Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Half Man Half Biscuit "Achtung Bono" (Probe Plus)

Tenth, I think, studio album from the band whom one rather more knowledgeable about these things than I* has described as the best British folk band of their generation. Indeed, that's not hard to tell here, from the usual clutch of impeccably observed future campfire standards like "Restless Legs", "Upon Westminster Bridge", "Mate Of The Bloke" or the rural Cambridgeshire romance of "For What Is Chatteris..." in which the narrator wistfully recounts the village's many charms ("OFSTED plaudits / envy of the Fens") but can only reflect that such minutiae pale into insignificance when you are without the one you love. But folk is only the beginning of Half Man Half Biscuit's talents, as I grow tired of trying to explain. For this is a band who are, in fact, still resolutely "indie", in all sensible meanings of the word (from the uniqueness of their lyrical traits and the intensity of their obsessive portraits of British life through to the fact that all ten albums have been on Liverpool's legendary Probe Plus label). In the Golden Lion on Dean Street the other night, the "Indie" section of the jukebox should have been littered with HMHB, the Brilliant Corners and the other stalwarts of the Chart Show indie section circa 1986... (hey, they even played three seconds of "Solace" once! And the Flatmates' "On My Mind", when they meant to play "Shimmer"...) but instead of course was another haven for Coldplay and Athlete. "Indie" now meaning 'music played on guitars but that is not pop, rock, folk, psych or metal because it has, respectively, no hooks, no rhythm, no heart, no edge and no power'. I suppose you could say that applied to Bubblegum Splash! too, but then you'd be wrong on about five counts. Plus, I'd have to kill you.

But being one of the great folk bands, and a barnstorming indie fixture to boot, is not all we should cherish HMHB for. How many groups over the last twenty years have been so consistent, so resistant to bandwagon-hopping, yet so unfeted by the Britpop coterie ? The Fall have been many times fantastic, but taken plenty of (entertainingly) wrong turns: although only they can claim to have created a cast of characters in their songs to rival the hamlets of oddballs picturised by lead Biscuit Nigel Blackwell. Napalm Death have produced brilliance in their field, but flirted less successfully with slower, more formulaic music in the mid-90s. Iron Maiden have, remarkably, carried on powerfully, even if their appeal sadly struggles to escape their own ageing fanbase. St. Christopher ? Perhaps consistent, but only occasionally swoonsome, and how bad was that pseudo-baggy album "Love You To Pieces" ? The Windmills ? Yeah, but they kind of had more than a decade off. The Pastels - perhaps, but I've personally struggled with more recent jazzateering. Bobby Wratten is not a band. Boyracer ? Hood ? Actually, fair enough, I might give you those. Those bands rule: although they still haven't done so for as long as the Biscuits.

So. HMHB. I want to give you some more positive reasons for loving them, because they are a band whose existence, let alone their wondrous musical pronouncements, fill me with dizzying optimism and joie de vivre (as Peel himself once said, I love them with every fibre of my being). So let's cut straight to the chase and the highlights. "Joy Division Oven Gloves" was previewed on their (last ever - sob) Peel session last year, and was an inevitable Festive Fifty top tenner. Lyrically, it's more throwaway than usual, but still manages to undermine and celebrate the Curtis legend all at once whilst raging along at a brisk jogging pace. "I've been to a post-punk Postcard fair!" exclaims Nigel, and I swear that the enthusiasm leaps from the speakers. Then there's "Surging Out Of Convalescence"; mid-paced, melodic, touching on less than well-worn themes such as the misrepresentation of darts in soap operas, but ending with an impassioned, spirallingly tuneful ruckus of a coda that, again, makes you feel that all is one with the world - yes, even this crazy, mixed up, messed up world. "Corgi Registered Friends" sees Nigel take up a more familiar lyrical obsession, namely the inedifying social traits of vacuous middle class couples explored to death in "Paintball's Coming Home" or "Fear My Wraith", but they remember to fill it with enough melodies, and a winning chorus: it also joins the tiny pantheon of songs to mention Volvos (from memory, MC Tunes and, remarkably, Big Daddy Kane are both also in there...). "Bogus Official" is more of a piledriver, a thrashy Rosehips-length exploration of the world of the doorstep charlatan: again, though, it's the fact they sound like they mean it so ("I don't give a fuck about your missing cat" - parental advisory, ouch!) that makes it so compelling.

Then there's my personal favourite, again previewed in Peel Session: "Asparagus Next Left", which takes up where the last EP's delicious "Jarg Armani" left off, positively growling with Motorheaded menace: after a none-too-subtle dig, and not the only one, at the Libertines / Others / Kasabian / Razorlight et al / ad infinitum ("We've just been performing a guerilla gig / In the middle of another group's guerilla gig / Well surely that's the ultimate guerilla gig / But still, they cried like girls"), this sten gun of a song then delves deep into the dangers of those strange motorwayside signs that implore you to pick fruit and veg from down unspecified side roads - and like "Oven Gloves", they've dispensed with none of the fuzz or pace of the session versh). And their scything appraisal of the new wave fits swimmingly in the tradition of their insider critiques and demystification of the indie-biz that have been showcased so many times before, by tunes from "Whit Week Malarkey" through "Secret Gig" to "Running Order Squabble Fest". As for the other familiar HMHB theme indulged by "Asparagus", the motorist's ongoing woes (see also "Keeping Two Chevrons Apart", "M6-ster" and "Bottleneck at Capel Curig" amongst the prolific back catalogue), that is picked up further in "Twydale's Lament" - when Nigel screams, "Indicate then, you stupid bastard / How was I supposed to know you intended to go left ?" it is seemingly with no less passion than Flyblown's undeniably heartfelt songs I mentioned the other day (or, indeed, A Witness's enviable "Nodding Dog Moustache", with its dramatic and beautifully literal statement of intent, "I am going to park my car / In that space over there / And no-one's going to stop me" - fittingly, the guitars on "Lament" sound not unlike the late Rick Aitken's angular pre-Franz post-GOF post-punk pre-Britpopisms). But it would be remiss of me not to mention the album's closer, "We Built This Village On A Trad. Arr. Tune" - for it exemplifies how, more than any other album, this is HMHB where the songs more than live up to their titles (despite the invitable accusations in the past that the sleeves and titles are untoppable: this time round, incidentally, the sleeve is very poor, although props to those who came up with the inner sleeve Guthrie-parody, and whoever fashioned the Unknown Pleasures oven gloves...)

So, yes. They've done it again. Put a smile on my face. Reminded me there are people who understand me. Whatever the canon, these boys invariably remain masters of it.

*Andy Kershaw. Now someone release those damned Kershaw Wedding Present Peel Sessions!

listening to:
Gang Starr "DJ Premier In Deep Concentration"
Public Enemy "Terminator X Speaks With His Hands"
Real DJs. Forget Fatboy Slim.
LL Cool J "I Can't Live Without My Radio". Amazingly good - this is as old skool as it gets. And this coming from LL Cool J, you could be forgiven for not believing me...
The Bluebear "Wild Romance". Exotic, beautiful, brittle. Kyoko-like, but not Kyoko-lite.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Leyton Orient 2 Bristol Rovers 3 (Brisbane Road, 90 mins): Flyblown "Genocide-Genocide" (On The Verge, vinyl-only LP)

Everything's urgent, all the time. Sigh. Enough of work. There are a couple of exciting things (to me) anyway, to recount.

First, a double album's worth of material on a sunny Saturday lunchtime in eastern Zone 3 as the one-man team that is Bristol Rovers overpowered the fading O's. The ground continues to be ruined / rebuilt (delete as applicable), the uncovered away terrace sadly a distant memory as new stands appear, ever more incongrous while the team formerly known purely as, er, Orient (halcyon times: remember John Chiedozie ?) continue to fester in the fourth division. Bizarrely, there appear to be huge, hotel-size edifices going up within the ground itself, in the corners in between stands: quite who would sanely want to live, work or holiday within the confines of a "League Two" stadium is unclear. Those of you who have seen the truly dramatic and impressive Death Star mega-bowl rise from an empty shell in N5 can be reassured that the cranes of Leyton are working to more modest plans. Anyway, despite the ongoing opprobrium from his own fans, which is now par for the course, Ian Atkins got the tactics right: keep lumping the ball up to Agogo, defend like hell the rest of the time, and the Accra-born big man is bound to win it for you so long as his team-mates keep their pitiful defensive capitulations to a minimum. The first goal saw Junior cross for Craig Disley to head in on the quarter-hour; the second a penalty, into the second half, won and converted by JA after the usual canter through the opposition back line. Cue defensive calamity number one and a goal back for Barry Hearn's charges, increasing the tension until the next sliced clearance up to Agogo on the halfway line: he waltzed past the last defender, rounded a 'keeper who had wandered forty yards from the goal he'd been tending and, after gleefully strolling a bit closer towards the Orient fans behind it, with the pig's bladder at his feet and acres of unguarded turf around him, rolled it into the empty onion bag. By the time it crossed the line we'd been celebrating the certainty of going 3-1 up for a good 10 seconds. This being Rovers 2005 vintage, there was of course time for us to concede another daft goal to meet the statutory quota and cue five minutes of frantic, tragi-comic tension, but when it came, it was, for once, job done. And we saw the net billow three times.

Equally compelling is the best album I've heard this year. You'll recall, way back when, pop and politics' difficult 163rd phase: the whole Britcore madness which Peel mentored through the various late 80s sessions at Maida Vale: bands like Doom, cutting straight to the chase by adopting punk's bleak, questioning bluster and delivering battering ram tunes like "Bury The Dead, Not The Debt" (favourite lyric: "Barclays / Midlands / Lloyds / Nat West - fuck off!") and "Life In Freedom, Governed By Equality" ("OPPOSE Clause 28!") It took a while, but you can probably trace a line right from Doom and the Heresy / Extreme Noise Terror / Napalm Death axis of polemical post-skateboard grindcore, right through to the visceral Scalplock, whose "Spreading The Germs" retrospective provides one of the most explicit (and, I promise you, rewarding) recent marriages of straight political content and unrelenting thrash brutality.

This gets me to Flyblown, the post-Scalplock trio formed by Pete Giles (while we're doing the Rock Family Trees thing, he was of course a founder member of Unseen Terror, who are now quite rightly legendary for their fuzzy, hardcore-meets death sound, as well as their obsession with Garfield the cat). Flyblown's "Genocide-Genocide" album, which by pure fluke I managed to track down in Berwick Street having assumed I would never find a copy, is the hungriest, most sincere political record I've heard for ages, resolutely off the pace of the mainstream. As such, I must commend it to you utterly. For, after an introductory mosh to warm us up, "The Doves Do Not Fly Here Anymore" takes a vice-like grip, with breakneck drumming and frantic shrieking, before "State Murder, State Oppression" has a more convential Discharge-style title as well as what I, at least, am prepared to term a singalong chorus. Already, the blows seem to be raining down, and as the songs largely jump headlong into one another (there are, in all, 21 in a little under nineteen minutes), the effect is multiplied: "Strength To Conquer All" bristles, adopting the same chaotic pace before calming slightly for another few seconds' moshing reprieve. And still they come (the tunes), thick and fast: the blur of righteous indignation that is Side One showcasing further peaks like "Independent State of Seminal Change": even in this market, rarely has so much been done with 17 seconds; "Never Forget To Fight", another highlight with a near-singalong "Liberty! Equality!" refrain; the Doom-like torrent of "Societal Prison" (Doom are a much under-rated band, but at least one who get props from Flyblown) and "Liberty and Deceit", where the cascading chords again echo the likes of Discharge, but the tunes - well, the riffs, whatever - aren't even hidden. That's not even to mention "Servitude", in which Pete's banshee yell "THIS IS OUR PAIN! AND OUR DISPLEASURE!" (ha, that's the link with Bristol Rovers) banishes all cobwebs within a mile radius of your turntable.

After the de facto "interval" of comparative solitude and calm constituted by the need to turn the record over and cue it up again, Side Two hardly disappoints: it's as if you'd never been away, from "At The End Of A Gun", which takes a distorted American anthem and barbed spoken intro and speeds them into more controlled mayhem, right through to the fearsome rancour of "No Time", bass, drums and guitar swelling and crashing against each other. In between, plenty more highlights - "Blind Leading The Blind" has an over-literal title, being a diatribe against our former Home Secretary, although that shouldn't obscure its fine guitar, coruscating production (the production throughout the record is edgy, raw and fearless) or the fact that it is lyrically as relevant as ever given the latest thinking of the Home Office's greatest minds on immigration and anti-terrorism issues. It's over in a minute, with a parting shout of "BLUNKETT!" and in its place come the two parts of "Social Pollution" - the first throws more kerosene over the fire already raging across your speakers, but the second slows things down dramatically, with moodier music, plaintive (if still direct) lyrics, the guitars treading an almost industrial mid-pace. "Torn From The Land" is even better as it does fast and slow within a single vehicle - after helter-skelter riffs, things subside after half a minute to allow more slower-paced sentiments over feedback-hued beauty: again, the lyrical theme focuses on the displaced who flee persecution to find a wilful barrage of misunderstanding from countries like ours. What else ? "Crossed Out" sets about trendy wretches and their designer label fads and fetishes; "Smell the Apathy" is another, grinding, classic - more singalong-a-Flyblown and perhaps my favourite riff of the whole album; and "Rotten To The Core" leapt out at me some months ago when they previewed it on one of those Terrorizer magazine free CDs... Anyway, along with the Scalplock LP and the Venomous Concept one from last year, "Genocide-Genocide" is as good as it gets.

listening to:

Dr Alimantando "Careless Ethiopians Repent". Textbook.
Burning Spear "Civilised Reggae". Handsome.
Unseen Terror "Uninformed" Headnoddingly svelte, from their "Human Error" set - like Heresy, except, as I said, with kind of detuned, almost death-y guitars.
McCarthy "Keep An Open Mind Or Else": The session recording from "That's All Very Well But...", more shimmery, almost Bodines-y, but you still get the hamsterish vocal for which the single version is justly infamous.
Cockney Rejects "The Rocker". Wow. Once they were the Kaiser Chiefs of their day, then they practically invented Raging Speedhorn. This is the moment, caught in crystal, when their lurch from punk to metal began.
The Visitors "Goldmining": Even better than the Sportique version :-)
Tindersticks "City Sickness". Thinking back to why this hooked me the first time: it sounds like Mike Flowers would if he covered the Pastels. Which he should. I'm only sick of the City mind, not the city (lower case 'c'). Never the city.