Just two years ago, it would be difficult to imagine a less anticipated release than a lavish box set of b-sides and obscurities from the chronically uncool Cure, but recently opinion has shifted due to the success of obvious devotees such as Hot Hot Heat and Franz Ferdinand. Whilst hardly fashionable, The Cure seem suddenly intriguing again, a fact borne out by this eccentric collection.
A good box set tells a story, and this one tells two. The first is the strange journey of The Cure from punk outfit to doom-rockers, before their glorious leap into the manic, scampering pop of eighties fame and then their eventual decline. Along the way we are treated to such off-kilter delights as 1983's charming, jazz-inflected "Speak My Language" or the thunderous self-loathing of 1989's 'Babble'.
Less happily, "Join The Dots" is also the story of the decline of the b-side as a musical force. The album opens with the thrillingly taut punk of "10.15 On A Saturday Night", still standing scrutiny as one of the band's finest early songs (indeed, it secured their record deal). Back in 1979, the huge sales and cultural importance of the 7" single challenged bands to treat both sides with respect, often using the b-side to show off a tougher, more experimental side to their musical character.
By 1996, however, declining sales and the proliferation of single formats demanding ever more songs had fatally wounded the b-side - which is why Cure efforts by then were a diluted bag of minor gems (the moody "It Used To Be Me") and fatuous, half-written sketches ("Ocean"). It's difficult to imagine a great b-side band such as early Oasis or The Smiths emerging again. How much easier to take the Prince or Ryan Adams route, and put all of your half-written rubbish onto albums instead.
That's why, as a celebration of the b-side, this is such a charming set, despite its inconsistency. Nobody's quality of life will suffer from not owning the impenetrable gloom of "Splintered In Her Head", while a remix of the sublime "Just Like Heaven" adds little but length. As for the four rare cover versions included; they simply prove that only Smith can write songs that suit his little boy whines and yelps.
Yet the moments of genius make this worth owning. "2 Late" is a lost classic, a song as naked and fragile as its a-side, "Love Song", while 1983's "The Dream" has a sweaty, electronic delirium that anticipates techno. And then there's the berserk "A Man Inside My Mouth", a bubbling broth of squelching synths, squeals and stream of conscious gibbering, with the glorious line 'I was sweating, I was sweating like a fat lady would/ When I woke up with a man in my mouth.' It sounds - as The Cure always did at their best - like no other band on earth.
So "Join The Dots" serves as a fitting elegy to the b-side, and possibly an elegy to The Cure themselves, one of our oddest, most distinctive, most English bands.