Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Fall's "Live: UUROP VIII-XII Places in Sun & Winter, Son": Music Review

After thirty studio records, these tally only about a third of the total releases from Mark E. Smith and whomever he has hired and fired since 1976, when he founded this ornery, restless art-punk/ post-punk outfit. The rest of The Fall’s discography consists of compilations and live albums, many of dodgy quality, many issued without Smith’s consent. So, this new live album, credited for its curatorship to Smith himself, implies a firm direction taken by Smith. 

Furthermore, this twelfth live album documents the longest stint by a Fall line-up ever. Drawn mainly from the past four studio albums by the band--Imperial Wax Solvent, Your Future Our Clutter, Ersatz GB, Re-Mit--Live: UUROP VIII-XII Places in Sun & Winter, Son lacks the scrawled album liner notes or art (except under the CD itself in the tray) of many Fall records. Perhaps the rip-offs or homages by Pavement and recently Parquet Courts have led Smith to streamline his albums visually and musically.

Without any guidance, the listener has only the title to suggest European origins and seasonal variation for when these twelve live tracks appeared. The stark typography and cover art strip down the graphic presentation. So do many of the songs, as the latest iteration of the band favors a gritty, arid approach.

Starting with a chiming “Wings (With Bells),” this venerable, allusive 1982 track from Perverted by Language repeats the dense, historical erudition of the original, enriched by, of course, bells. Smith sounds happy to be on stage, too, even if many of these tracks cut off any connection with the audience. Its prevalent ambiance reveals a boxier, muddier feel to the sound than the shinier studio versions for the inclusion. The album sounds better, arguably, than many live Fall records, but fans have come to expect that the band tends to issue even “official” live releases with lo-fi or compromised audio fidelity.

After all, The Fall remain iconoclasts. “Auto 2014 Chip Replace” feels jaunty and experimental, integrating as its title suggests bleeps and jolts, with squeals as backing vocals from Smith’s wife, Elena Poulou on keyboards. As on studio versions from this line-up, her contributions mix in blips and squawks, but the toy-like nature of her instrument somehow melds well with her lurching bandmates. 

So does another song that staggers about, the demented “Amorator” with its marital intimacy and squabbling, enhanced by Poulou’s Greek-accented backing vocals as good-natured barbs or taunts. Many Fall albums lately (as in the past twenty-five years?) falter a few songs in.  As delighted as Smith boasts at the beginning of “Jetplane”, the song hits turbulence rather than cloudless sky. However suitably shambolic the title of “Irish” may be, this reviewer of such lineage dutifully notes it falters, too.

Three songs here average seven minutes.  “Jetplane” is 3:45 but feels seven. Peter Greenway’s clattering guitar fights against the murk of the sprawling “Cowboy George” and sometimes succeeds. The Fall conjure up the spirit of the Velvet Underground, when Nico and John Cale contended with Lou Reed. Similar competitive tension, fueling a more eclectic song structure and sonic blend, may wear out a listener resigned to a bleary soundboard tape to discern whatever lyrical wit or scorn Smith mumbles. Or, it may reward a patient fan, for those who follow The Fall know, decades in on the long march, what to expect from Smith and his crew, who sign on for a treacherous voyage under a stern, sly taskmaster.

Desiccated, “Chino” warps a Western tune, showing Smith’s incorporation of country and rockabilly influences into the electronic scene energizing so much of European music during The Fall’s parallel career. It can make for a tiresome companion, but after a long, bleak sonic trek, a mirage appears. “Sir William Wray” as a bow to guitar hero Link Wray crackles with welcome life. It brings static; it revives. 

The pairing of “Fifty Year Old Man” and “Wolf Kidult Man” play off Smith’s middle-aged (he turned half a century old in 2007) rants, delivered in trademark groans and moans. They again sustain what his audience by now expects, as if a Beckett protagonist before the limelight, full of learned asides and staccato bursts of grumbling. The quality of these recordings, as before, may test any listener less loyal.

The one song from the period immediately prior to the formation of this line-up, “Reformation,” rallies the pace. Co-written with bassist Rob Barbato of Darker My Love (and along with bandmate Tim Presley, a pick-up member for The Fall for one CD), this track stands out. It blends in the krautrock and assaultive psychedelic tendencies of Darker My Love, locked into Smith and The Fall’s repetitive groove. At last, Keiron Melling’s drums and David Spurr’s bass push along Greenway’s guitar, and all works well.

Closing with “What About Us,” the call-and-response of Smith and Poulou on the original version gets muffled here, but it’s fun to hear her spit and yelp above the shadowed live version. Fun may not be the first word associated with The Fall, but those who have accumulated, as I have, the many recordings and reiterations of this unpredictable band under its unwaveringly resolute leader will find this an appropriate testament to the band’s most durable lineup yet. But that may all change tomorrow. (As above to Spectrum Culture, 10-27-14; in shorter altered form Amazon US 11-12-14)

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