Friday, April 06, 2007

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: FALL FORWARD

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
April 6, 2007

Spring is here. It’s time for The Fall.

Thirty years on the road and Mark E. Smith, on The Fall’s new album, Reformation Post TLC, is still cranking out his crazy brand of rant ’n’ roll, shouting his incomprehensible, half-comical lyrics over steady, driving beats; bubbly, fizzly synth noises; and ever-tasty, irresistible, garage-band guitar riffs.

It’s a formula tried-and-true and one from which the former dockworker from Manchester, England, rarely strays. But dagnabbit, the darn thing still works.

A little background on this album. Last year, just a few dates into an American tour, all of Smith’s sidemen — except his wife and keyboardist Elena Poulou — walked out on him. (“They went home because of my violent and abusive behavior,” Smith told Maximum Rock’n’ Roll in an interview last year. It’s not clear if he was being facetious.) The Fall’s latest record company, Narnack, recruited a trio of Americans to take the place of the absent Brits. It’s this group that recorded Reformation Post TLC.

The new boys — guitarist Tim Presley, bassist Rob Barbato, and drummer Orpheo McCord — might not share Smith’s Manchester working-class roots, but they seem to have caught on to the basic Fall sound.

More than a decade ago, in reviewing some Fall album or another, I wrote, “I doubt if all the CIA’s computers could crack the garbled ranting of Mark E. Smith.” In recent years I’ve been leaning toward a conspiracy-theory explanation for The Fall’s appeal to its scattered cult.

The band is actually sending coded messages to some alien/Lovecraftian sleeper cell. Some isolated Smith yelp in conjunction with some post-Standells guitar hook causes some shift in brain chemistry in some isolated listener, and next thing you know some unwitting Fall fan in Dalhart, Texas, is making a 4 a.m. drive to the Tucumcari airport to pick up a crate of something unspeakable delivered on a secret flight from Bohemian Grove.

I hope I’m safe now that I’ve spilled that secret.

Or maybe people like me like The Fall because it’s good, stripped-down rock and because Smith’s crackpot/shaman lyrics open up the imagination.

There are a few departures from normal Fall fare on Reformation. Poulou handles the vocals on “The Wright Stuff,” reciting the lyrics in her lovely Greek accent as a snaky Farfisa organ riff slithers behind her.

Smith tries a turn at country music (ploughing the same ground as The Mekons on “Lost Highway” and “Sweet Dreams”), singing with a Bizarro World cover of Merle Haggard’s “White Line Fever.” (It’s not the first time The Fall has gone country. Back in the ’80s the band recorded a fine little hillbilly tune called “Pinball Machine.”) Here the Haggard song seems to be a setup for the next track on the album, “Insult Song,” which starts off with Smith, in some wino/pirate voice, grumbling, “White line fever/I got it off the children of Captain Beefheart/They’d been locked in the forest for many years/They could not help it/They were retards from the Los Angeles district” and repeating "White line fever" several times through the mysterious spoken-word song.

The one major misstep here is “Das Boat.” Unfortunately, at 10 and a half minutes, it’s the longest song on the album. It’s mainly a dull synthesizer drone with percussion that sounds like someone hitting a desk with a ruler and chimplike chants of “eee eee eee eee” by Smith and Poulou. The following track, “The Bad Stuff,” works better even though it sounds as if it might be a collage of studio outtakes. It starts off with spooky guitar twanging but soon goes into a hopped-up, classic-Fall, instrumental workout, with indecipherable Fall-jabber popping up here and there.

(Belated correction: in my past couple of reviews of The Fall, I mentioned a July 1981 gig at what used to be the old El Paseo Theater in downtown Santa Fe. I mistakenly called it The Gold Bar, but after some e-mail correspondence from Stefan Cooke (who has an excellent Fall Web site), I dug out the original clip of my review of that show in the Santa Fe Reporter and discovered the theater was operating under the name of Paseo de la Luz. )

Also recommended:
* I Walk My Murderous Intentions Home
by King Automatic. This is a one-man garage band from France. Mr. Automatic (his real name is Jay something) plays guitar, drums, harmonica, and Farfisa organ. Until I checked the Web site, I thought it was a full band. (A guy named Julien plays sax on a couple of tracks here.)

King Automatic sounds like one of those proud, unsung ’60s bands you find on compilations like the Pebbles series. But he also has a fine sense of noir. The title cut and a reggae-tinged tune called “Here Comes the Terror” could be from a soundtrack of some warped foreign cop show. And there’s an instrumental tribute to Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti-Western themes called “A Few Dollars Less.”

*Garage Punk Vol. 1: 20 Years of Uncontrolled Live Shows and Ultra Rare Records by The Monsters. Here’s an aptly titled, double-disc record by the Swiss band led by Voodoo Rhythm Records high priest Rev. Beat Man. It’s a self described “no-fi” collection from “one of the trashyest, loudest, ... bands you’ll ever see!” On one of the live cuts (“Dead End Street”) Beat Man proclaims the music to be a cross between death metal and rockabilly. Throw in some Stooges, Cramps, and a little Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and that’s a good start.

If you can get past the no-fi, there’s some real oughta-be classics here. “Nightmares” and “Blues for Joe” are timeless garage glory. “Searchin’” is downright ferocious. And the cover of Rick Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” is touching and hilarious at the same time.

Anyone who believes that “Psychotic Reaction” ought to be the national anthem should check out The Monsters. While the sound quality definitely lives up to Beat Man’s “trash” aesthetic, this group indeed is monstrous.

Learn more about The Monsters, King Automatic and other trash-rock avatars at the Voodoo Rhythm site.

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