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.

1 comment:

Pete said...

Kieron - just discovered your blog!