Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Last Art Rock Band

Tomorrow sees the release of "Your Future, Our Clutter" the new album from the Fall. Signed now to Domino records, there's more buzz about this one than for a number of years. Absence, with the Fall, makes the art grow stronger - as its a couple of years since the (excellent) last album "Imperial Wax Solvent" - and live they've been, by most accounts, towards the unreliable end of their scale. After spending most of the last decade changing his whole band round every album or so, making recent line-ups of the Fall quite limited in its scope as they grapple with the new songs and don't know the old, Mark E. Smith seems to be happy with the latest lot. Let's hope it stays that way. For on first listen, (you can listen to it free here) "Your Future, Our Clutter" is a sharper, more focussed work that should appeal to new fans as well as old. You always used to be able to road test Fall songs via Peel sessions, but I've heard quite a few of these tracks live over the last couple of years - though they've changed massively on record. The Fall are never poor, of course; there's only one terrible album in their large catalogue ("Are you are missing winner") though since the mid-90s albums have tended to have a bit of flab as well as  few killer tracks.

For me, who was relatively late to the party ("Perverted by Language" in 1983), I've been pleased that the last few albums - and the new one in particular - have seen an expansion of the Fall's sonic possibilities. Going back at least as far as "Extricate" the Fall have been as much an electronic band as a guitar band - and it is this soundclash that has, in my view, given them a longevity beyond any number of guitar-bass-drums outfits. The five albums from 2003's "The Real New Fall LP" onwards give credence to my view that they're the last art rock band, rather than the last of the punk survivors, or as wikipedia would have it, a long-lived "post-punk" band. You'd be hard-pressed to find a punk song in their back catalogue; though they were pushing gothic psychedelia as early as "Frightened" on their debut album; wayward rockabilly on "Dragnet's" "Psykick Dancehall" (recently resurrected in their live sets) and art rock repetition on Grotesque's centrepiece "The NWRA." All of that before the drenched avant-blues that saw the early career peaks of "Slates" and "Hex Enduction Hour." Forming in 1976, they were simply too young to be seventies pre-punk experimentalists like Pere Ubu or even Cabaret Voltaire or Throbbing Gristle.  But if you'd look for precedents then it is the feral invention of 70s art rock, as much as late 50s rockabilly and late 60s garage psychedelia that defines the Fall. Success would have destroyed them in some ways, I guess, though it's hard to see how Smith's peculiar vocal could have ever been responsible for a real turntable hit. Notably, their constant appearances on Final Score and the Vauxhall car advert with "Sparta FC" and "Touch Sensitive" respectively relegate Smith's vocals to a few yelps.

So, another year, another Fall album, and the template that Smith developed - probably around the time of their second or third album - has served him well. Like past-albums "Your Future, Our Clutter" finds room for rockabilly, an oddly appropriate cover version, the Fall's own primal hard rock and warped Germanic electronica. That the final track echoes the rare heart-on-sleeve balladry of "Bill is Dead" is a reminder of how much remains in the Smith locker.

In a blog post about the Fall, what can one really say - other than recommend that you listen to them? They remain a singular pleasure: as tired and jaundiced as one can get about the abomination that "indie" rock has become, the existence of an alternative band that has never tired of a more primal sound (even on their plusher dance-orientated Fontana albums), yet is a million times more ambitious than any garage band has the right to be, has to be a good thing. It's usually a bad that  music is in a bad way when the Fall are getting noticed again: after all, they're an ever present. I'm still intending to write a much longer piece about their long career - but every time I get down to it, there's another album to think about. It's four albums since long-term champion John Peel died, which given their depth and quality, would be more than many bands entire careers.

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