Monday, August 10, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #135 - The Fall - This Nation’s Saving Grace

If you’re not familiar with The Fall – and that’s perfectly understandable, given that they have had a grand total of zero albums or singles that have charted on Billboard’s American pop charts in their 38 years and 31 studio albums of existence – their best-regarded album, 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace might be the right place to start. But one might also consider before starting it that no fewer than two of my co-workers have expressed disdain for the band, one saying that all the songs sound the same, the other calling them the very “definition of abrasive.” And please note that they’re really not wrong – it’s one of the things the band’s fans like about them. British tastemaker DJ John Peel called them his favorite band of all time and noted: “They are always different; they are always the same.” Also please consider that the band’s career-defining 2004 “hits” collection is entitled 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong (parodying the famous Elvis Presley compilation and dividing his fan base by a factor of a thousand) and it should be clear going in that this group is a very specialized taste.

But those 50,000 fans – and I’m definitely one of them alongside Peel – are a dedicated lot and have chosen this album by consensus as the band’s defining album, a great balance of their art punk impulses with a more accessible edge even if some may slightly prefer the punkier and more abrasive earlier material, or the band’s recent albums since that compilation was released, the last few of which are as solid as anything they’ve released over the decades. This one finds them in a middle period in which their always-experimental ideas are tempered with a more prominent pop element. Most fans call this period “The Brix Years” after guitarist/songwriter Brix Smith, who married the band’s leader Mark E. Smith in 1983, joining the band through several albums in the 80’s until the pair divorced in 1989.

Comparing the pre-Brix years with this album finds the earlier material rawer and harsher, but the approach is the same – the band finds a groove, sometimes rocking, sometimes more jagged, often with a prominent bass line up top, and vamps while Mark E. rants and harangues over the top, and sometimes there are decorations of melody or sound effects (but don’t count on it). Some call his lyrical approach poetry but in reading the lyrics on their own, it’s clear that Smith is less interested in the wordplay of poetry than discrete stream of consciousness ideas, instead evoking an idea without ever really pinning down much in the way of concrete details, dancing around a subject rather than nailing it down. Oh – and repeating. The friend here who said their songs “all sound the same” (like that’s a bad thing!) failed to note that their typical approach includes five or ten or a dozen or a hundred repetitions of an idea, either a musical phrase/riff or a lyrical slogan. The band pounds a riff into your head while Mark E. does the same with a vocal – the song “What You Need” here repeats that phrase forty times in 4:49 and interjects the things you might need around it, including “an oven mitt,” “a bit of Iggy Stooge,” and “slippery shoes for your horrible feet.” In fact, the very first song that kicks off 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong is entitled “Repetition” – talk about truth in advertising!

Elsewhere on the record we have the equally well-titled “Bombast” in which Mark E. states to “those who dare mix real life with politics” that they shall “feel the wrath of my bombast” over the harsh, paired guitars and pounding bass and drums making the very sound he claims. The first half of the record builds towards the great tunes that close out the LP’s first side – “Spoilt Victorian Child,” a rant directed at the person indicated in the title that’s also the catchiest (and punkiest)(and funniest) thing here, and the keyboard-heavy and Brix-hooked “L.A.” in which Mark E. intones the letters of the title for most of the song over a dancy riff before Brix comes in with the mocking, spaced-out sounding phrase “This is my happening and it freaks me out!” The album’s flip side kicks off with one of the all-time great blasts that the band ever generated in “Gut of the Quantifier” which pounds out a relentless and driving rhythm and then repeatedly works in great dynamic builds up to explosive climaxes as the rest of the band kicks back in. It moves through “Paint Work,” which is the strangest thing here – a mellow groove repeatedly disrupted by some kind of flute-like keyboard sounds that feel more like mellotron than actual woodwinds. The story that Mark E. Smith accidentally recorded over portions of the song at home sounds about right. And then the regular part of the album moves toward a close with “I Am Damo Suzuki,” an homage to the German art-rock band Can and their one-time lead singer Suzuki. It’s built out of several pieces of different Can songs – most notably the rhythms from Tago Mago’s “Oh Yeah” – and has Mark E. delivering lines imagining himself as the Japanese singer cut loose in acid-drenched Germany in the 70’s making sense of the music and the culture. It closes out with “To NK Roachment: Yarbles,” a musical bookend to the opening track “Mansion” which adds a lyrics partially copped from Lou Reed to that instrumental intro.

But that’s not all – on CD the band has added in single cuts and stray tracks contemporary to the recording of the album that flesh out (and is several cases, improve) the sound of the record proper. True to the Fall’s non-conformist attitudes, two are inserted in the middle of the record, three at the end. “Vixen” and “Petty (Thief) Lout” don’t make a huge impact, but “Couldn’t Get Ahead” and the Gene Vincent cover “Rollin’ Dany” are both superb and the single A-side that closes the CD, “Cruiser’s Creek” just may be the most accessible and catchy thing on the entire disc – it’s one of their all-time best and most-loved songs.

So if you’re new to the band, try this out. But understand that those hardcore 50K fans could point you to probably a dozen other albums and a hundred other songs you should check out. Note also that fully 8 of these 16 tracks have placed in the top ten items of a poll I’ve run for several years now on (there are a lot of ties there of course), and that “Gut of the Quantifier” is inexplicably not one of them. Note that Pitchfork listed This Nation's Saving Grace as 13th best album of the 1980s in a 2002 article (two other Fall albums also placed lower in the charts, one Brix-era, one earlier). And note also that if you happen to become their 50,001st fan, you’re likely hooked for life and on the track of buying dozens of albums and for that I apologize and also welcome you to the cult. Of course if you’re one of those 50,000 fans, you already know this.

- Patrick Brown

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