Mark Stewart "The Politics Of Envy" (Future Noise): DJ Premier and Bumpy Knuckles "Kollexxxion" (Gracie Productions / Works Of Mart): Hood "Recollected" (Domino)
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more formidable cast list of post-punk collaborators than features on "The Politics Of Envy": alongside former Pop Group frontman Stewart there are contributions from members or ex-members of Killing Joke, PiL, Television, the Slits, the Raincoats, Crass, Cabaret Voltaire, the Mary Chain, Massive Attack, Dreadzone and the Primals, as well as the venerable Lee 'Scratch' Perry. But there is such a thing as a guest spot too far: let us be very clear that there can be *no* compelling reason for roping in an octogenarian Kenneth Anger to play theremin, apart perhaps from making Comet Gain very jealous indeed.
Despite what some might claim (hello again, broadsheets), "The Politics Of Envy" is not particularly difficult listening. Indeed, compared to "Y" or "Veneer Of Democracy" (which, pleasingly, we are not alone in thinking one of the heaviest albums ever made), it's bright and accessible, a walk in the park, a sashay down Brandon Hill, a picnic soundtracked by Mantovani. But even if this LP is hardly an all-out audio assault (a shame: we could have done with a bit more noise, shouting, and sheer walls of thudding dub, but I guess we always have the old records to take us to those places), it strikes the balance between agit-prop and listenability pretty capably overall, and if we're v. optimistic it might even introduce a few Ottolenghi / Breakfast Club chatterati coffee-tablists, should they feel suitably adventurous, to sounds their CD players haven't encountered before. What's interesting, too, is that the most successful songs here, generally, are those tending towards the mellower, more introspective end of the spectrum.
Stewart does over-egg the pudding in a few places: "Apocalypse Hotel" is over-burdened by its histrionic choruses, the single "Autonomia" lacks sufficient zip, "Want" is better served by its subtler bonus disc re-working, and "Baby Bourgeois" feels overblown, a mis-step. But otherwise, "The Politics" conjures up an intriguing and oft-satisfying blend of styles, overlaid with Stewart's ever-seething laments on behalf of the displaced and dispossessed. "Vanity Kills" bubbles with thrilling chorus salvoes; "Gustav Says" updates the last LP's "Rise Again" with radio-friendly glitz; the under-rated "Codex" and the Perry collaboration "Gang War" nicely foment zig-zagging percussion and effects, the latter cheekily basing itself on a rather different gang war soundtrack, "Summer Nights" (though never forget that the definitive version of that was by 14 Iced Bears). And the last two songs on the album are absolute peaches. First, "Letter To Hermione" does extraordinary things to a late '60s Bowie album track, rendering it more in the vein of the Fall's similarly glacial / beautiful "Weather Report 2" (wouldn't it be great if Mark Stewart and Mark E. Smith - one of the few post-punk icons not featured here - made a record together ? MS v MES would be the biggest meeting of Bristol and Manchester since January 7th,1956). Then, Keith Levene's warm guitar lines and Gina Birch's perfectly dovetailing additional vocal unwrap the closing "Stereotype" to reveal a hidden pop gem.
Next up, after the "StOoDiOtYmE" EP comes the full work-out from Bumpy Knuckles aka Freddie Foxxx and his drinking buddy Premo. (And pleasingly, in true Sarah style, there is no overlap of tracks between the two). Like Marley Marl and Craig G's LP some years ago, "Kollexxxion" is a throwback, but a rewarding one. Bumpy proves an engaging and loquacious host, most tracks featuring a prelude in which he introduces the song with a little chat, but it's when those Premier beats kick in that the listener gets to kick back, relax and enjoy. And while Bumpy's flow is, well, uneven, and his similes are clumsy (if often witty), the husky timbre of his voice - a contrast to Craig G's down to earth, rapper-next-door delivery - suits proceedings well whether he's ranting about illegal downloaders, reminiscing about his time on tour with Gang Starr, or just throwing out rhymes on a general ego t(r)ip.
And there are a handful of tracks that shine like the Chrysler building in the Manhattan summer: musically "The Key" could be "Step In The Arena"-era GS, Bumpy rhyming for three minutes with panache and without pause while Premo throws in a series of perfectly-timed scratched samples. "Turn Up The Mic", anchored by a deceptively simple hook and the same soul-blushed feel as Honda and Mos Def's "Magnetic Arts", sees none other than Nas turn up to lay down a strikingly deft first verse, Bumpy then delivering the second with more than enough bravado to make the whole thing seem a classic soundtrack to spring 2012. "P.A.I.N.E." might be easy to dismiss as brainless hard-man schtick, were it not so well-executed. And "Shake The Room", one of the pre-dripped download singles, is - despite, rather than because of, a typically pointless guest appearance from Flavor Flav - a bold and blissful club tune, its serrating bass set against a sample that sprinkles microphone feedback into the loop. Even if the formula gets spread a little thinly over some 17 tracks, it's cheering to know that records like this are still getting made.
From "Kollexxxion" to "Recollection", the luxurious (if correspondingly expensive) retrospective from, yes, Hood. We've been accused many a time of banging on about Hood far too much - in 2005 we observed that "if Hood ever, ever WANTED to prove themselves the greatest band in the world, nobody would be be able to stop them" - but the reality, looking back, is that *we probably didn't go on about them quite enough*. Indeed, skimming in earnest for posts of ours on their final album "Outside Closer", a typically subtle but stunning record which we really think may be the best album of the 21st century so far, it appears we never even got round to reviewing it. In retrospect we may have been dazzled by the sheer quality of "The Negatives..." single which preceded it and which did rather jump out at you (and worth noting, as we've just mentioned him, as the song which provides a link between Nas and Hood), whereas the other pieces on the album were perhaps less immediately spectacular. We would like, one day, to write an essay about "Outside Closer" that does it justice.
Similarly, while on occasion we've dipped into the greatness of later Hood-related bands (the Declining Winter's "Haunt The Upper Hallways" gets *justified* praise here), we've too often neglected the brilliance of post-Hood. For example, Bracken's "Heathens" single and the "We Know About The Need" album from whence it came - "these songs sound almost designed as soundtracks, but to so many things: to slow-motion filming of flowers in bloom, to telegraph poles and pylons from a train window, to the unprepossessing brown-brick blocks and houses that frame our walk home on bright but humid evenings..." - have, like "Outside Closer", only got better and better to these ears as the years have skipped by. As for the latest 'new Hood side-project' revelation, On Fell, their two recent untitled 7"s on Moteer were without any doubt the finest singles released by anyone last year.
Anyway, "Recollected" consists of six CDs culled from Hood's time on Domino, comprising their four studio albums over that period plus a 'singles' collection and the obligatory "rare and unreleased" disc, all as sumptuously presented as you might expect. As we have bored you about Hood before, we don't propose to do so (at length) again, although our collated reviews of their glorious yesterdays are still hanging around on our dub pages here, here and here, if you're so minded.
For now, we just want to take this opportunity to remember a musical love affair, celebrate a band we still hold dear, and tell you that "Recollected" captures a much-missed and misunderstood ensemble, whose creative peak lasted longer than most bands' lifetime.