“Evil’s not in extremes, its in the aftermath - the middlemass."
Back once again, scourge of the mediocre and the poorly though out, The Fall resurface with Slates, a six track mini album, but by no means inconsequential. A condensed capsule of Fall intensity - experimental, whatever that means, with an unexpected pop angle. The line up solidified into a potent attack division. Unrelenting. Righteous bile.
Slates opens with Middlemass, which is a big crashing collapsing insistent rant, where the ‘Wehrmact never got in here’, but where banality exists, but not so much the banality of evil, more that of lack of imagination, learning, artfulness:
This boy is like a tape loopIts is rumoured that this song is a sly dig at Marc Riley. Whatever, cracks are potentially appearing in The Fall structure and we may well be approaching a time of renewal, but for the time being hammer away, even if the very music you help create is the cudgel with which you are battered.
And he has soft mitts
But he's the last domain
Of a very black, back room brain
He learned a word today
The word's ‘misanthropy’
Anyway. Middlemass manages to combine the two main musical tropes that run through Slates in one opening song. There is the full on seesawing keyboard atonal guitar big crashing beat, anchored by Steve H’s out there but steady as a rock bass. Nagging, insistent, pushing the boundaries of comfort, imagine the cavity walls of your house are full of bluebottles - itchy skin, panic attack music. Contrast this with an almost genteel, pastoral, poppy tunefulness, underpinned with acoustics. ‘Pastoral’ is a word that comes up surprisingly often for me with The Fall, throughout their career there are these random gentle moments. Middlemass is a masterpiece of delivery - every line building up to a rhythmic payoff - all the instrumentation plus Mark’s singing/non-singing. Brutal and effective.
An Older Lover Etc follows. This has both feet firmly planted in the buzzing insects big dread mental collapse side of the coin. A creeping, spidery guitar, clattering drums, claustrophobic bass. Multiple vocal tracks from MES, phased in and out, with ‘Take an older lover you’ll soon get tired of her’ repeated mantra like, but the highlight of this if the climactic screamed/barked: “Dear girls! Dr Annabel lies!”. Who Dr Annabel is/was I don’t know, an agony aunt possibly. A scary piece of music.
Prole Art Threat - more narrative, this time a fucked up Play For Today, thrown through the scrambler, rendered incomprehensible. A tale of spy intrigue, dealing with a ‘pink press threat’ and MI9. ‘It's recluse, safehouse time’. Martial, lumbering, glorious, urgent. Uneasy listening - music to blast at the surrounded compounds of 1980s drug lords from helicopters until they relent, begging for mercy, throwing down their weaponry. Well, a lot more fun than that sounds, but opaque and providing no sop to the listener.
Fit and Working Again. The poppy side of things - an acoustic guitar and the lovely walking melodic bass line. Fisher Price piano melody. MES relaxed and conversational - fit and working again - clarity, crispness, an eagerness to face the world, joyfullness. Fresh faced even. A feeling of personal observation as opposed to a character study, pages from a diary:
Sat opposite a freak on a trainWhich the longer you stare at, the more you see.
Warts on his head and chin
Boy, was I getting so vain
I saw the recession around Victoria Station
So, a few weeks back I made some sort of comment re: garage bands, specifically holding up Totally Wired as some sort of exemplar ultimate distillation of a primitive RnR thumper? Well, they’ve only gone further, reducing everything to two glorious chords. Slates, Slags Etc is The Fall’s take on Sister Ray, except better.
Here's the definitive rant - slates drive me bats. Therefore I say ‘hey slates give us a break’Which just about sums it up, for six odd minutes - in fact the only thing I think could improve this would be another ten minutes. A music scene rant, a music scene populated by the mediocre middlemass, where:
Male slags, knock over your drink, pay for correct amount spiltAnd where you must not break the cardinal rule:
Don't start improvising for Christ's sakeWhich is the point, have the nerve, have the conviction to stick to those two chords, if you have enough to say, you need no more.
And finally, the piece-de-fucking-resistance, as they say in France - Leave The Capitol. When you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life? Samuel Johnson may have been correct then, but when you experience:
The tables covered in beerThen:
Showbiz whines, minute detail
Its a hand on the shoulder in Leicester Square
Its vaudeville pub back room dusty pictures of
White frocked girls and music teachers
The beds too clean
The waters poison for the system
you know in your brain, you know in your brainIts a jaunty, poppy number, but deep, hypnotic. MES relating the details calmly before the exhortations of the chorus. The delivery is perfect, the dynamics of the band, followed by the ridiculous final third of the song, with the cod Scottish:
LEAVE THE CAPITOL!
EXIT THIS ROMAN SHELL!
I laughed at the great God Pan - I didnae, I didnae!This, the Roman shell and the ancient environs of London are oppressive and one must get out, is this perhaps the accumulated burden of history troubling or crowding out the psychically attuned mind? Possibly. What I do know is this is a fantastic piece of multi-layered pop music that makes me extremely happy to listen to. You know, grinning and dancing and shit.
So that’s Slates. Its odd, but its also immediate and holds up some of the best traits in The Fall - the mood of experimentation, fascinating lyrics, their ability to find pop hooks in the strangest places. There is an air of misanthropy (learned a new word today) but not bitterness. Strident and righteous. Bottom line - the streak of excellence that began with Dragnet is as yet unbroken.
I’m not going to go into Peel Session #4 in too much detail. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with it, its just that we’ve already dealt with Middlemass, and this version therein doesn’t really offer anything new. We’ll be dealing with the single Lie Dream of A Casino Soul next week, and that’s the superior version. Hip Priest ushering in something new, but again, I want to save that for a later week, because its big stuff.
This leaves CnC-Hassle Schmuck, which is a reworking of CnC Stop Mithering, from Grotesque. This time we get some additional lyrics, which serve as an excellent addendum to the original. DVD Extras. So what do we have here? Well the following rings particularly ominously close to the mark, and I love it for that:
I can see, I have dreamsThen! Breaking news!
I was by the fireplace at home
The date was 2010
All England was a university town
All you could get was wine
Oh dear friendsBefore launching into a preposterous reworking of Do The Hucklebuck (Do The Hassle-Schmuck). A hilariously entertaining rockabilly gibberish nightmare, which seems to entertain an interest in tartan:
I can't continue this
Arthur Askey's just been shot (Oh my God!)
Get some pics off your old dad (old pics)and oddly enough ‘shimmering buttocks’. We're on to absurd Vic and Bob sort of territory here. Marvellous.
Pick up some old tartan (big spot)
And remember friends
The highland parents
So to conclude this week - The Fall, sometimes the intention is crystal clear, sometimes more opaque, and often they confuse the hell out of you, but they always entertain and they always get under your skin.
The experimental in now conventional. The conventional is now experimental…
… d'you know, this exercise is actually somewhat harder when a band is in a rich run of form. Because one tries to make each little instalment interesting and different, but after a while, when a band keeps churning out class after class, what more can you say? Slates is fabulous, and while showing some element of development, really and honestly The Fall are coasting here, albeit coasting on the very top of a very high and very impressive wave. Its definitely worth noting though that we've a six track release, and in my personal Pisco experience thats a difficult format to nail, especially for a band as freewheeling as The Fall - any band with a well defined sound can bang out six tracks, and the quality of that release will depend on the relative quality of the tracks. But The Fall don't just have a sound - their sound is a whole world to explore, and so six manifestations of it can be so radically different that the combined effect is muddy and odd (whereas on an 10 or 11 track album those inconstancies are balanced out and actually provide character and flow).
Slates circumvents this risk to my ears by splitting itself right down the middle, with the first three songs - or 'side one' you hipsters you - leaning toward the more experimental, and side two showcasing three more conventional numbers. Being The Fall though these definitions may require a little finessing - 'experimental' in Fall world means tunes ostensibly from the rock/pop tradition but with a twist, a push further than you would expect leading elsewhere, a license to roam. Whereas 'conventional' in Fall-land means odd, bonkers poems/raps/lyrics delivered over playful, wonky music, yet recognisably styles, songs, verses and choruses as you might expect… and having reread that, I suppose they pretty much amount to the same thing. This is in no way noble.
Anyway, Slates, yes! Opening with Middlemass, in its own way its as peculiar a little song as the Fall have ever done, almost uncatagorisable owing a debt to indie, show tune… god knows what else really. Seriously - all I can say with any certainty is that its a song in two parts, the first a lollopy beast that keeps raising its head above the murky waters before crashing backdown again, and then a sort of chippy little cheeky thing that in another band's hands would cause you to want to put your head through a wall.
Lyrically there are nods to a number of MES preconceptions - class (which is what I've always the taken to refer to, or maybe if not class then just 'averageness'), drugs, music and the mechanics of the industry, some casual WWII iconography (although I was so gutted to find out that what I thought was 'the weather never got in here' - which I felt was a great great line especially as its repeated a number of times - is actually 'Werhmacht'. Ah well, life goes on), but it feels a little like, even for a lyricist as scattergun, as oblique as MES, well - utterly bonkers. It really feels like any linking narrative, any exposition, any turns of phrase which are unnecessary have been discarded, and even possibly that the frame has substantially widened. So here we are folks - a 6 track release that has the confidence to open with a tune as unconventional as this… why are you not listening to it yet?
Ok - next up is'An Older Lover etc.. So, why the 'etc'? I mean, if one is to read the lyrics off the page it's a simple little meditation on… well, taking an older lover. Or a younger one. No, an older one. But it's moments like when another MES piles in on top of the sing-song one that began the tune insisting "Doctor Annabel Lies!" that we start to think we're not quite in the territory we thought we were (as well as the icky reference to the older lover's 'love [being] like your mothers / with added attractions'. Uuuugggghhhhhhhh….). And all those added bits of music that seem to get slapped over… I assume via a little tape recorder or something, but when a different rhythm ploughs in over the skeletal guitars and tribally drums any sense of simplicity in the lyrics gets swept away. This love affair is rather more complicated than words alone suggest.
What makes Prole Art Threat a work of genius is this - it is essentially the same, rolling aggressive chug with a highly counterintuitive lollop, which then is punctuated in seemly unstructured places by the same four guitar chimes. Musically that's it. But over this is MES' take on a Play For Today, with characters and a script and everything. Some songs defy explanation - go, gentle reader, and Spotify.
So flip that mp3 over friend! And while we do, lets appreciate how odd that was. It's easy to take for granted when you've listened to this bizarre music since its conception as we have, but we have a six track record of which the first three are wilfully bonkers. They're hooky undoubtably, they're pop songs of a kind, but they don't follow any solid kind of conventions that we take for granted in pop/rock music, or at least they disobey enough of them to make any pigeonholing pointless. And most impressively, The Fall make this sound so easy that you get suckered into not noticing.
The three remaining tunes by contrast are pop, punk, then funk but allay any disappointment you may feel - in place of any desired musical groundbreaking we get some choice Smithisms, and besides, if all pop, punk and funk were as fine as this you wouldn't need much else. Fit and Working Again is as fresh a tune that The Fall have committed to tape as yet, all acoustic guitars and real piano and falsetto backing. Lovely. And this brightness is wonderfully offset with such breezy observations as 'I used to hang like a chandelier / My lungs encrusted in blood / But the flex is now cut clear'. A song you could take home to your granny… unlike our three chord-a-punk-a-definitive-rant Slags, Slates, Etc which thugs along with whining feedback and elucidates on a subject clearly dear to MES' heart, slaved to a rolling rhyme and offering such observations as 'Male slags, knock over your drink / Pay for correct amount split', 'With greedy bastard scrubbed hands / Kill jokes join gangs', 'Dog bits the dicks that feed it', 'Ream off names of books and bands / Kill cultural interest in our land'. Charming. And very, very funny. And rounding things off, possibly the jewel in the crown here, Leave the Capitol - funky as sin, and with a hook to die for - 'LEAVE THE CAPITOL / EXIT THIS ROMAN SHELL / Then you know you must leave the capitol'. Too good me to describe, so I hope Ed has.
So anyway, Slates represents a steady progression…
(BRRRPTZZAP! Ok- confession. I know what's coming. I know what's on the horizon for this band, and if my musical memory serves me well then Slates, even as fine as it is, is merely a progression to… something. And this isn't to undermine its brilliance as all six tracks are seriously good, but even so… I'm not sure this 'something' is as good as, say, Grotesque, but having progressed so far chronologically I'm hearing Slates as a semi-consolidation, a sort of taking stock a bit before going absolutely mental, and this is ever so unfair because mercy me, I'd quite happily stick it on repeat for hours at a time and not get bored. In fact I have. A number of times. So if I, in any way, have not sold this to you then fine - I'm a lucky bastard who's massively, massively into The Fall and if you don't want these six tracks to push your ears and mind that's your concern. BRRRPTZZAP!)
… so before I round up a quick note on Peel Session 4. Middlemass, as stated, is great and played well here. Lie Dream of a Casino Soul sounds like it has something missing (this is due to the fact it has something missing), and I'm not even typing the name of the third one. Seriously, the third one is just too much right now for me to even think about. In fact, I just thought about it for, like, half-a-second and went a bit mental, and had to have a lie down for a bit, and asked the wife to take my temperature, and by the time I realised it I found it was next week and I was still in my underwear, the baby was going through my wallet, the cat had written a novel, and I was late for my tea. I'm not going there right now and you can't make me…
… so just to say that C'n'C - Hassle Schmuck is my tune of the week. It's not as good as anything on Slates really, but its the best bit of the best song on Grotesque with new lyrics which are as worthy to be there as anything on the original (the spookily prescient "The date was 2010 / All England was a university town / All you could get was wine", and "you wouldn't even know the sun was up / unless there was a press release on it" for example), which when falls apart with the sad news that "Arthur Askey's just been shot" (while in the background an audibly shaken band member laments 'oh my god!') into a piercingly sharp and funny parody of a Chubby Checker dance tune. Screw the experimental!