Friday, April 29, 2011

Siouxsie and the Banshees - Join Hands

Join Hands (1979) **

Bleeding hell this one bloody awful album.  Curiously and bafflingly enough, the sound is exactly the same and the songcraft isn't drastically different from the debut, but somehow this album feels like a weak parody of The Scream.  Let's get the worst out of the way first:  the album concludes with 14 unendurable minutes of "The Lord's Prayer," which literally sounds like a no-talent Sid Vicious attempting a Patti Smith poetic epic (which - guess what! - it literally was, as Sid Vicious did play drums on the band's live debut, which did include this song).  With stereotypically "punk" lack of competent musicianship, dynamics, or even a few token chord or tempo changes over the course of 14 minutes, it never threatens to get hypnotic or interesting in the least, but just drags on and on and on and on and on and on as a festering pile of gormless, putrefacting noise.   I'm sure there are worse attempts by some teenage punk bands to recreate their own "Sister Ray," out there, but hey, they didn't commit them to vinyl on major label records.  Preceding that disgrace is the second-worst track (at least they had the brains to save the two worst for last, eh?) "Mother/Oh Mein Pa Pa," in which Siouxsie sings out of tune alongside to a children's musical box.  Yes, it's as bad as it sounds.  The swirling playground chime melody and guitar rings of "Playground Twist," are slightly hypnotic, and that's as close to a good track as this album gets.  Squinting my ears I can detect some decent, even compelling, musical moments in "The Icon," and "Placebo Effect," but isolated moments are all they amount to - a regally marching goth riff here and there doesn't add up to a good song in and of itself.  This album gives the term sophomore slump an even greater emphasis than usual - has ever before a band so swiftly and decisively exhausted a style that worked so brilliantly on their debut?

The reissue appends two bonus tracks.  "Love in a Void," was an A-side that stomps gloomily but glammishly along as their most convincing punk anthem, and is several jillion times superior to anything on the album proper; but not enough to warrant purchase or anything, especially considering that it's easily available on any number of compilations.  The original single should be a collector's item, though, since Siouxsie quickly politically corrected the lyric, "Too many Jews for my liking!" to lines more palatable, and every subsequent edition contains the self-censored version.  So hunt down the Nazi-armband era Sioxsie single if you can, it should net you some bucks and hip cred (well, at least with the white power punk crowd).  The other bonus track, "Infantry," defines the term, "total waste," amazingly being of even lower quality than anything on the album proper, an instrumental consisting of nothing more than a reverbed guitar echoing the same notes over and over to a perfunctory rhythm track.

Magazine - The Correct Use of Soap

The Correct Use of Soap (1980) ***1/2

Claimed as the "accessible" Magazine album, I actually found this harder to get into than the first two:  jettisoning the cold wave of Secondhand Daylight for a more mature, mainstream New Wave sound ("overproduced by Martin Hannett," as Jello Biafra put it, and you can tell), and to a smaller extent the morbid kabuki theatrics as well.  Oh, how I miss the darkness - dark, throbbing grandeur was half the point of the original Magazine, and Howard Devoto just doesn't move me with the lighter, poppier touch.  Still, it's not as if it's not a fine collection of songs - a few misfires here and there, but what Magazine album doesn't have those? - it simply lacks the thematic vision of the previous two albums, and thus lives or dies on its strength as a collection of New Wave pop songs.  It begins and ends with the strongest tracks:  roaring out of the gate with exciting synth-pop swirl, "Because You're Frightened," and closing with the stately centerpiece, "A Song From Under the Floorboards," slightly reminiscent of "The Light Pours of Me," in pace and atmosphere.  Smack in the middle lies the third standout track, "Philadelphia," which successfully marries the trademark gothic chill to heady funk.  It's that introduction of the funk element that proves problematic - with that noted exception, the syncopated bass lines don't so much catch groove fire as retard the thrust, with the horrid, slowed-tempo version of Sly Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" the album's low point.  "Sweetheart Contract," was the hit single (U.K. only, naturally) but doesn't sound it; it's an OK little pop song, but I understand better why the band buried it deep on side two, more than I understand why the public bought it.  "You Never Knew Me," is a pretty piano ballad that would've been immensely improved they'd found some other singer than Devoto, i.e., a singer that could sing, carry notes and stuff, y'know?  This album is actually closer to a 3.25 than a 3.5, as it is a considerable disappointment compared to the first two, but there are enough other strong tracks that I haven't mentioned yet such as "Model Worker," and "I'm a Party," to make it a worthwhile use of 40 minutes of your life that you'll never get back.  It's a pretty good new wave album, all in all, nothing more or less.  Bring back the gloom!  Bring back the pretension!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Siouxsie and the Banshees - The Scream

The Scream (1978) ***1/2

Icy and jagged are the twin adjectives that the sound of this album overabuses:  the ice scalds courtesy Siouxsie Sioux's detached yet impassioned 'banshee' wailings, while guitarist John McKay icepicks at the temples with corrosive waves of metallic shards.  A mighty impressive soundscape, careering precariously between the balance of jangle and metal (again, speaking of McKay's guitar), that takes its emotional antecedents from the Teutonic ice princess Nico side of the Velvets (again, speaking of the talented Ms. Sioux).  Now of course at this point in the review, as longtime readers may guess, is where I predictably lay out the drawbacks to this particular record:  in short, they stick solely to the same style throughout the album, and it's a rather monochromatic style; and secondly, they're a wee bit short on material, but only a mite - the opener, "Pure," is simply a wordless 1:46 intro to the true opening cut, track #2 "Jigsaw Feeling," and they rather pointlessly recycle the Beatles heavy metal oldie, "Helter Skelter," which perfectly fits their style (a proto-Screamer if there ever was one, heh), but again, rather beside the point.  That leaves eight songs remaining, of mixed quality if rather similar terrain.  I don't know who ripped off who, but even if I do know that Keith Levene's ringing guitar on "Public Image," bests McKay's on "Jigsaw Feeling," on every count, it's still a close enough race that I could feast on the circular ringtones of either for days.  For all her star billing, it's McKay who makes this record for me:  he's all over the place, setting the sonic template for which the rest of the band merely follows (fine drumwork, nice little bass parts, but lads we know who the leader of this band is), and when his riffs are less that inspired, so are the tunes.  The slow grind of "Metal Postcard," falls flat despite the sharp guitar work, however, and the closer "Switch," flails as an attempted 7 minute epic; Goths have to bring the melodrama even when they don't have the technical skills to bring psuedo-operatic off.  But when the band punches along punkily with the snappy "Nicotine Stain," or the absurdly sunny chorus of "Carcass," (which is closer to Alice Cooper than the VU, and concludes even more surreally with bouncy handclaps), it's a striking marriage of dark goth sensibility to punky metal hard rock.  I should mention "Mirage," as it's clearly the most commercially accessible tune here and was (no surprise, no surprise!) the album's single; its somewhat brighter jingle-jangle points toward the more 3-D colors of the later, more pop-psych-melodic Banshees. 

And finally for the lyrics and overall attitude exuded, which is half the appeal for an album like this.  Siouxsie wails with an angry alienation the equal of any of her '77 U.K. punk counterparts, perhaps not as alienatedly angry as Mr. Rotten but certainly moreso than Poly Styrene or the Damned; she shades considerably more on the alienated side of the alley, which is to be expected (this is Goth, after all).  Her visceral disgust with the human body is plain, and provides the prevailing subject matter, as the sarcastically jolly centerpiece "Carcass," enjoins; other songs describe loss of bodily control (“Jigsaw feeling – one day I’m feeling total the next I’m split in two my eyes are doing somersaults staring at my shoe.”), bodies that twitch like puppets, lack of control to cigarette addiction, it's better to be a machine than a creature of flesh and blood because,  “Metal is tough, metal will sheen, metal won’t rust when oiled and cleaned.”  And so on and so forth.  A bit of biographical research should explain the traumatic roots of Ms. Sioux's bodily obsession-revulsion, but I needn't go into that here.  Suffice to say that the sustained mood (and boy, do they that sustain that mood) is dark, dank, and morbidly depressing, and they pull it all off darn tootin swell.  Its flaws duly noted (decidedly monodimensional compared to their later records), it's still a striking debut that belongs in the collection of any self-respecting (oxymoron?) emo kid in black mascara sporting a nose ring. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Go-Betweens - Send Me a Lullaby

Send Me a Lullaby (1981) ***

Imagine a very early Talking Heads reduced to an amateurish power trio attempting the Velvet Underground songbook via the ghosts of (the very much alive) Tom Verlaine and Jonathan Richman, and you're  in the nose of the direction this album is headed.  The sound is very, very bare bones, but not unattractively so; in fact, the sound is what drives this album more than the songwriting, and they had that sparse, angular dry post-punk down cold, fully arrived on their debut.  Which is a curious thing, because the Go-Betweens didn't make their names as a sound band, but as a songwriting duo.  The songs, split more or less evenly between Forster and McLennan, show plenty of promise - promise, not full realization, not just yet.  This is a classic premature debut, the kind of case where a little more woodshedding and demo songwriting before setting out to the recording studio would have been eminently sensible.  As such, it gets despised by the fans, written off by the critics, and disparaged by the band itself as sounding like a practice room session (which, truth be told, it does).  And as often as not in such cases, it's a surprisingly solid debut if entered with underwhelming expectations.  The songs themselves aren't bad, for the most part; they're short and spikey, and demonstrate a craftsmanlike knowledge of the guitar hook, if nothing else.  The trio's arrangements are tastefully and sometimes tastily layered with brisk, crisp drums, meaty and complex bass lines, and jingly guitar strums sprinkled on top.  All in all, it's a pleasant listen, but is there any reason to return to it?  Do any of the songs truly stand out?  McLennan's "One Thing Can Hold Us," thwomps with youthful intensity, and Forster's broodingly lyrical, "Eight Pictures," moodily grips with its tale of incest and adultery.  But even after several listens, it's difficult to tell so many of these songs apart:  the sound is so strong and the songcraft is so (relatively) weak that one song blends into another in samey-same jingle-jangle.  And while the no-wave sax wailing on "People Know," makes that track immediately distinguishable, it's in a highly unpleasant way.  This might not have been so problematic on the original release, which consisted of eight numbers over in a brief 23 minutes; but subsequent issues added four extra songs, and the reissue I have adds a dozen more for a grand total of 24 tracks.  The sheer length, coupled with the fact that nearly all the songs sound the same, make it one of the most difficult albums I've ever tried to listen to for reviewing purposes - try as I might, I just couldn't get ahold of the thing, and eventually I reached the point where I had to ask myself, why bother?  It's not as if the added tracks are a waste - "I Need Two Heads," and the classic B-side of B-sides, the near-wordless gem of sprightly beauty, "World Weary," are essentialistic, and most of the rest of the bonus material is strongly of a piece with the album tracks proper.  It's simply all too much and the effort expended in digging out the memorable gems buried amongst this pile of mostly average-ordinary tunes - well, is it worth it?  If you're already a fan and own several other Go-Betweens albums, then a tentative, "Yes."  If you're unfamiliar with the band - then a definitive, "No."  This not-bad-at-all album (no-not-really, it's kind of enjoyable late at night) should be the very last place anyone should begin investigating the Go-Betweens - even if it is their debut and all.  

The Fall - This Nation's Saving Grace

This Nation's Saving Grace (1985) ****1/2

Another 16 Falltunes, same as the last time, but this one recieves a much higher grade because a) the tunes are much better, and b) the tunes don't all sound the same - this one's got variety.  Variety up the wazoo, in fact; critics often list this as the best LP entry point for neophytes into the wackily wonderful world of the Fall, and to quoth another noted Manchester poet, Morrissey, "they were half right."  The half they got right in that it's as brilliantly inconsistently consistent as any Fall release, Exile on the White Album covering nearly all their sides up to that point and tantalizingly pointing in a few new directions as well (particularly the ace "L.A." which blossoms out the interest in electronica that Mark would pursue so relentlessly in the '90s; "Paint Work," as well shifts the Fall into an interestingly dreamy corner of the pop universe that they'd never before explored).  There's a nagging sense, however, and I may be alone in this (judging by every other review on the net, I probably am), that there's something missing:  there doesn't seem to be any unified sense of purpose or vision as on previous Fall albums, which love it or loathe it, the likes of Hex Enduction Hour certainly had.  What you get instead is a collection of sixteen unrelated Fall songs, randomly distributed throughout the album in terms of quality and style:  this album would flow just as well on random play, which is to say not at all.  This is no doubt due to the fact that, like the last album, the original LP has been padded with A/B-sides from contemporaneous singles thrown on as bonus tracks at random.  But I'm quibbling, aren't I - this consolidation of strengths allows the first-time listener to sample nearly all facets of the Fall in one place, and even if I personally find Dragnet more compelling, it would be sheer perversity for me to not rate this one a smidgen bit higher.  Because this is, after all, technically the most accomplished Fall album, their second definitive album, after the debut (they have three in total, but you'll just have to wait another 18 years before you get to the third definitive Fall LP).

There's precious little punk, but plenty of Fallabilly, Fallpop, Fallvamps, Fallrock, and even a bit of Fallprog ("I Am Damo Suzuki", a tribute that lifts and stitches parts of various Can songs).  The Fallrepetition works well on the irresistably chorus-y "Spoilt Victorian Child," but not so well on the draggy "What You Need," or Brix's annoying, "Vixen."  The James Brown-meets-Led Zeppelin "Gut of the Quantifier," rocks and classic rock riff-monsters "Cruiser's Creek," and "Bombast," pummel the listener into aural submission.  The uproarious "Couldn't Get Ahead," ranks as my favorite (this week), a rollickingly bouncy poetryabilly number in which Mark stumbles around in Armani clothes pretending that he's blind and acting like E.T.  Humor?  The Fall?  I'd say that "Rollin' Danny," is almost as good an example of Mark's wit, only to find that this yet another bouncily rollicking number is a cover.  Well chosen obscurities?  The Fall?  Of course!  It is a weird Fall record in that the most commercial track (and the closest they ever came to an American hit, on MTV at least), "L.A.," is practically verseless, with only the stuttered two-syllable chorus and a few unintelligible mutters in the background as the sole words.  You do get to hear Brix saying, "It's my happening and it's freaking me out," as the tune fades out, however.  It's a total departure from their sound and no less welcome for it.  For years this and most other Fall albums were difficult to find outside of Greater Manchester, but now in this digital age we're all spoilt Victorian children and every Fall album is a click and a hop away on MP3 blogs.  If you're curious about the band, this is finemighty entry point.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Fall - The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall

The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall (1984) ***1/2

Studio album #8 (I think, but at this point who's counting?) tackles another genre and runs it mercilessly through the Fall meatgrinder: this is pop! as another quirky post-punk band once put it, but only it's not pop, it's Fallpop.  Which apparently means nursery rhyme melodies stuffed with one big, fat, bright pop hook and run with Fallrepetition for three to four minutes while Mark E. chants and the guitars choogle on, but not aggressively guitar-choogling, which separates Fallpop from Fallrock.  Brix the newly Mrs. E. Smith co-wrote most of the songs and so surely it was her more feminine touch that pushed the Fall into this softer, more accessible direction; it's not as if they'd never visited such shimmery guitar-pop territory before ("That Man," "Leave the Capitol"), just never devoted an entire album to such fare.  Oh, it's not as if it's a drastic departure, as there are still plenty of jagged guitars and tribal rhythms and you can't get away from the patented Mark E. vocals, it's just more than a wee bit cozier and brighter in the land of the Fall.  This is the first Fall album that goes down easy, if not memorably:  I found this actually one of the more difficult Fall albums to digest, for two reasons.  First, the length:  the original album was 9 tracks long, but no one bought that (who bought Fall albums in 1984), or has ever seen it, and doubts are alleged to its actual existence.  Normal people all own the CD issue which appends 7 extra bonus tracks culled from singles, EPs, B-sides, what have you.  Apparently these 7 tracks were stuck in the running order at random or something, I'm not going to keep track and make sense of it, I'm just going to treat the bonus tracks as part of the original album and review the 16 track issue as such. 

So you see the initial problem - 16 tracks are hard to digest, and the overload makes it take forever to get into this album.  Now the second problem is related to the first:  there just aren't any truly great standouts that I can hear during this hour-plus of Fallmusic.  It's quite consistently OK and average, without any great highs or lows, which as seasoned album listeners know can make a lengthy album more intolerable than a lengthy album of good song/sucky song/good song/sucky song peaks and valleys.  "Bug Day," seems to be the only total waste, a more polished Room to Live-esque Diddleyvamp, and some jerk borrowed from the Virgin Prunes (a real band) adds some wretched strangled-cat-Johnny-Rotten backup vocals that almost but not quite ruin "Copped It," and "Stephen Song."  "Lay of the Land," opens the album memorably with its strongest cut, with some ominous medieval chanting before seguing into the meat of the song with some train-chugging jingle-junkle.  "2X4" follows with some surfy rockabilly and from then on out it would be silly (and boring) for me to review this platter tamale by tamale.  I adore the ascending bassline in "God Box," and "Elves," is a cool bit of drug-induced paranoia in which Mark hallucinates that the little people are haunting him.  "C.R.E.E.P.," may or may not be about Richard Nixon and while it's not exactly my favorite tune, the peppy pom-pom chorus Brix delivers is annoying difficult to dislodge from the cerebellum.  I'll mention one last song before signing off, the chiming dream-pop of "Disney's Dream Debased," which according to FallLore was inspired by Mark E. and Brix's trip to Disney Land, where one of the costumed workers was accidentally decapitated by the blades of a whirling ride and co-workers in Mickey Mouse and Goofy costumes ran around frantically trying to calm the onlookers down until the ambulance arrived.   

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Only Ones - Baby's Got a Gun

Baby's Got a Gun (1980) ***1/2

Overproduced and containing a sickening country duet ("Fools") in a belated, half-hearted attempt at pop crossover success, the third and final Only Ones album is clearly their weakest, but the step down isn't that drastic:  it captures a band hewing to the same formula the third time in a row with predictably diminishing returns, yet the formula has yet to grow stale.  No doubt that if the Only Ones had carried on into the '80s the albums would have bread-molded staler and staler, as their conventional hard rock/power pop could by derivative definition progress no further - so this is an effective and appropriate a swansong:  a band quitting not on top, but just on the downcurve, so fans aren't likely to be left with bitter regrets of what-could've-beens.  The Only Ones were exhausted as a band and Peter Perrett was dredging the last good tunes from his songwriting well.  But by no means is this a bad album - fans of the first two will find plenty to enjoy here, as the differences aren't that great.  It's simply not a great album.  Not that the Only Ones could have crossed over to the mainstream with this album, either:  when the catchiest song rings around the chorus, "Why don't you kill yourself / You ain't no good to no one else," radios aren't spinning in motion.  "Big Sleep," may in fact be Perrett's most successfully realized creepster ballad; "Me and My Shadow," effectively thuds rockingly along to a Bo Diddley thump; and the closer, "My Way Out of Here," lilts a lovely melody-chorus refrain.  Truth told, aside from "Fools" (yech!) and the useless Bad Company-ish plodder, "Re Union," there's little to dislike on this set.  There's not a whole lot to jump up and get excited about, either, but on the whole it is solidly pleasing.  Let me put it less ambivalently:  did you like the first two Only Ones albums?  Then you'll like this one, too.  Only not as much.