Four vinyl reissues from the Fall cast a critical eye on Thatcher-era England
They were named for a Camus novel; their biggest influences include Can, the Velvets, Captain Beefheart and horror-fiction writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe; their only constant member once said, “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, then it’s the Fall!” If there is an illustration of “difficult” in the universal dictionary, it is of notorious Mancunian crank Mark E. Smith, a guy whose prolific band (in whichever guise over its four-decade-plus run) has released more than 30 proper studio albums.
Two of these—plus flotsam and jetsam from the group’s fertile 1984-’85 period—have now been reissued on vinyl, and serve as a terrific reminder of a collective at the very top of its (admittedly jagged) form. The Wonderful And Frightening World Of The Fall and its companion piece, The Wonderful And Frightening Escape Route To The Fall (adding a contemporaneous EP), mark the group’s leap to Beggars back in the day, and signal a huge step forward creatively. Tracks like “c.r.e.e.p.” pierce pop with a poison arrow; “Disney’s Dream Debased” is a dissonant cousin of early Psych Furs; “Elves” is essentially a piss-take on the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” Smith met his then-wife Brix touring the U.S. around this time, and the two began a songwriting collaboration that pushed them further toward the pop wars’ Eastern Front.
This Nation’s Saving Grace stands as the group’s high-water mark, both critically and creatively. It’s a snarling, socialist beast of an album that—along with its sidekick Schtick: Yarbles Revisited—zigs between classic Fall ragers (“Gut Of The Quantifier,” “Barmy”), singles majoring in sarcasm (“Cruiser’s Creek,” “Couldn’t Get Ahead”) and some experiments (“Paintwork,” which features a section accidentally erased on tape by Smith), yet nonetheless streets ahead of most contemporaries. Smith never met a British character he couldn’t assassinate; these four releases place the lacerated remains of 1980s Middle England out in the middle of the road, right where he originally ran them down.
Combining punk and bluegrass seems like a harebrained idea, but maybe not so far-fetched for a band that started performing 17 years back as the Bluegrassholes. The boys and girl in Yonder Mountain grew up on punk and metal, and found that the faster-than-light shredding of traditional bluegrass wasn’t that far from the adrenalized rush of punk. On Black Sheep, Buzzcocks hit “Ever Fallen In Love” is taken at a blazing tempo that honors both traditions, although the harmonies and solos are more bluegrass than punk.
The album combines the band’s rowdy acoustic picking with a rock feel that will appeal to folks who wouldn’t dream of attending a bluegrass show. Other standouts include the soulful R&B of “Love Before You Can’t,” the slow bluesy “Annalee” and extended jams like “Around You” and “Drawing A Melody,” tunes that let the band members show off their considerable chops.
What a voice Sasha Siem has, and what a sense of melody. That’s easy to miss the first few times you spin Most Of The Boys, her long-form debut, since the instrumentation and song structure are so striking—which makes sense, since Siem, who’s still only in her early 30s, is an award-winning (and classically trained) orchestral composer.
But Most Of The Boys is first and foremost a collection of songs, and a damn fine one, spiritual cousin to cultural mash-up albums like Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs and Cocorosie’s The Adventures Of Ghosthorse And Stillborn. Siem’s less tongue-in-cheek than either artist, so she’s able to tackle more nakedly emotive terrain, which brings us back to her vocals: Siem’s voice is the centerpiece of the album, and rightly so. The middle of the record begins to flag just a bit, as Siem hangs in similar sonic territory on a few songs. But on the whole it’s a wildly impressive debut, the better for how she adapts her compositional talent to compact forms.
When you christen yourself after a revered Leonard Cohen classic, much is expected, and the Old Ceremony has met and exceeded those expectations over the course of 11 years and five albums. On Sprinter, guitars shimmer and shriek, keyboards swirl, rhythms thump and roll, and tendrils of Karl Wallinger (the title track), Bruce Springsteen (“Go Dark”), My Morning Jacket (“Mission Bells”) and Chris Whitley (“Hard Times”) are woven into the proceedings; there are even Spoon-esque references to “Louie Louie” on “Over Greenland.”
Although Sprinter exhibits the Old Ceremony’s trademark lyrical richness and musical complexity, the band’s new pop diversity is linked to frontman Django Haskins’ involvement in the concert series presentation of Big Star’s Sister Lovers/Third where he collaborated with Ray Davies, Robyn Hitchcock and members of the Posies, Yo La Tengo and Teenage Fanclub, among others. That experience led to the direct input of three hugely influential individuals: producer Mitch Easter, arranger/dB’s sparkplug Chris Stamey and former R.E.M. bassist/vocalist Mike Mills, all of whom contribute substantially to Sprinter’s vibe and direction.
Some folks tell us that we’re in the last days of the CD. If that’s the case, let me tell you: You will miss your water when the well runs dry, because I doubt that the experience of reissue, rediscovery and immersion facilitated by a nicely appointed CD boxed set will ever be matched by a virtual bucket-load of files. Case in point: I Like Rain.
This three-CD (or three LPs plus bonus downloads—or just the virtual bucket-load if you prefer to live ephemerally) set collects everything JPSE released, including some naked baby-quality early tracks from the band’s dawn. The accompanying oral history tells the story of a group that ran afoul of market changes, indie-label fumbles and mistreatment from the buy-out suits so stupid (example: being forced to change your band’s justly notorious name on your third record, just because) that it could hold its own in a support group with Eleventh Dream Day and Big Dipper.
But the real pleasure is the instigation to sit through and hear JPSE go through the good, the bad and the near misses of a career that took the band from a light-hearted party outfit with an ingratiating delicate side in Christchurch, New Zealand, to game, but stressed-out grunts trying to flog big, catchy hooks that should have caught on with the Yo La Tengo and My Bloody Valentine crowds (yet never did).