

The Spoons, a Toronto-based quintet, may have had something interesting in its contemporary big beat rock, but the sound was turned up so loud it was difficult to tell.

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