Friday, May 17, 2013

Time to appraise late-period Fall?

Just over a decade ago the Fall appeared to be in a sorry state, close to terminal decline. After the excellent "The Unutterable" album, released on yet another obscure label, a disastrous tour had led to a major line-up change - not for the first or last time - cancelled or aborted gigs, and even a certain distancing from their number one supporter John Peel. Between 1998 and 2003 the Fall failed to come in for a session. Whether or not their live unreliability at this point or the lack of coherent management was to blame, who knows? The band that let out "Are you are missing winner?" was as brutally incoherent a combo as he'd ever assembled. Though it contained somewhat astonishing covers - Leadbelly, Iggy Pop and R. Dean Taylor - the rest of the album was hamfisted - the worst selection of original songs that had ever come out under the Fall name.

Yet if long-term Fall watchers had become worried that this was the start of a terminal decline it wasn't so. Endless touring had enabled them to road-test new songs that two years after "winner" were a world better. The first signs of this were on the 2003 Peel session, and the much-delayed new album "The Real New Fall LP (formerly Country on the Click)" was a massive return to form. It also included as close as the Fall would get to a hit these days, "Theme from Sparta FC" which got used on Football Focus every Saturday whilst the results were coming in. Despite the usual travails - an injury to Smith that had him in a wheelchair by the following year the sense was that the Fall were on a roll and as good as they'd ever been. Always playing the majority of their set from the last couple of albums, it was a relief when the weaker songs from before "TRNFLP" had been dropped and new songs such as "Blindness" and "What About us?" entered the set. First appearing in the odd interim release "Interim", this messy set of outtakes and live tracks is a crucial document in someways, bridging their two finest albums of the century. Those two tracks were on their final Peel session, for by the time I got to see them at the Manchester Bierkeller in the autumn, John Peel was dead. "Fall Heads Roll" was even better than the previous album, probably their best album of the century, yet even it doesn't really showcase the power of the band at this time. The call and response of "What About Us?" often followed on closely by classic "Wrong Place, Right Time" with the audience taking the microphone,  showcased a band that was reinvigorated.

It wouldn't or couldn't last of course - and halfway through the next American tour his band left. Like an ageing soul singer, he carried on regardless, his local support band becoming a "pick up band" for him It took a while for a new record however, and yet "Reformation Post TLC" is actually a double album - some long krautrock type tracks alongside the usual mix of rockabilly and His wife Elena Poulou the one constant during the decade, oddities such as "The Wright Stuff" where she sings lead vocal, are added to the Fall's repetoire of unexpected tricks. Always at least partially an electronic band, "Reformation Post TLC" reaffirmed that side of the band's sound for the first time since "The Unutterable" albeit more Krautrock than Chemical Brothers. Its one of their least essential albums, the band an interim solution - good musicians mostly, but lacking a sense of feel. Yet the most obvious statement of electronic Fall came in 2007's other album, the excellent "Tromatic Reflexxions", which was released under the name Von Sudenfed - a collaboration between Smith and Mouse on Mars. The oft-quoted "if its me and your granny on bongos, its the Fall" clearly didn't apply here - yet it remains the most successful of Smith's offshoot projects.

The next record  "Imperial Wax Solvent" was rawer and more coherent than the previous record, its probably the strongest album of the band  of Greenway/Spurr/Smith/Poulou/Melling which would continue through until at least the new 2013 album "Re-Mit." The album made the top 40, after all, their first album to do since Top 10 "The Infotainment Scan" in 1993.  Maybe it was the sad death of Peel, or possibly the increased "legend" status of Mark E. Smith (including the writing of the autobiography "Renegade") - but the Fall seemed bigger than ever, and he soon signed up for a proper tilt at the big time, joining major-indie Domino for "Your Future, Our Clutter." They'd also put out the Von Sudenfed album. A second top 40 hit followed and the album included at least one all-time Fall classic in "Bury Parts 1 and 2" where Smith intones "I'm from Bury." Yet seeing them in 2009, the band were sturm und drang than I'd remembererd: heavily dependent on a heavy bass and with an almost heavy-rock (or at least 70s rock feel to them.) "YFOC" was a darker album and the usual inconsistencies live - Smith abandoning the stage half way through songs, or being drunk, or fiddling with the amps, seemed to have become part of the show. A certain type of Fall fan revelled in the uncertainty - yet this record and the following "Ersatz GB" were somewhat hard to love.

For quite a while the Fall's writing technique has seen his various musicians come up with jams, songs, backings, and Smith has gone away and decided which ones to use and write lyrics for. Each of the last half dozen albums has had at least a couple of new classics, but whereas "Sparta FC" and "Blindness" amongst others were good enough to leave us no longer in awe of the great tracks of previous decades, only "Bury" from the last two or three albums has the same lustre. The new album "Re-mit" is again a more electronic record: here its Poulou lo-fi keyboards which have more of a dominance. The sound is experimental and esoteric, and there's a case to be made that its their best record since "Imperial Wax Solvent". Yet I'm struck by comparing it with the "Fall Heads Roll" and "The Real New Fall LP". These high points haven't been matched since. What we are maybe seeing is not a real dimming of the Fall, but a decade where he has had two bands: that first one, which left him in the lurch in America, and the one he's been with since. The everpresence of Poulou alongside Smith has created some coherence - yet this band's set, made up almost entirely of recent songs, with a couple of old crowdpleasers, is not amongst the best the Fall have ever had.

"Re-mit" though offers a new "remit" I think - less about the rockabilly riffs and more about a somewhat caustic electronic melange, it hints at the margins of the Fall's sound over the years. How does a Mark E. Smith grow old? His voice becomes growlier, yet its still quite sprightly on "Sir William Wray" and the remarkably odd "Hittite Man." The mix of caustic commentary (LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy gets the kicking this time round), and Lovecraftian mysticism, seems better for being coated in a patina of cheap electronica. Its short 40 minutes still finds space for the meandering solo track "Pre-MDMA years" one of the (increasingly infrequent) Smith interludes that in this appearance comes as a welcome reminder of how consistent his vision has been despite the many inconsistencies along the way.

I've not seen this band since a rather disappointing Manchester Academy some six months before "Your Future, Our Clutter" came out - yet hearing the tape of that gig, it was more about the Academy's muffling sound and the uncertain meandering of Smith that night.They are still playing live in a small town near you - and chances are that you won't hear anything as old as "Reformation Post TLC" never mind things from previous incarnations (though "Mr. Pharmacist" and "White Lightning" have proven resilient crowdpleasers).  The run from "The Real New Fall LP" to "Re-mit" is quite a remarkable one for a band who seemed a spent force only a couple of years before. The modern record industry hasn't been kind to a band like the Fall. No room for singles or E.P.s where they once did some of their more interesting work, and yet the remorseless album-tour grind doesn't seem that kind to them either. Like in the mid-90s, their last three or four albums have been a mixed bag, the latest dozen songs or so from the kitbag, that's all. Whether or not "Re-mit" is the end of a particular era, the start of another, or just another step in the road is hard to tell. Late Fall? He could have another thirty years in him yet.

There's a case to be made for the 21st century Fall as being as vital as previous versions - and certainly not any kind of retro act. The plethora of line-ups and the plethora of record labels haven't helped the casual Fall fan make sense of it all -go into the Fall selection in a record shop, and old albums jostle with the new; random compilations next to unecessary live releases. The thread of Peel sessions came to an end - and as far as I know the BBC hasn't invited them back in the door since - so those career spanning compilations "The Peel Sessions" and "50000 Fall Fans Can't be Wrong" haven't been joined by a good recent compilation. Where would you draw the line anyway? The things that many people love about the band are songs from a different life that Smith probably hasn't much thought about in twenty years or more. Yet the 21st century Fall is quite a robust outfit even so; even though there are different versions of it. He's talked about his many line up changes seeing him as seargent major dragooning the cadets into some kind of order; and there's something in that I think. Whereas previous bands might have been special forces, parachuted into enemy lines, this version of the Fall seems more of a combat unit, benefiting from their close comradeship over four or five albums, and battling resiliently to stay fit and focussed in the inhospitable terrain of the contemporary music scene.

That they still have more cultural capital than most bands is clear - and I'm reading at "Prole Art Threat - Poems for the Fall" next Thursday at the Lass O'Gowrie in Manchester.. To paraphrase one of his best loved songs: he is (still) not appreciated, but we're trying.

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