Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Auteurs - New Wave


New Wave (1993) ***1/2


The actual contents are about as "New Wave" as the cover, which is to say not very at all - no, the cover (Lenny Bruce dragged up as Valentino) gets it right:  velvety dark, swishily arch, velly veddy British glam rock.  Too self-consciously "smart" for their own good, this was the first-wave '90s Brit-pop band that couldn't, and had to sigh & pine as the equally self-conscious, but more crassly vulgar (hey, it's glamtrash - not necessarily an insult) Suede shook the reconstituted Ziggy Bowie mantle.  But same as Suede, Luke Haines suffers one teensy problem that could turn into a major fault if you let it irk:  he's sanded his formula to such perfection that the word variety never occurs to him.  Which is to say that this resembles a classic T. Rex album moreso than '70s Bowie.  The formula, however, is intoxicating:  a swoony mixture of measuredly slicing electric and breathily strummed acoustic guitars lay a lush but crisp bed of sound for Haines' wispy vocals ruminating as the tunes trot on at a briskly energetic mid-tempo pace.  At first it's difficult to tell the good songs apart from the bad, or even if there are any bad tunes at all - Haines could literally cover the Take That! songbook and still come out this side of charm (barely) with this formula of sound.  But is it the uniformity of sound or something deeper and more problematic that makes this an album that I like but don't like like?  I finally figured out that it was the vocals.  Haines comes across as an urbane, literate English gentleman bohemian, a starstruck scion of showbiz parents (as he puts it in one song) fronting a rock band - all of this is good.  Imagine the Go-Betweens penning songs for Oasis.  (No, no, that's all wrong - that would imply that this is much better than it actually is - but you get the gist of the idea.)  The problem is that his wispy vocals lack any sort of force or presence.  One can imagine a more soulful or commanding of a singer actually putting some of these intelligent and parochially cosmopolitan lyrics across with enough vim and vigor to elevate these tunes to a plane beyond the cool and pleasant plateau they all more or less rest upon.  In a typical one-sentence "review," Robert Christgau gave this album an A- as the Pet Shop Boys gone guitar rock, and that's a hard summation to disagree with.  But while coolly detached ultra-British vocals work fine for the PS Boys' urbane dance-pop, they don't quite work so well for the Auteurs' urbane glam-rock.  Playing devil's advocate, it's likewise difficult to extricate the vocals from the words - a Daltrey-esque bellower to Haines' Townshend-songwriting would mangle the subtle, wispy charms of his tunes.  Oh feathers - I've spent too much time in this review fretting and frittering over the vocals.  Tunes?  Yes, we have them, and as I said, the formula is so winning that it's hard to detect a bad one - so I guess that makes them all good songs, then?  Some do stand out as better than others, and I'll list them:  the brisk & breathy opener, "Show Girl," (ah, but they are all brisk & breathy, aren't they?) and the nearly six-minute showstopper, "Idiot Brother," are the twin highlights - make an excellent A/B-side combo.  Three tunes stand out as close-to-almost-as-good as well:  the crunchy crush-with-eyeliner "American Guitars,"; the disgruntled employee-of-the-month "Valet Parking," (didn't the Go-Betweens pen a tune on the same subject once longdaysago? :>} ); the semi-autobiographical "Starstruck" (on a good day, better than the Kinkstune of the same title).  The other seven tunes are fine and dandy as well, but since this entire album's worth of tunes palm off as rewrites of each other, they're not worth mentioning.  Anyway, I'm sure you'll like it.  But develop a starstruck-smitten crush on it like a 1920s flapper on celluloid hero Valentino?  Doubtful.





P.S. From the Youtube commentary: "The Auteurs lost by a single point in the Mercury Prize to Suede's debut in 1993. Their lead singer Luke Haines punched a window at the after show party and was hospitalised for it. Took it well then!"

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Fall - The Infotainment Scam


The Infotainment Scan (1993) ***

Operation:  Mindfuck.  Well, that's the most memorable line Mark E. comes up with this time round.  I don't know if it's a Queensryche knock or not, and neither do I care.  After a string of sub-par releases featuring a noisy '80s guitar-rock band awkwardly and sometimes successfully, but mostly unsuccessfully, attempting to update their sound for the electro-techno baggy-pants '90s, the mother-rawkin' Fall are bee-ack, hobgoblins!  It's not so much that the opener, "Ladybird (Green Grass)," a social commentary on the stupidity of open air concert festivals or somewhatever, is one of my favorite all-time Fallgreats - it's not - but it is really good, hanging on a neatly memorable ascending garage-rock hook.  No, it's more likely the second track, a cover of Sister Sledge's disco classic, "Lost in Music," which performed Fallstyle - well, need I say more?  Has to be heard to be believed.  And yes, that's a way of saying that it's really, really good.  Track #3 contains the most fully realized original Fallsong on this particular platter, the Glitter-ish glam-stomp that is entitled, naturally, "Glam Racket."  It's not exactly a racket but it sure is glam.  Half truth in advertising.  I was this close to giving up on the band, and here they prove that they can make an excellently listenable and catchy and varied album's worth of music, without merely rehashing past glories but exploring new directions in Fallsound.

Well, for a three-song stretch, that is.

After that, the album grows frustratingly inconsistent.  It's not that I mind the corny Aussie-C&W cover, "I'm Going To Spain," with its shimmery shoe-gazish guitars enticing enough (hint hint hint:  await brighter guitar textures to come!  Specifically:  next album!), but it is a cornball slice of Antipodean-redneck pop, after all.   "Paranoid Man in Cheap Shit Room," boasts one of the greatest song titles ever, but it's only half as good as its title threatens.  Which isn't to say it isn't good.  But how could it possibly live up to that title?  Anyway, no more sitting on the cheap shit fence:  it's a good'un.  Not a great'un, but one of the better ones on this album.  Conversely, "It's a Curse," is twice as good as its completely banal title threatens to entertain.  Which isn't to say it's all that great, but it's a nice little garage driver.  "Service," and "A Past Gone Mad," venture even further into techno-dance territory, and they're good.  Still a little too awkward to shake up Madchester ecstacy raves, but they keep on improving with it.  Maybe eventually they'll get the hang of making some great dance music (hint hint hint redux).  "Why Are People Grudgeful," is a throwaway ska/reggae cover (maybe that's why they shoved it all the way back to #11 - man, is this the most frontloaded Fall album ever).  As usual with their "fuck you, casual pop listeners, here's our token Zappa-esque Revolution #9" experimental tracks, "Light/Fireworks," is certainly interesting....for one, and precisely one, listen.  OK, maybe two or even three repeat plays, but hardly deserving of more than that.  And the slight novelty rant, "League of Bald Headed Men" did not warrant recursion as "League Moon Monkey," - see, one's more garage-rocky, and the latter's techno-spacey!  Ah, feck off, Mark.

In other words, in sum, in toto:  goddamn bloody feckin' inconsistent.  But there are enough good to great moments to offer hope for the future.  Hint hint hint tre tr├¬s trois.







Monday, January 16, 2012

The Sound - Heads and Hearts


Heads and Hearts (1985) ***1/2

On first listen it's clearly a step down from previous Sound albums, but damned if I know exactly why.  The production's slightly glossier and the lyrics focus more on boy-pines-for-girl than usual, but cries of sell-out are misplaced:  the tone is, for the most part, as gloomily dour as All Fall Down.  The swirlingly downbeat opener, "Whirlpool," dispells those accusations forcefully, and the next two songs, the delusionally hopeful "Total Recall," and the Cars-gone-goth "Under You," both clear highlights, aren't any brighter.  The claims that the Sound have grown more happily poppier seem to rest on a mere handful of these eleven tracks:  "Love is Not a Ghost," a Psychedelic Furs-ish ballad that with its '80s saxes and banal love lyrics, actually is as conventional as they've gotten yet - still a fine song, though; the glass-is-half-full, "One Thousand Reasons," (to live); and possibly the closer, "Temperature Drop," which lyrically may stay positive, but the chilly frost pervading the atmosphere nullifies the words.  If there is one adjective to describe this album, that's it - chilly.  Frosty?  Icy?  Snowdusty?  A more important question is, are there any truly bad songs on this album?  The answer is predictably "No," as the Sound's greatest strength has always been their immediate accessibility and smooth hooky listenability.  The songs are, however, somewhat less immediately hooky than usual, and the album is frontloaded with the strongest material, though "Restless Time," stands as the most energetic slab of much-needed vital rock energy on this downcast and emotionally desolated album.  Perhaps that's it:  it's not so much the band performances and songwriting, which are still up to par, as much as Borland's moody depression has finally sunk into listless weariness.  He sounds tired, and drags the band down with him, despite the forced optimism of "Love is Not a Ghost," and a handful of other tracks.  Nevertheless, a highly underrated album, and most certainly not any sort of jumping the shark moment for the band.  It is a step down from previous albums, but hardly that drastic of a departure - there's no reason to not enjoy this one if you enjoyed the first four Sound releases, only slightly less so.



Sunday, January 15, 2012

Eels - Daisies of the Galaxy


Daisies of the Galaxy (2000) ***

Well, it's a collection of songs - 15 in total, less than half of which go on for over three minutes, which makes the album come across as both fragmentarily incomplete and going on far too long.  Oh, of what importance is a conceptual framework:  what made Electro-Shock Blues such a triumph was the grim sense of mood and purpose that pulled the likewise short little pop tunes into a whole more important and cohesive than its parts.  Here instead we are left with a smorgasboard of most 2 1/2 minute little pop tunes, that's all:  some are better than the others ("Grace Kelley's Blues," "Jeannie's Diary,") and same as last time, E perversely leaves the most commercially potentialized track for last, "Mr. E's Beautiful Blues."  Not that it's necessarily the best track, but that "Goddamn right, it's a beautiful day," chorus seems tailor-made for airplay singalongability.  As you might have guessed, good news is that E's mood seems to have brightened considerably - some of these tunes might even be considered upbeat (the aforementioned single, the ecologically conscious "Tiger In My Tank"), and the overall mood is much lighter and frothier, musically if not necessarily lyrically.  The flip side of E's emergence into the light from morbid depression is that he's much less compelling:  now he's simply another singer-songwriter who lives and dies by the relative quality of his tunes.  And frankly, he's only inconsistently memorable, and I'm not sure if the pretty piano ballad, "It's a Motherfucker," would be memorable if not for the profanity of its title/chorus - in and of itself, melodically it's just sort of there.  Which you can say about most of these songs:  they're there.  More or less completely ditching the hip hop influence and only occassionally dipping his toes into hard rock territory ("Flyswatter"), this resembles the first two E solo albums more than the previous two Eels albums.  The album practically chokes on one over-orchestrated lush ballad after the other, which ensures a pleasant but perilously boring experience:  E provides enough moments of electricity to jolt the listener awake, but in comparison to the varied musical approaches of the previous release, this album suffers from too much of the it-all-sounds-the-same syndrome.  Ah well, E shows a more assured hand at lush pop than hard rock (see Beautiful Freak) but the songs are too hit and miss to earn a higher grade than that debut:  there's fragmentary, and then there's simply unfinished.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Rainmakers - Tornado


Tornado (1987) **1/2

No, no, and hell no.  Whereas their debut could have sprung up in almost any random post-Creedence rock era, the followup's production dates it squarely to its inception in the dreaded Big '80s:  kids, this is what the word 'sellout' means and why it's considered a bad thing.  Never judge a book by its cover?  Hogwash.  You can tell how massive a step down in quality this issue is by comparing its airbrushed, big-haired cover to the inspired Thomas Hart Benton collage of the debut.  Synths are all over the place and music is sand-polished to remove any traces of Stonesy grit, leaving the Rainmakers just another big, fat heartland rock act like the Hooters or the Alarm.  Walkenhorst's songwriting still shines, perversely enough, and you can sort of tell how this could have, possibly, been a good album with more sympathetic presentation.  That doesn't make the rewrite of "Let My People Go-Go," the aimed-for-MTV (and it actually got played a few times, as I recall) dance floor, horns'n'all "Snakedance," any easier to take.  Like I said before, who the hell wants to be preached at about hellfire and damnation while they're committing the venal sin of club dancing?  But actually, with that and one other exception, Walkenhorst lays off the political pulpit thumping of the debut, for a less pointed set of songs.  "Rainmaker," makes for an effectively thundering anthem in a sub-Midnight Oil mode, as Walkenhorst lambasts an American people gone soft from too much ease and luxury.  It would make a dandy Ron Paul campaign jingle.  Not that I necessarily disagree, but me give up my video games, junk food, and episodes of The Walking Dead?  Uh-uh.  I'm just going to sit here and wallow in sloth, thank you.  The one other good song on this album is the band's very best ever tune, "Small Circles," an arrestingly affecting mid-tempo ballad that in a just world would have justified their attempted sell-out by becoming a smash (ironically, this LP sold worse than the debut - see what happens when you sell out and suck, fellas?).  Boy meets girl, boy drifts away from girl, boy regrets what could have been.  Two more points:  this preacher man appears to at least condone if not advocate pre-marital sex, and in the video, Walkenhorst (not exactly a matinee idol) wisely lets the more conventional pretty boy bassist Rich Ruth play the Romeo. 

The rest of this album can go to hell, more or less.  Clip those two songs and you've got a dandy A/B-side (should be obvious which of the two is more commercially viable).  The combination of glossy mid-'80s over-synthed production and Walkenhorst's redneck yelping makes for a highly unpleasant admixture.  Do I have any interest, remotely whatsoever, of anything this little Missouri bar band that couldn't, ever released again?  Probably not.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Rainmakers - s/t



The Rainmakers (1986) ***1/2

How much you relatively hate this album (if at all) comes down to how allergic you are to Bob Walkenhorst's voice.  Coming across like Foghorn Leghorn blaring at a Midwestern tent revival, from the arresting Thomas Hart Benton cover on down this is as classic Americana as it gets this side of John Cougar Melonhead fronting the Band, with Walkenhorst presiding as a defrocked Methodist minister excommunicated for his love of dancing and other venal rock'n'roll sins.  And ever does he have the soul of a preacher in him, with a stiff-necked puritan lyrical stance condemning an American society grown fat, lazy, and drunkenly decadent as ancient Rome; and he's a fine, bordering on excellent (if only he weren't so bonecrushingly literal and straightforward), lyricist, which makes nearly all these songs highly memorable after only a few listens.  Which is good, because aside from Steve Phillips' fine crunching guitar work, the music is strictly workmanlike Midwestern bar band level.  It's Walkenhorst's songwriting that makes this album noteworthy, even though the band aquit themselves worthily if non-flashily:  the sound is laconicly dry Chuck Berry/stripped-down, pomp-free Springsteen derived hard basic rock, an appealing if completely derivative and predictable platform for Walkenhorst's pulpit thumping.  Two factors are a stumbling block for potential listeners, one of which I have stated explicitly - his voice, which can be nails-on-chalkboard in its heavily Midwestern yelp - and another which I've implied:  this is rock'n'roll, not a holy roller's convention, and smug sanctimony is rarely an attractive trait.  Nobody likes being preached at while they're trying to dance.  And the big hit (curiously, not in the U.S. for this quinta-beyond-quintessentially mid-American band, but in the U.K.) "Let My People Go-Go," has to rank as one of the oddest dance-floor smashes ever, with Biblically inspired lyrics featuring Moses exhorting his people to get down and boogie as one of the missing Ten Commandments.  Would that this album were half as interesting musically at is lyrically!  The album's other hit (in the world of rock critics and alt.radio), "Drinking on the Job," sports a litany of incredibly witty puns pairing occupations/slang for drinking:  the farmer got ploughed, the bricklayer plastered, the waitress tipsy, the terrorist bombed, security was tight.  Ironically enough, the witty singalongibility makes for a rip-roaring drinking song.  "Government Cheese," rips into lazy welfare dependents in that rarest of instances, a conservative right-wing rocker that manages to be as insightfully cutting as its couplets are amusing.  Let's see Ted Nugent use half of his remaing brain cell to come up with a song half as intelligent.  Weirdly enough, the band's biggest blunder comes with a completely out of character frat-boy lust anthem, "Big Fat Blonde," of which the less said of, the better (ugh, the title alone is gross).  About as sexy as Jimmy Carter announcing to Playboy that he'd committed the sin of lusting in his heart.  I guess they had to play it to entertain Kansas City college boys in Missouri bar dives.  The other big failure is the one song penned by guitarist Phillips, "Nobody Knows," which unlike all of the rest of the songs on the album, passes by as non-descriptly as its title.  Which underscores how vital Walkenhorst's lyrics and songwriting were to the band, in equal doses abrasively obnoxious with his nasally full-blast megaphone vocals and in-your-face political attitude, and for the same reasons impossible to ignore.  In other words, the Midwestern Young Republican answer to the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra?  Only Walkenhorst isn't nearly as radical to the right as Biafra was loonily to the left.  He's just a typical product of a solidly religious, small-town Missouri upbringing, with his rock-ribbed insistence on a return to the old-fashioned values of sobriety and hard work (ha, I almost misspelled that as hard rock) a parochial preacher's moral exhortation of his congregation, than a political call to arms.




Saturday, January 7, 2012

Bob Spitz - The Beatles



It's physically impossible at this point in publishing history to have read every word of print devoted to the Fabs lest we live to the age of Methuselah, and the broad outlines of the story are familiar to all within the confines of Western civilization.  So if you're going to read one and only one out of the literally thousands (!) of books on the Beatles (I've read three; one was reviewed last year on this site, and the other one, The Love You Make, was gossippy crap), this is as close as we may get to a definitive take.  For starters, it's comprehensive:  864 pages, and they're long, small-print pages that take a couple of minutes to absorb, which clocks in at 864 pages x 2 minutes per page = ah, you do the math!  (And that's not counting the footnotes, appendix, and what-have-you that I didn't read.)  A great deal of attention is paid to the boys' pre-Beatles lives, particularly John's (let's stick to first names; we know these lads intimately enough to drop the surnames); in fact, we're well over 300 pages in before "Love Me Do," is released as a single.  Not that I'm complaining - the glimpses into the hard-scrabble lives of lower-middle and working class Britons during the post-war decades of harsh austerity are fascinating in a grittily tough-realist mode.  The image of Ringo beginning by banging on a jerry-rigged set-up literally composed of kitchen utensils is a wryly comic touch in the otherwise miserably Dickensian childhood of the poorest Beatle.  Anyway, summarizing the plot is too big of a bite for this little review; let's just say that the book does a fine job of balancing the weight of the material between the musical and personal aspects of the Beatles' story.  Musically, the sections on Revolver are unsurprisingly the most gripping, with George Martin wisely disregarding John's wishes to invite an actual section of Tibetan monks chanting for the chorus and have himself spun upside down in a circle around the microphone to sing the vocal for "Tomorrow Never Knows."  Ah, John - what a fucking prick.  Some naive Beatles fans have complained that this book is unfairly biased  against John - "He comes across as a total asshole!"  Well, I've got news for ya:  John Lennon was a total asshole.  His great talent and the fact that he was completely, nakedly honest about himself and his faults seemed to be the only genuinely likable things about the guy.  And the latter is only one aspect of his unrelenting narcissism:  the word 'solopsistic' doesn't even begin to describe John's worldview.  As one person once nastily quipped, he was the type of guy who thought that his own farts were significant (and put them to tape, and then released them on Apple with a naked Yoko Ono on the cover).  The other three generally come across as fairly normal guys.  Yes, Paul did have a bit of an anal control freak that comes out during the Let It Be sessions, and George obviously suffered from an inferiority complex (well, wouldn't you?), and Ringo....well, he was Ringo, a level-headed, bog-ordinary chap, rather boring if you admit it, but a necessary stabilizing foundation of bloke-ordinariness to John's madness, Paul's yuppie upward mobility, and George's flakey yogi-mysticism.  As for the 'fifth Beatle', Pete Best is seen flying off into an understandable rage when he gets news of the sack, before fading out in the mist of history; George Martin is presented as an old-fashioned, button-down English gentleman of the stripe that we sadly see too little of in this contemporary world; and Brian Epstein remains the most compellingly tragic figure in the Beatles story, a true victim of society and its intolerance if there ever was one.  If you're at all interested in the band, this is a must-read - don't let the heft put you off; you won't need to read another book on the Beatles ever again.  Because if this doesn't fully satisfy your appetite, phoney Beatlemania hasn't bitten the dust round your house.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Sound - Shock of Daylight




Shock of Daylight (1984) ****

Now why did Borland & the boys wait until they were kicked off the majors & back on an indie label to start releasing the most commercial music of their career?!  The music is somewhat glossier & slightly poppier than their previous releases (certainly moreso than commercially disastrous goth-bomb All Fall Down, which earned them the music biz pariah status in the first place).  After three critically well-received but commercially dubious albums (I just realized I've used the word 'commercial' three times in the first three sentences - oops, now that's four) in 1984 nobody cared about the Sound.  They'd had their chance at the brass ring and blown it.  More's the pity for the public, as this six-song EP brings back the brite hooks missing from their murky third LP for a bracing blast of solid melodycraft that stands up to the best of their classic first two LPs.  Actually, if not for the one-chord wonder ballad, "Winter," which frankly is way too musically rudimentary and lacking in hooks & dynamics to not painfully drag, this is their most consistent release - all of the songs are not merely excellent, but the Sound at the top of their game.  The other quibbling flaw on this essentially flawless dish is that the Sound aren't making any major advances - any of these songs could have fit seamlessly on From the Lion's Mouth.  Taken as a whole, however, the mood conveyed is considerably brighter and upbeat, dare I say it happier.  "Golden Soldiers," rampages out of the gate as their most directly forceful anthem ever - it's, it's, it's so anthemic.  A bit disarming (no pun intended) in its direct simplicity as a raging anthem-rocker, but none the worse for it - one of their finest singles, in fact, and in a just world would be sitting pretty next to "Pride (In the Name of Love)" on '80s AOR.  "Counting the Days," likewise is unusually pretty and happy by their standards, a straightforward, sincere, mid-tempo chimer of a love ballad.  "Longest Days," "A New Way of Life," and "Dreams Then Plans," all sit comfortably in the mid-section between ballad and rocker, hard and dreamy, anthemic and subtle, moodily post-punk and commercially Big '80s.  (There I go again for a fifth time!)  All three sound kind of similar in style but are individually different enough to register as unique song-entities.  In fact, "Longest Days," may be my favorite track.  Let's listen! Dig that ascending guitar hook!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Fall - Code: Selfish


Code: Selfish (1992) ***

As exciting and artistically a triumph as the 'whatever' lackluster album cover, this platter ain't too bad after a few digs in, but by no means essential (unless you're a completist, which all Fallanatics are by definition).  Balancing a tasteful measure of bracing techno-influenced guitar-rock with dollops of the smooth, tuneful Fallmuzak we were introduced to on the previous pair of LPs, the Fall break no new ground here and a great deal of this comes across Fall-by-rote.  Not that there aren't a handful of velly gouda songs-ah on-ah here-ah - if only the opener, "The Birmingham School of Business School," didn't drag on for six minutes, but it's the Fall in their patented draggy-repetitive-hypnotic mode, so what the hell - but you do have to be in the mood for the Fall in their draggy-repetitive-hypnotic mode.  Nice little nagging guitar lyrics and Mark's singing (ha ha ha) with passionate venom, a nice return to form after the sleepy mumblings of Shit-Work.  And hey, look, there's a Hank Williams, Sr. cover!  It's not that great.  Maybe I'm just getting burnt out on this band, but listening to this seems like too much of a chore.  Or maybe they were genuinely releasing sub-par material during the first half of the '90s.  It's hard to be objective in this case.  After enduring a couple dozen Fall albums, you'll understand the dilemma afflicting my critical facilities.  Or is that 'faculties'?  Anyway, I should mention two standout tracks that make the cut of my three-disc Fall mix-volume.  "Free Range," was the big hit single (well, in the U.K., and only a minor dent on the charts) and deserved to be, and ranks among their classic dance-rockers.  It's driving!  It's scratchy!  It's got Mark pitching it up to a voice-cracking squeal!  It pays to talk to no one!  No one!  "Gentleman's Agreement," sounds exactly like "Don't Bring Harry," era Stranglers.  Hey, wait - it is "Don't Bring Harry"!  With different words!  Still a nice little piano ballad, and despite the obvious source inspiration, works dreamily enough to earn its spot as the album's #2 track.  "Return," and the aforementioned "Birmingham..." and "Two Face," vie it out for the remaining Top 5 slots in a back-alley rumble.  "Married, 2 Kids," a fun rockabilly goof.  "Crew Filth," is nothing more than 5 minutes of random cussing, and "Everything Hurtz," is as painful as a hangover (maybe that was the intention).  13 songs.  About half of them are good.  Get it if you see it cheap, but only after the other fifteen much more essential Fall CDs.  No, I'm not going to list them in order of greatness.  Read the site.

P.S. One thing I've noticed about the Fall is that NOBODY can seem to agree on what their best and worst albums are.  I've never encountered a band whose fans and critics are so all over the place in regards to their ouvre.  But one thing we can agree on - "Free Range," what a song!  Whoop dee whoot!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Sound - All Fall Down


All Fall Down (1982) ***1/2

The difficult artsy third album in which formerly supremely catchy new-wave synth-rockers downplay the shiny hookcraft in favor of denser, more experimental soundscapes:  if the first two Sound albums were analogous to The Cars and Candy-O respectively, this is Borland & Co.'s Panorama.  But as the Sound were nowhere near the commercial big leagues of the Cars (outside of the Low Countries, apparently), the resulting excursion into impenetrable non-commerciality resulted in the Sound being dropped by their major label, who initially balked at releasing it at all.  And yes, on first and even fourth listen, the tunes do seem too indirect and the hooks too subtly buried in texture to come across to the listener at all - where are the killer choruses?  The surging anthemic fist ravers?  But as sometimes is the case with self-consciously dense and difficult albums, the material slowly reveals itself and bustles into your hedgerow - a slow-burner this album 'tis.  The hooks and melodies are intact; the listener simply must exert his ears a bit more.  And this is the Sound:  it's only by comparison with their first two records, which defined 'immediately blazeningly hooky' that this is uncommercially less than highly listenable.  After all, "Party of the Mind," (a thematic rewrite of the Fabs' "There's a Place") stands as frothingly boppy a pop single as anything they've put out previous.  It's an anomaly that sounds like nothing else on the record, however.  The title track that opens the album sets the tone, as dense throbs of rhythm pummel oppressively on as Borland chants snatches of apocalyptic nursery rhymes to a tune that could at best be described as rudimentary.  The music is denser and more intricate than the relatively thin lightness of From the Lion's Mouth, which does make it more interesting on a textural level even if the songs aren't up the same level.  Emotionally, Borland seems sadder and more despondent, with his significantly lowered vocals mouthing declamations more ponderous and ominous (this may be due to a production error - whatever, it does make his vocals more powerful and distinctive).  If the first two albums twinned like a synth-ier English counterpart to concurrent U2, this presages mid-'90s Radiohead at points, particularly the experimental 7-minute centerpiece of side two, "Glass and Smoke," - almost defiantly tuneless and structureless, it twists and roils around on a bed of rudimentary, repetitive four-note bass and dislocated kettle drums recorded in the next door closet, interrupted by careening shards of guitar noise, as the climax resolves into Borland bellowing, "I'm not stupid!"  Not exactly my favorite track - intentionally rough listening, 'tis - but certainly the most sonically adventurous and interesting.   The reissue adds three bonus tracks, one of which - the self-descriptive, Wire-y instrumental "The One and a Half Minute Song," - is the definition of a throwaway.  "Sorry" and "As Feeling Dies," however, are enough of a piece with the preceding album that you'll barely notice the transition, with the former perhaps finding Borland singing in too low of a key for comfort, and the latter even more apocalyptically depressing than anything else on a quite apocalyptically depressing album (geez, just look at the title):  "You kill me with your words / I kill you with my eyes," threatens the chorus.  Why weren't these guys as big as Haircut 100?  Remind me again?