The Fall – Hex Enduction Hour

Hex Enduction Hour

The FallHex Enduction Hour Kamera KAM 005 (1982)

If there is one Fall album that rises above a number of other really great ones, it is Hex Enduction Hour.  This came somewhat at the tail end of the early period, when they were still abrasive as hell.  The sound draws heavily from Jamaican deejay music, like Big Youth‘s Natty Cultural Dread, of all things.  There is a relentless throbbing bass line, and steady drums.  Mark E. Smith doesn’t exactly sing on top.  It’s more of a sustained, shouting rant.  Structurally, this is a lot like what the Jamaican deejays did with dub tracks.  But the similarities are mostly structural.  Craig Scanlon‘s guitar is something else entirely.  It breaks in with a cutting, shattering, noisy sound.  The rather primitive synthesizers do the same.  The band mostly just jabs at the keyboard with blocks of dissonant sounds.  Everything vamps over and again, with little melody.  This draws some further influence from krautrock bands like CAN.

“The Classical” opens the album on a high note.  It is one of The Fall’s most memorable songs. It is a rant that just gets angrier and crazier.  The instrument that gets the most space to roam is the drum kit — something that seems to anticipate the “math rock” genre.  But the nearly eight minute “Hip Priest” matches the opener, with a slow bass line and faint tapping from the drums, M.E.S. drawls on and on sarcastically about a vaguely angry unappreciated loner (with allusions to rock critics).  It is one of the most well-known Fall songs thanks to its use later on in a popular thriller/horror movie.  “Fortress/Deer Park” settles into a great groove.  There are two pulsing chords played on the keyboard that just see-saw back and forth.  Even though they are just two chords, there is a forward movement implied in the rhythm simply by holding each chord for different lengths of time.  The groove keeps rolling on the two parts of “Winter.”  Songs like “Just Step S’ways” and “Jawbone and the Air-Rifle” are catchy too.  Some of the only clear melodic statements on the entire album are found in the single-note keyboarding bridging the two parts of “Winter” and the repeating guitar line of “Just Step S’ways.”

This is music that is intelligent without ever adopting the voice of the powerful.  In other words, this is music that comes from the proletariat, freed from the sorts of things (education, religion, etc.) that bind people to the hierarchies of power.  It comes from the bottom.  Just like the band’s debut album Live at the Witch Trials, the title Hex Enduction Hour implies a kind of revolt coming from outcasts and the persecuted minority.  That point is driven home on the songs “Mere Pseud Mag. Ed.” and “Hip Priest” that rail against music journalists that hold sway over a working rock band.  This is kind of an anarchic impulse.  That Fall pull it off better than most of the bands of the day that were more explicitly “anarcho-punk” in political orientation.  The rhythmic consensus on a Fall record makes the music more organized than the freewheeling mess that so many anarcho-punk recordings seem to devolve into.

What made The Fall so great, and this album in particular, is that it takes what seems like a rather simple formula and proves it to be much more flexible, nuanced and enduring than anyone would have guessed.  It is a testament to concept having a greater role than complexity of execution.  They find ways to adopt catchy riffs and beats though the most rudimentary means, while contrasting those elements with a tremendous effort put towards the sorts of things that many other rock groups would have excised.  There is room here for stranger, less controlled expression.  In many ways the crushing rhythms and occasional melodies set up the wacky bursts and plunks of keyboard noise and the scratchy, distorted guitar chords.  Sometimes it fails.  “Who Makes the Nazis?” has an interesting lyrical premise, extending the concept of “the banality of evil,” but the song falters due to a most tedious bass line that repeats across the entire song.  But mostly, it succeeds.

In a lot of ways, The Fall represented a lot of the best of what the punk movement put forward.  This is inclusive music, drawing from all over the place.  Yet it also put forward its own standards and eschewed what was considered proper.  There was no “professionalism” here.  But there is cleverness, and there is heart.  This music rallies its supporters.  It finds the people who were meant to hear it.  Hex Enduction Hour belongs on the short list of 1980s rock achievements.

The Fall – Bend Sinister

Bend Sinister

The FallBend Sinister Beggars Banquet BEGA75 (1986)

Somewhat lesser than its predecessor This Nat-ion’s Saving Grace, due to a lack of consistency, Band Sinister finds a bit more of the vamp-driven music of the pre-Brix period reasserting itself.  The poppier style of recent years is still intact though. “Mr. Pharmacists” is a great straight rock tune with a hint of rockabilly.  “Shoulder Pads #2” has a killer beat.  This isn’t a Fall album I reach for often, but there are a few great individual tunes here.

The Fall – draGnet


The FalldraGnet Step Forward SFLP 4 (1979)

The Fall (named after the Albert Camus book) capture the fundamental beauties of pop tunes with an abrasive attack diametrically opposed to pop’s very essence. The group was active for decades (and still is!) with countless great albums. Fans haggle over their favorite Fall album, but draGnet is indispensable for even casual fans.

Catchy songs crop up everywhere. “Your Heart Out” has an infectious guitar hook. “Flat of Angles” has a familiar riff — like in Chuck Berry’s “Come On.” Certainly, there are reference points; but where pure pop music leaves off The Fall get started. Undiluted expression reigns. The exorcism tune “Spectre vs. Rector” is an often-hailed Fall moment. Craig Scanlon (a future veteran debuting with the band) plays guitar with major echo, out of that rockabilly sensibility of his. The noise focuses the lyrical aggression. The guitar parts often mirror the rhythmic phrasing of Captain Beefheart. Yet, the Fall never succumb to gratuitous or duplicative bullshit. They are too smart to rely on mere devices — they evolve them.

Mark E. Smith heads for the edge of what a rock vocalist can do while singing but one note. At his most blunt, “Dice Man” shows Smith boasting a bit about his position on music’s front lines. Rather than exploring that edge, he dives straight off it. Something new must be better. His trademark squeaky shouts and soaring dynamics are in full-force. The lyrics on the album cover the full spectrum.  Though he doesn’t speak from academia, Smith always challenges ignorance. He may bash show business, but he still wants people to hear him (royalties or not).

Murky lo-fi production combined with Smith’s aggressive lyrics make draGnet the most abrasive album in the group’s catalog (it sounds like they recorded in a warehouse with just one mic in a metal bucket 5 feet from the drum kit). At times, it is also the simplest. A heavy helping of paranoia (“A Figure Walks”) pushes everything forward. It takes time to decipher the convoluted rants but The Fall are worth the effort. Did Smith derive the title “When the Moon Falls” from a Peanuts comic as the album jacket suggests? draGnet sets out the basic impetus behind the Fall. It demystifies their madness a bit, but what they reveal is more brilliant than you might expect.

This isn’t the kind of album just anyone will like (or tolerate). It is a harrowing journey to the extreme. Not every moment is perfect, but The Fall, as always, were at their best in uncharted territory.

The Fall – This Nat-ion’s Saving Grace

This Nat-ion's Saving Grace

The FallThis Nat-ion’s Saving Grace Beggar’s Banquet BEGA 67 (1985)

Hex Enduction Hour may always be The Fall’s crowning achievement, but This Nation’s Saving Grace is certainly another great piece of work. Irreverent and intellectual, The Fall symbolize the golden age of underground rock ‘n’ roll in the 1980s. For better or worse, many alternative rock bands duplicated this sound time and again over the next decade.

Mark E. Smith was the bearer of sophrosyne in the vanguard of rock. He deployed it with his knack for mockery. This Nation’s Saving Grace has a racket of guitars with some lyrical twang, but also a strong sense of timing and texture. The Fall clearly had arrived at a different sound than their early period. M.E.S.’s then-wife Brix has her pop melodies keeping the album accessible by The Fall’s standards at least.

The very idea of The Fall selling out is laughable. This is no generic pop record. This Nation’s Saving Grace is syncopated social discord–no respect for tradition here. It still manages to be catchy. “Spoilt Victorian Child” is enough to convert the heathens as it discredits their ways. The long-term dangers of hiding behind wealth seem easily avoidable. “Gut of the Quantifier” also takes aim at class economics with M.E.S.’s nonacademic wit.

The CAN-influenced numbers like “Paintwork,” “My New House,” the nearly instrumental “L.A.” and of course “I Am Damo Suzuki” show the profound aspects of change during the Brix period.   This band sounded completely different from the one that recorded Hex Enduction Hour. M.E.S. wasn’t guiding the band’s every motion anymore.

Much was rumbling here. The intense new rhythms hardly relied on the drums at all. The bass throbs and the guitars slash across all sides of the beat to establish unique (generally) non-African-based polyrhythms. The Fall as a whole band, apart from just M.E.S., never sounded as good. The cassette release had four songs in addition to those on the LP version, and the CD re-release added two more.   One of the best songs, “Cruiser’s Creek,” showed up only on CD.

“Paintwork” is the point of departure for bohemian indie rock in the Eighties. M.E.S. drifts past the warm personal eccentricities of The Beach Boys‘ “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” and “Whistle In” as the recording is interrupted (CAN-style) with overdubs of random environmental noise. He still avoids the complacency the anti-establishment sometimes falls into.

Far more consistent than its predecessor The Wonderful and Frightening World of. . . , This Nation’s Saving Grace has The Fall challenging their routine. So if you haven’t heard The Fall yet you might start here, now.

D’Angelo and The Vanguard – Black Messiah

Black Messiah

D’Angelo and The VanguardBlack Messiah RCA 88875-05655-2 (2014)

D’Angelo’s long-awaited follow-up to Voodoo, one of the finest albums to be found anywhere in the period around the turn of the century, turns out to be well worth the wait.  His direct yet obscure falsetto voice is still intact.  Black Messiah is both a highly original work that advances a new soul milieu

There is a strong classic Prince vibe on a lot of the album (“Back to the Future (Part I),” “1000 Deaths,” “The Charade,” “Ain’t That Easy”) — a light, funky, guitar-driven sound that is smooth and unsettling at the same time with precocious vocals that mask real determination.  Prince wasn’t involved, but he was rumored to have been working with D’Angelo years earlier on recording sessions that either never materialized or indirectly morphed into Black Messiah over an extended period of time.  The sheer density and layered structure of the recordings, the product of a lot of tinkering, also recalls Sly & The Family Stone‘s There’s a Riot Goin’ On.  But aside from similarities and influences, D’Angelo’s music still has a voice of its own.  There is a lot of room for slower stuff.  There is time for reflection.  The atmosphere the sounds fit best is a comfortable, dimly lit room filled with friends and acquaintances, telling stories and having conversations that stretch out into the night about whatever topics strike them, sometimes with determined passion, sometimes with relaxed good humor, holding witness together and getting lost outside time.

The opener “Ain’t That Easy” has a guitar playing accented upbeats, like Jamaican ska, and a diffuse fabric of sound from which melody seems to emerge as a lingering byproduct.  The song, like many on Black Messiah, seems to deny a star turn to D’Angelo or any other performer.  There aren’t solos.  There isn’t any focal point.  In the liner notes, D’Angelo explains his motivation for naming the album Black Messiah, and his explanation is surprising.  It fits the structure of “Ain’t That Easy.”  He says,

“It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen.  It’s not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them. *** Black Messiah is not one man.  It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”

These sentiments showed up again during D’Angelo’s appearance as a musical guest on a popular late night comedy TV following the release of the album.  Members of his band wore “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts, while D’Angelo appeared wearing a “hoodie” sweatshirt (and playing a rhinestone-encrusted guitar).  He may have played some of the least compelling individual songs from Black Messiah but he made the politics explicit — more explicit than on the album.

On “Prayer,” there is an anthemic guitar riff.  It is one of the catchiest hooks on the entire album.  But D’Angelo doesn’t just give the listener that riff.  It is paired with an ominous glockenspiel that echos and reverberates across the guitar riff, less pronounced than the guitar, but relentlessly present.  It is a counterweight to whatever sense of forward propulsion that guitar riff suggests, the same way Newtonian physics says that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  The glockenspiel has a church-y tone, a reference to religion just as the title is “Prayer.”  This is the sort of thing that separates this music from so much others.  It is not wholly unique (take for instance “Herod 2014” from Scott Walker + Sunn O)))‘s Soused).  Still, it’s a daring move.  Unlike the hit “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” from his last album Voodoo, with its consonant movement along a common melody, there is always so much happening simultaneously on the songs of Black Messiah that the very idea of a listener being able to devote attention to a singular aspect of the music is rendered problematic.

Black Messiah is mature sounding soul music.  Many soul “love” songs are so crass as to make one wince.  D’Angelo is ready to talk politics, religion, and yes, love, taking a chance to broach subjects that risk being impolite.  This may not quite be a match for Voodoo, but little is, and this one is still well worth plenty of listens.

David Bowie – Hunky Dory

Hunky Dory

David BowieHunky Dory RCA Victor SF 8244 (1971)

Hunky Dory is the album where Bowie started to really show some promise.  There are a lot of classic songs: “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Life on Mars?,” “Queen Bitch.”  With “Eight Line Poem” (and even “The Bewlay Brothers”) he manages to channel The Velvet Underground‘s Loaded, but pushes the Velvets’ underground rock toward something a little more pop friendly.  However, Bowie keeps one foot firmly planted in routine British folk-rock for much of the middle part of the album and it becomes tiresome quickly.  Ziggy Stardust twisted the folk sensibilities a bit more, by adding rock opera to the mix.  In a more straightforward folk-rock setting he is underwhelming.  This is a very decent album, but don’t believe the claims it is Bowie’s best.

Isaac William Martin – Rich People’s Movements

Rich People's Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent

Isaac William MartinRich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (Oxford University Press 2013)

A sociological history of the co-option of progressive protest tactics (originally developed to advance the interests of the poor) in support of tax policies that favor the rich.  The title references the classic by Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1977).  The premise sounds almost ridiculous, but Isaac Martin makes an interesting case.  His account seems fairly balanced, and for the most part seems reliably complete.  If there is a weak spot, it falls on the more recent efforts.  Martin doesn’t seem to provide enough context for why politicians suddenly capitulated to the same sorts of demands that had been made for decades, and he doesn’t necessarily treat all political parties equally.  It is a small quibble in an otherwise interesting and well-researched book.  This is a more thoroughly-researched and neutral academic treatment of a topic that has been addressed in other books like Thomas Frank‘s Pity the Billionaire (2012) and Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio‘s Crashing the Tea Party (2011).

Beck – Mellow Gold

Mellow Gold

BeckMellow Gold DGC DGCD-24634 (1994)

I can see why people love this, and love Beck.  But I don’t love this album.  From my first listen I found it mediocre, and 20 years on it doesn’t particularly impress me.  There are two good songs: “Loser” and “Beercan”.  In fact, “Loser” is great.  The rest?  Well, you can certainly look at this as an achievement in eclecticism.  Immediately following the rock/hip-hop hybrid that is the opener “Loser,” Beck turns to a sort of rudimentary Bob Dylan parody in “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)”.  Elsewhere, he’s channeling The Beastie Boys.  And he hits other points in between.  The eclecticism is sort of amusing.  But Beck isn’t a very strong lyricist at this stage.  But that isn’t why this album was popular.  Aside from the hit “Loser,” this manages to make good use of the studio to make weak songs sound a hell of a lot more interesting than they should.  But also this album was something of a signifier of a larger trend when the “big boys” at major labels were willing to acknowledge and promote music that was a lot more juvenile than what they normally promoted.  Make no mistake, Beck was quite juvenile in ’94.  This was the same era that produced movies like Clerks (1994), catering to kinda immature teenagers who didn’t usually see a whole lot of widely available (read: non-underground) entertainment directed toward them.  Beck was able to ride that wave, and he is sort of a poster child for that phenomenon of the “alternative rock” era, the dopier, funnier counterpart to the serious “artiste” figures like Kurt Cobain of Nirvana.

Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire – Thrills


Andrew Bird’s Bowl of FireThrills Rykodisk RCD 10397 (1998)

This album is disgraceful.  It’s a totally disingenuous attempt to mimic old music simply for it’s “otherness”.  At the same time, it has a certain energy, and songs like “Some of These Days” are just great compositions to begin with.  So, this isn’t totally unlistenable.  But why bother when the genuine article is available out there?