This week it’s the debut album - ‘Live at the Witch Trials’, which is not, as eMusic would have you believe, a live album. An assured piece of work in itself, it also feels like a psychic clearing of the decks in preparation for a great leap forward. This may of course be something that I’m applying retrospectively, which is always a temptation. A short one after last week's extended tract - some of these songs have already popped up when talking about last week’s Peel Sessions, and in most cases the sessions have a slight edge on the album versions - so for a few of these songs, I’m already all worded out.
Live at the Witch Trials has all the urgency you might expect of an album that was recorded in five days. A snapshot of a band at a moment in time. A tight unit with a supremely confident front man. A great guitarist on his way out. On drums particularly, Karl Burns is on fire*. In one of the weirder/more interesting/potentially irritating aspects of the production on this record, he’s panned curiously across the speakers, so he’s going back and forth left to right as he goes through the toms (which he does a lot). I like this immensely, but I imagine others might find this a little gimmicky and/or annoying. Well, they’d be wrong. The fools.
We open with an absolute killer, ‘Frightened’. A slo-mo ode to amphetamine psychosis, and the world’s slowest garage tune (sadly this remained unverified by the late Roy Castle). “I’ve got shears pointed straight at my chest and time moves slow when you count it...I appear at midnight when the films close”. The peripheral bedsitter. Keyed up, tense, paranoid, enveloping - the nervousness of the racing mind. Lyrically, the strongest moment on the record. I feel highly strung when listening to this right now, and I’ve had nothing stronger than a cup of tea, some toast and a multivitamin.
‘We are The Fall - Northern white crap that talks back’. Crap Rap 2. ‘Do not fuck us, we are frigid stars’. More mission statement/stall setting out business. No cap doffing here. Segue into an OK version of ‘Like to Blow’, Not Bad, But The Peel Session Is Better (NBBTPSIB). I’m not in the mood to rehash that here, but we covered these sessions last week for if you’d like more information .
Rebellious Jukebox/No Xmas For John Quays/Mother-Sister/Industrial Estate - each and everyone of them is NBBTPSIB.
(Mother-Sister does however have the great little intro: “Errr what’s this song about?”, “Errrr, nothing”.)
I knew it!
Actually, on reflection, remove Mother-Sister from the NBBTPSIB pile and place it in its own Actually, The Album Version Is Better (ATAVIB) pile. This version is less sonically abrasive, but ups the doom quotient by a significant factor and increases the amount of dread per square inch to a dangerous level. I still don’t know what its about, but there’s a lot of disembodied poetry in the lines:
Reach or preach
It's all a diminished return
‘Underground Medicin’ opens nicely with a brilliant chanted intro, but fails to live up the initial promise, instead opting for bit of brisk murky noddling.
‘Two Steps Back’ though is a beautiful VU-esque dirge and a highlight, dense and taken in a twisted psychedelic direction with that lovely cheapo keyboard that we mentioned last week, played by the excellent Yvonne Pawlett, who will shortly leave, if I recall correctly, to become a vet. Deep, meditative, repetitive.
‘I still believe in the R and R dream, R and R as primal scream’ - a diamond in the lyrical rough of the title track - a musical snippet, which feels more of an afterthought.
Futures and Pasts - NBBTPSIB
We close with the excellent ‘Music Scene’, which is funky. Well it is to funk what photofit photographs are to passport photos - uncanny, wrong but there’s definitely a grain of resemblance. And of course there’s the Repetition. The narrative - another disjointed impression, venom spat out at an unnamed victim. Someone in the studio yells ‘Six minutes’, clearly wanting to get home to his fishfingers and chips. The band play on anyway - ‘Six Forty’. Chips will be getting cold. To quote The Clash - “it’s fucking long, innit?”, and musically at least, ‘Music Scene’ is the weird, squat dwelling, pasty faced, amphetamine dependent second cousin of the ‘Magnificent Seven’.
To summarise - a good album, not yet reaching the heights of excellence they will soon achieve, but miles better than most debut albums. A record that I like, but not one I love. A weirdo warped record that sonically owes more to more psychedelic sounds than to three chord punk orthodoxy.
* Which is a fine opportunity to relate the fact that Karl Burns was rumoured to have been literally on fire during his stint at PiL, when it was alleged that Jah Wobble had ignited his bed as he lay sleeping. However, this was apparently the misreporting of a simple "LSD fuelled live re-enactment of Space Invaders" (http://www.fodderstompf.com/MEMBERS/drummers.html)
Rightio - The Fall are a pop band. Yes, they owe a massive debt to punk. Yes, their hooks are unconventional - not melodic very often, but utilising rhythm, instrumentation, impact to catch the ear. Yes, their lead singer's lyrics - though not top drawer here it has to be said - feel more like poetry at times… gah, no, scrap that… hold on -
OK - MES is clearly a cut above most other writers of lyrics. Perhaps that's simply because he is wilfully different and therefore the attentive and curious listener will get dragged along in this tide of 'new', but more likely he just seems to snatch phrases and juxtapositions and images and turns of phrase and wrap them all up in a way that looks askance at the mirror with the listener on the other side…
… but to reiterate, and get back on track, lyrically this album is a little let-downish. Yes, 'No Xmas For John Quays' combines a cheeky pun with a swish of character, which when offset with a frankly bonkers musical backing incorporating frenetic punk, stuttering stop/start confidence, and a brazen yet oddly indecipherable Christmasyness ends up a surprisingly bold sketch of a song. Yes, Industrial Estate is a concise and clear evocation of concrete manual working mundanity. It's probably the best song here to be honest, tight and clear and all hanging on a rhythm that provides it with propulsion, charm, and hook all in one go. The spoken word track 'Live At The Witch Trials' impresses not only for its curiously poetic nature (and it really is pretty convincing as poetry), but also because MES is clearly a good performer of poetry. And yes, the 'Crap Rap' that prefixes 'Like To Blow' is as good a statement of identity as any band has presented us:
We are the Fall
Northern white crap that talks back
We are not black. Tall.
No boxes for us.
Do not fuck us.
We are frigid stars.
We were spitting, we were snapping "Cop Out, Cop Out!"
as if from heaven.
… but over and above these standouts, the rest of the album's words, though never less than interesting, struggle to catch the ear too much.
However, don't get me wrong, its a good album. Sonically we have big bass, spindly, wiry guitar that for the most part wins through with its eerie discords, and occasionally OTT drums (toms are mixed a wee bit high which can irritate). And while the keyboard on track one sounds top, it's blippyness driving these tunes toward pop with wide, white, bloodshot eyes, by the final track you would gladly put your head through it. Twice. The only really painful musical misstep is Marc Riley's backing vocals - good lord - cf 'Two Steps Back' a dull, repetitive wander through vague drug-culture references which just manages to stay the right side of 'ok' until just before the end when Riley starts honking away with more enthusiasm than sense. Urgh.
The good stuff lingers in the memory - 'Like To Blow', propelled along with a heartfelt 'sucker, sucker, sucker, sucker, sucker, sucker, sucker, sucker' has a real funky fiddly jerk to it, with a chorus that revels in its own leeriness. 'Frightened' makes for a marvellous opener, brooding and prowling. It also acts as an indication that MES is no mere shouter - his phrasing in the chorus forces a hook out of something that otherwise would be simple recitation - though these 'I'm addled on drugs and really, it's not all that great' tunes aren't really going to last him forever. And 'Rebellious Jukebox', as well as a terrific title, is a fairly belting number, catching the ear with odd changes. And, again, MES knows exactly what he's doing… its clear that his vocals are unconventional (really?! No shit?!) but it's controlled, considered…
The rest of the album is a collection of spirited nearly-greats. 'Underground Medecin' has a dull, cliched chorus but a terrific verse, 'Music Scene' has a very different feel to it, but the lyrics fail to inspire and there's more Riley honking. It's all often fun, but hardly catches fire.
So basically, as an indication of the sort of thing that we might come to expect from The Fall, Live At The Witch Trials is both fascinating and essential. We can sense MES growing in stature, using his intellect and his musical sense to force this band into something in his own image. We can hear the bass beginning to dominate, and the music push at the edges of all sorts of things whilst retaining that essential hook 'o pop. We can feel this lyrical outlook starting to coalesce into a new, exciting force in music. We can hear a band searching for the now, looking for the real thing, yeah?
But they've not quite found it. Not quite. And maybe its not this set of personnel who can do the job - all change on the good ship Fall?