Friday, March 12, 2010

The Fall make another album

Prompting the exasperation of record store clerks worldwide, 34-year-old British band The Fall have made another record called Our Future, Your Clutter. It is unknown precisely which record it is in their canon. Counting only "official" studio releases only, it's their 28th? 29th? album, but counting the countless live LPs, rarities, A and B-side comps, etc, we must be somewhere in the hundreds. This is a Fall album among many. It's about 50 minutes long, but it only has 9 tracks, with typically enigmatic titles like "Cowboy George," "Chino," "Y.F.O.C./Slippy Floor." Many elements of it are very Fall-esque, much like the elements of the last seven Fall albums.

There is something different about Our Future, however, in that it is the first time in many years that Mark E. Smith and his current musicians have made a Very Important Work. The kind of thing that is the reason Mr. Smith is called a Genius and his band a British Institution without bullshit hype or extra publicity of Smith's 'eccentric' behavior (which has often been attributed to a long-standing amphetamine and alcohol habit).

Just to clarify: I have no predisposed reason to uphold this record. I love The Fall, and will buy any albums they make simply because they make them, but I don't even really like the current lineup of the Fall all that much. They are, on the whole, faceless, but perhaps that's the way MES wants them to be. Pete Greenaway is generally an adept, if not particularly remarkable, guitarist; bass player Dave Spurr obviously got his start in nu-metal, and sounded better as the dinging top-end to Rob Barbato's Big Muff-ed out bass growl in the 2006-2007 band; and drummer Keiron Melling - well, at least he knows how to hit those drums really hard. This is their second go-round as official members (Spurr and Greenaway appeared on Reformation Post TLC), and Imperial Wax Solvent, their first, while full of great moments, was perhaps the most disappointing Fall record of the 2000's - one that seemed better on first listen than it revealed itself to be with repeat visits (the opposite trend of a Typical Fall Album). Smith seemed content to coast on cult-of-personality-inspired goofy gibberish through much of the record, manipulating the tapes of his band behind him into loops and interrupted song structures, the most obvious example being "50-Year Old Man," an 11-minute homage to himself. The end product often felt half-written, with the would-be classics of "Tommy Shooter" and "Senior Twilight Stock Replacer" getting a half-hearted treatment from the lead man that squandered their potential. In fact, some of the best and most inventive songs on the album were those obviously dashed off at the last minute, the Sesame Street-like "Latch Key Kid" and the noisily jarring "Exploding Chimney." Like all Fall albums, it has too many great moments to be called "bad," but to this listener, it often seemed like the companion piece to Smith's ridiculous autobiography, Renegade; a chance for him to take a loaf break, even the score with a few old enemies and, basically, "talk a lot of wind."

Stranger still, to me, half of this album isn't really worth making much of a fuss about. In fact, the album's first five songs are a hair's breadth away from being the better produced, more British counterpart to Reformation (recorded with Smith's one and only American backing band) - extended jams with goofy nonsequitors sprinkled here and there by a seemingly aloof Smith. Opener "O.F.Y.C. Showcase" hangs on one chord while Smith shouts inside of a cupboard or some such enclosed space. Melling pounds his drums while MES raises his voice higher and higher, with further psychotic indignation, but the end product seems tantamount to vigorously jacking off a limp dick; the enthusiasm is there, but the idea simply isn't. "Bury Pts. 1, 2, and 3" starts off promisingly, with the entire band filtered through a fuzz pedal, but its counterparts trail off into forgettableness. "Mexico Wax Solvent" is typical Smith absurdity over a predictable backing; it's as if this band is eternally stuck on two or three grooves - which is just when "Cowboy George" comes in, proving them capable of a dynamic range. An amphetamine spaghetti-Western rockabilly track, it sees the band finally bring their A-game - and Smith responds, throwing in his ever so off-key sense of melody and interrupting the proceedings with, of all things, a tape recording of Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." But then "Hot Cake" takes it back to the same garage riffs we've heard make up most of the last three Fall albums, and it doesn't really go anywhere.

However, the let-down of the first half seems like a deliberate fluke once you get to "Y.F.O.C./Slippy Floor." Accompanied by only Spurr and Melling at the beginning, Smith starts throwing counter-rhythms back at his band with his voice - grooving, almost, while a clanky bass overdub throws off your concentration. But then at the 2 minute mark, the proceedings are completely overthrown for the first truly hypnotic Fall riff this incarnation of the band has been able to muster - one that recalls the days of Scanlon, Riley, Hanley, etc. This time, the energy is truly there for all involved, and Smith is stepping over himself in overdubs to match the magic his band's whipped up. And at the end, we are treated to a full 90 seconds of strange addendums, again courtesy of Smith's infamous portable tape recorder - a country outro taped at a practice with Smith intoning "One cigarette's gonna do it....," a drum pattern beaten out onto pant legs, and an ethereal phone message from a man who, as The Quietus revealed in their in-depth review, is an arthritis specialist. For the first time in a long time, this Fall album reveals itself as truly ominous - not just the typical handiwork of some minor, quirky, British celebrity.

Follow-up "Chino" is the album's "Blindness," but this time, we are given a far more personal, autobiographical rant. Over an abrasive introduction, Smith informs us that "This is an actual account of the operational proceedings." Here, wife Eleni Poulou's stamp is all over the track, her modern Allen Ravenstine squeals creating a fuzzy atmosphere for Smith to wrestle with himself: "How can I leave this trench alone? My darling is waiting," he says. Talk of hospitals, hell and war loop throughout the 5 minutes. The Quietus speculated that this is Smith's contemplation of retirement, after over 30 years of service to the music industry, but who knows? One thing is for certain - with talk of a "slippy floor," the voice of an arthritis specialist on his answering machine, and pondering how to "get out of this hospital," Smith's mind seems to be on his physical well being, and, perhaps, his mortality. The album's darkest moment so far is immediately countered with its most light-hearted, a cover of rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love," the best cover on a Fall album since Are You Are Missing Winner's revamping of Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Town." But in a way, it plays into "Chino"'s talk of a lover the singer compulsively returns to, and thematically anticipates the album's closing theme of loss of control - "My mind is a blank, my head is spinning around and around in the funnel of love."

And then, closer "Weather Report 2" changes everything. The entire album. It is, in fact, the greatest song the Fall have written in 10 years. It makes much of the past 10 years of the Fall seem a bit silly. Beginning with some honest guitar harmonics - perhaps a Fall first - it opens with a vulnerable, melodic backing that sounds like the more uneasy counterpart to early 90s tracks "Bill is Dead" and "Rose," but something is horribly amiss. Smith is attempting to croon. "Hello, how are you today? I thought the vitamins worked, changed my life." Soon, he is returning to a line, echoed by a lower-pitched, darker overdub. "No one has called me 'sir' in my entire life. You gave me the best years of my life." We are firmly in "Bill is Dead" territory now, where Smith sarcastically sang, "These are the finest times of my life." But now, things seem a bit more final. The first 2 minutes have the feeling of a lament, the number at the end of a Citizen Kane-type musical about the Fall: has it all been worth it? In a career of calling the worst things that could ever happen to a bandleader (onstage punchups, abandoned tours, a phalanx of untrustworthy record contracts) "the best thing that ever happened," here we are shown that maintaining Mark E. Smith, the persona maybe hasn't been so easy for Mark E. Smith, the human. And it's a sobering experience, especially after the British media circus that's surrounded the group and Smith since the mid-2000s. It made Smith into an unforgettable media kook and his band finally got some of the recognition they deserved. But to celebrate the band as an institution and its leader as a charming weirdo stunts their art's credibility, and perhaps even affected the product itself, if Imperial Wax Solvent can be held up as an example. And one must return to what Grant Showbiz said about Mark's destruction of the 80s lineup of the Fall: "Just as it was going really well, I think Mark just went, 'I'm not really what you're saying I am. I am not this thing, I am Mark E. Smith. I am not your pet.'"

Now that his story has practically become tantamount to a modern British folktale, Smith bares the scars behind the madness. "No one has ever called me 'sir' in my entire life," he says, sounding more rueful, more resigned and bitter each time. When he says "You gave me the best years of my life," is he talking to us? to his wife? Does he mean it? Meanwhile, an apocalypse is on the horizon, signaled by the off-key synth growl and the talk of 'weather reports' and expanding whirlpools, until the entire track is superceded by Poulou's bass synth and Smith's voice of God/doom. Three terrifying minutes follow. This time, Smith has captured all the bullshit of the doomsday culture we live in today, and he's made it all real. He's thrown it back at us. He's destroyed his band again, but he sees a greater destruction ahead. "Weather reports. It's like an ice rink....I miss my family in Oxford....The whirlpools cascade over the smoking tents." The whirlpools widen and Poulou gets louder until that too washes away for one final, unaccompanied, whispered stanza: "Never mind Jackson/What about Saxon's/recording of lost London? You don't deserve rock and roll." It is, by far, the best closing to Fall album, ever, not to mention one of Smith's most accomplished set of lyrics, and perhaps his most effective and terrifying use of sound collage.

I have been changed by "Weather Report 2." The song has followed me around ever since I heard it. It haunts me. I've listened to it 10 times in the past two days. True, many Fall records end in a peculiar way. Reformation ended with the band playing one note over and over, as if to say, "we'll be back." Imperial Wax Solvent ended with the words, "Believe me kids, I've been through it all." Are You Are Missing Winner ended, like many albums before it (Code: Selfish, The Light User Syndrome) with a farce. Levitate ended with Smith fading into the background chanting, "Everybody But Myself," while audience members pretended to be him, temporarily succumbing to the 'slow, subtle lost of identity' he later described on his solo album. But only the end of Our Future, Your Clutter sounds like "goodbye."

Monday, March 1, 2010

End of year list 2009 (2 months late)

This year I challenged a lot of my preconceived notions regarding music, and more often than not I was richly rewarded. Hence, I started liking at least one Replacements record (so now I can't claim to "hate" them), I fell for Alex Chilton's solo career wholeheartedly, I discovered legends I had previously written off, and I fell in love with the Zappa music I hadn't fully digested yet. This was not a year of epiphanies. It wasn't even a year where I listened to much new (read: present-day) music. But it was a year where I expanded upon the material in my record collection that I already on....

Best albums I bought/acquired:

Destiny Street - Richard Hell & The Voidoids
This one's tough to find, especially since Mr. Hell just "revised" this 1982 classic with new guitar work from Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot. But these classy fucks couldn't possibly reproduce the ugly beauty of 10 tracks of Robert Quine clashing against a competing number of rhythm guitarist Naux's in the swirling mess that serves as the backdrop for Destiny Street. Had Hell died after this album's release it would have been his In Utero - with desperate cries in the anti-drug "Ignore That Door," hypnotic depression in the chugging "Staring in Her Eyes," retrospective insight in the timeless "Time," and, oh yeah, the cover of the Bob Dylan song about suicide ("Going Going Gone"), it often has the tone of a farewell. Instead, we get a postcard from the edge that doesn't leave us - or its creator - cold when it's over.

Live at The Star Club - Jerry Lee Lewis
There is nothing to be said about this album that has not already been said. If you haven't heard it and you like rock music, you are doing yourself a disservice.

A Grown-Ass Man - Dump
Dump's four-track offerings can be hit or miss, although all have a well-worn charm that brings me back for repeated listenings time and again. But Grown-Ass Man, McNew's first fully-digital recording, is also his best, most realized album. Not only does the sound bring out the true brilliance in his often simple yet memorable songwriting, the songs themselves are jaw-dropping almost across the board, such as the exhilarating "The History Of Love," the Rentals-esque "Basic Cable," and the furiously epic (clocking in at just under 8 minutes) "Daily Affirmation." Good choice of covers too ("Mr. Too Damn Good," Thin Lizzy's "Cowboy Song")

Sticky Rubies - The Amazements
OK, I produced a song on this record ("Watch Your Step"), paid for the mastering of it - and I also don't feel it's the best representation of the band. But this is the most official thing we've got, or will ever get - RIP. It was a great ride guys - now let's hear it for the Real Noriegas in 2010!

Dim Stars - Dim Stars
Post-Voidoids Hell joins two Sonic Youth members and one producer for sloppy, ridiculous and overlong record. The result has some of his finest songs of all time ("She Wants To Die," "All My Witches Come True," "Monkey," "Baby Huey" (the latter featured in the movie Airheads!!!)) and some ridiculous jamming and noise experiments. Bravo for taking a chance and having fun. This record is often panned and misunderstood, but in fact is quite brilliant, and can sound even profound given the correct mental, physical and chemical settings.

Tear Down The Walls - Molesters
The dynamic Sam Lubicz/Liam Morrison duo have yielded some great music the last couple years, namely Sex-S and the 333 Boyz, but for my money, Tear Down The Walls is their bona fide masterpiece, recorded under the "cover name" Molesters. Classic songs include the near-instrumental "Doodoo Rock," the grunge-apathy anthem "Twins" and the samba-esque "Like A Virus." Recorded mostly through an iMac's internal mic onto GarageBand, lo-fi wishes it was this good, or this lo-fi.

Songs From The Pink Death - Kramer
Kramer's solo records follow an interesting pattern of looping jams with endlessly ranting lyrics stacked high with Kramer's self-harmonizations. And I love them. They are my thing, and there's brilliance anyone can latch onto, especially in this record, with the anti-romantic yet achingly beautiful "The Funny Scene," with the pro-atheist anthem "The Hot Dog Song," and the just plain irritatingly catchy "Don't Come Around."

American Primitive, Vol. 1
"You hear the best part of humanity, people expressing their connection to eternity or whatever." - R. Crumb, on "old records"
Gospel used to be the best music America had to offer. It was rock and roll, soul, avant-garde, blues and God in one package before this pangaea was woefully destroyed by time. Luckily John Fahey and Harry Smith were around to pick up the pieces before eternity took them away too. This is essential, as essential if not more than (dare I say) the Anthology of American Folk Music.

Cloudland - Pere Ubu
Pennsylvania - Pere Ubu
St. Arkansas - Pere Ubu
Why I Hate Women - Pere Ubu
Modern Dance - Pere Ubu
To quell any nagging doubts, yes I got into Pere Ubu this year. This is why:

Previously, I had felt, more or less without much justification, that Pere Ubu were a fairly pretentious unit, high on their own peculiarities but low on musical content. But "Breath" - has there been a more appropriate title in pop history? - moved me, changed me and made me an Ubu fan on the spot in front of the laptop. Pere Ubu, as it turns out, is pure American rock music. Quirky, angular, spazzy - all these words are thrown at them but skillfully dodged by the band's adept skill at following their radical whims into a shockingly consistent body of work. OK, so last year's Long Live Pere Ubu verged on unlistenable - but regardless, I admire David Thomas & co. for having the guts to make such a jarringly offensive (and deliberately so) piece of work so seemingly "late" in their career. (Plus there were still some great songs on the album anyway) All the above mentioned albums are ones I've had a deeply personal relationship with - Pennsylvania and Modern Dance helped me survive Washington D.C., Cloudland narrated the urban alienation of San Francisco and Boston, but St. Arkansas is still the one to listen to when terror twilight falls. All are essential, as far as I'm concerned.

Oar - Alexander "Skip" Spence
If you're open and ready to the bare folk and broken "psychedelia" of Skip Spence, this album resonates from opener to closer. It's an acquired taste, but for those ready for it, one you immediately ease into and hold onto for listen after listen. This music isn't hip, it isn't confessional, and it isn't even all that weird-sounding today. It's just raw and moving, and free of pretention. And a classic.

Main Offender - Keith Richards
Pleased to Meet Me - The Replacements
The Grand Wazoo - Frank Zappa
Barrett/The Madcap Laughs - Syd Barrett

Anything by John Fahey
Yet another giant (literally) American I woefully underestimated and ignored for years. For YEARS, I said to myself, "I don't hear anything special about that guitar picking. I'll go listen to the Crumb soundtrack instead." OK, the Crumb soundtrack is still great (one of my all-time favorites) but Fahey has a whole other thing going on, where the history of music gets re-routed through his head and generally, crammed through one guitar. His weird so-called "noise" material is just as good (as far as I'm concerned) as his early so-called "folk" stuff. His writing, collected on How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life and Vampire Vultures, is equally brilliant. Did I mention his abstract paintings? (They're great too.) A man that succeeded at all artistic ventures, I consume his work with the same voraciousness with which he ate junk food.

Sign of the 3-Eyed Men - 13th Floor Elevators
The 13th Floor Elevators' discography is so essential to any accurate perception of the impact of the 1960s "musical revolution" that it's a crying shame these albums weren't given the same royal treatment as may other, lesser bands that get much more attention. Never mind them. All the albums are now collected in one place, and they sound amazing, and yes, all the outtakes and shit are fucking great too. I'm not going to bother to "review every disc" like I said I would, for fear of cheapening it - this is one of the greatest band ever's full discography we're talking about, right?


A Man Called Destruction - Alex Chilton
Alex Chilton takes so much shit for his solo career. Hell, I panned Feudalist Tarts/No Sex. But you know what? I love that record now, and listen to it all the time. Chilton has odd, perhaps sarcastic, but always discernable charisma across all his solo efforts post-Like Flies. True, the latter record was probably the last masterpiece the man can muster, but A Man Called Destruction proves he's still capable of an amusing, endlessly listenable record. Mainly covers (that's the way most of 'em go) graced with Chilton's evermore-sterling guitar tone and smirking vocal stylings, and in brilliant hi-fi, for once. If you want Big Star, buy a ticket for one of the two reunion shows this year (yes I'd like to see them too).

Incomplete list of favorite songs:

"Let Me Get Close To You," "Bangkok," "What's Your Sign, Girl?," "Lies" - Alex Chilton
"Soul Deep," "The Letter" - Box Tops/Chilton
"SAD.TXT," "Non-Alignment Pact," "Horses," "Monday Night," "Bus Called Happiness," "Caroleen," "Beach Boys," "Street Waves," "Drive," "Silver Spring," "Breath" - Pere Ubu
"Lovely Day," "Oh My Golly" - The Pixies
"Hop on One Foot/Hop On the Other" - Squatter's Temple
"Sun Gonna Shine in My Back Door Someday Blues," "Sligo River Blues," "When the Springtime Comes Again," "Fanfare," "Fare Forward Voyagers," "Red Lion" - John Fahey
"Life Goes On," "I Ain't Mad At Cha," "Changes" - 2Pac
"Chandelier Searchlight," "My Purple Past" - Deerhoof
"Livin' On," "Barnyard Blues," "It's You" - 13th Floor Elevators
"Do Something Real," "It Is Divine" - Robert Pollard
"Betrayed (live)" - Lou Reed
"She Got That Come Back Pussy" - Dickey Williams
"Mind Playing Tricks On Me" - Geto Boys
"Sex Machine," "Please Please Please (live)" - James Brown
"Seat in the Kingdom" - Crumb Brothers
"Fairest of All" - The Red Krayola
"Nothing Man" - The Deviants
"What is a Dollar?," "Reparations," "Deathbed Confession" - Chain & The Gang
"Oh Death" - Charlie Patton
"Words of Wonder," "Eileen," "Hate it When You Leave" - Keith Richards
"Everything You Did" - Steely Dan
"Down On Me" - Eddie Head and his Family
"The Funny Scene" - Kramer
"Locomotive" - Thelonious Monk
"Ruins Song," "Millennium" - The Amazements
"Don't Leave Me Alone With Her," "At Home, At Work, At Play," "Beat the Clock," "Reinforcements" - Sparks
"Mysterious," "Sorry" - The Splinters
"Doodoo Rock" - Molesters
"Part of Me" - LAKE
"Waving My Arms in the Air," "Octopus," "Late Night" - Syd Barrett
"Little Hands," "Cripple Creek," "Broken Heart," "Dixie Peach Promenade" - Alexander 'Skip' Spence
"Leroy," "I Am Stealth" - The Airplanes
"We Are Mean" - Vic Chesnutt (RIP) and Elf Power
"Addicted to Love" - Robert Palmer
"Centerfold" - J. Geils Band
"'Til The End of the Day," "She's A Mover," "Back of a Car" - Big Star
"Money (live)" - Jerry Lee Lewis
"Lonesome Cowboy Jim (Swaggert version)," "The Grand Wazoo," "Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy," "Cleetus Awreetus-Awrightus" - Frank Zappa
"Reverend Black Grape" - Black Grape
"Letter From Anne Marie," "Nobody Rides For Free" - Grant Hart
"Lie To Me," "Walk Away" - Tom Waits
"Fly Into The Mystery," "Ice Cream Man" - Jonathan Richman
"Je Suis Un Rock Star" - Bill Wyman
"Nicotine Need," "Eenque Pen," "Teen Routines" - R. Stevie Moore