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23 April 2014

The Fall - 'The Wonderful and Frightening World...' (PVC/Beggars Banquet)

This is as far as I go, or maybe to This Nation's Saving Grace - I always forget which one came out later and I'm too lazy to look it up. So my only Fall on vinyl is the first and last, at least within the era that I know. And 5-6 years later, only a bit has changed. Karl Burns is the sole survivor from the Witch Trials band and he's moved to bass (I think; the credits are CONFUSING!). Craig Scanlon is on guitar and it's generally his acidic slashing that makes this era great (arriving for Dragnet and defining a style of post-punk shredding that is timeless, like so much great art, because it's simultaneously of it's era and also completely transcendent, like This Heat or Godard or, I dunno, Animal Collective or something...). You're thrown for a loop by the opening moments of 'Lay of the Land', which begins with some austere intonation about the apocalypse or something - hey, the Fall invented the Current 93 sound too! But it's just a ruse, cause the band comes crashing in and it's the Fall as we know it, with yet another great song. Catchy, but the hooks are all in the instrumentation, and the vocals are just fenceposts to build around. The production on this record is a bit weird, making the band sound distant and lo-fi but with a bright rhythm section. Smith's voice (both his and his wife's) has some reverb glow, and, hey, I like it! It gets quite muddy on 'Copped It', especially with the digital synth sheen and a snarling Beefheartian turn, building to one of the more vocally abstract (and I daresay adventurous) songs in the early Fall catalogue. 'Craigness' rises and falls through varying levels of plateaus but ultimately gets nowhere; it's the 'frightening' part of the album title, for sure. The 'wonderful' follows, actually at the end of both sides, in both 'Disney Dream Debased' and the strange 'C.R.E.E.P.', where the harmonic clouds around the band seem strangely benevolent, and oddly in-sync with 1980s pop. The keyboards here lift the songs, for once, instead of oppressing them, and Brix's feminine voice cuts the bile somewhat. It's still a strange trip, but one that sees a way out of the endless circles of concrete and muck. We're in the darkest period of Thatcher's assault on Britain here, yet somehow the Fall are able to make sense of it, true artists that they are.

The Fall - 'Live at the Witch Trials' (I.R.S.)

Whenever you evaluate the first release of an extremely prolific artist, it's a bit interesting to think about how there were no guarantees they would ever release any more records. What if this had been it? The Fall's first album is certainly not their best, but it's mostly great, and certainly sets the pace for what's to come. Yet the most interesting thing about it, maybe, is that it's the first of so many. All of the things are in place here by the end of the first song - the driving sound of indie future, Smith's sneering mockery with extemporaneous asides, something vaguely approaching pop form - and I can only think about what these young kids must have been like to spend time with. Certainly when bashing out 'Frightened' in some Mancunian garage, there was no certainty that 33 years later they'd be an institution, with countless albums, songs, and members. The Fall are an interesting band culturally, as I've meet lots of other casual Fall fans like myself, and we're all capable of being devoted to one particular era of the band without even dabbling in the others. I remember meeting a Fall fan whose expertise was in the Frenz Experiment era, and they had no idea what Perverted by Language sounded like -- just as I've never heard Extricate or I Am Kurious Oranj (though I'm sure they are fine records). To really sink into all 58 albums or whatever it is (72 according to discogs) requires a strength I just do not have. So I always stuck to the first handful, figuring they were the most influential and therefore the best (an arrogant assumption, for sure). Witch Trials has at least one all-time classic ('Rebellious Jukebox') and some underrated gems, such as the title track, a loose noodling sketch that serves more as an introduction to the perfect 'Futures and Pasts'. The presence of keyboards, even primitive ones, definitely separates them from Sham 96 or the Clash; they are haunting bells on 'Two Steps Back', a druggy moon hanging over the bleak 'Industrial Estate's of the North. Is this pure poetry, the birth of a new lyrical prophet? Or just another 'everything + the kitchen sink' art-school project? What I found so curious is that during my years living in Britain (2005-2008), all of the local bands still sounded like early Fall, though more like 'No Xmas for John Quays' than any of the messier bits. Whether this was direct inspiration or filtered through a few microgenerations, I'm not sure, but M.E. Smith is still royalty to a lot of people and there's not much sign that his geyser has slowed down since this.