Graded on a Curve:
The Fall,
458489 A-Sides

Rock crit Robert Christgau once went on record declaring The Fall’s 1990 best-of compilation 458489 A-Sides the “only Fall record any normal person need own.” And depending on one’s definition of normal, he may be right. Certainly this would be the one I’d recommend to shut-ins, ligyrophobics, and that massive proportion of the listening public who prefer their music to be soothing as opposed to sounding like a particularly excitable day at the laughing academy.

But if by definition of normal you mean a person who has a jaundiced view of life and prefers his or her music to be at least mildly challenging—if not downright annoying with its insistence upon being heard as foreground noise rather than background buzz and hum—there are plenty of Fall records that are must-owns. These include 1981’s incomparable “Slates” EP, 1982’s seminal Hex Enduction Hour, 1984’s The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, and 2005’s Fall Heads Roll. And that’s barely scratching the surface of the Fall’s formidable discography.

The Fall recipe of songwriting is simple. First, hand village crank Mark E. Smith a microphone. The long-suffering curmudgeon is the band’s only permanent member, and his definition of said band is memorable. “If it’s me and your grandma on the bongos,” he has said, “it’s the Fall.” But where were we? Oh, yes. First, hand a microphone to the irritable Mr. Smith, who is both a true individualist and misanthropist. And second, let him spew great gouts of indecipherable poetry and hurl strange incantations over one form of droning caterwaul or another. This homemade recipe has been working since the late 1970s, and continues to work to this very day. Because Mark E. Smith is holding a grudge, and that grudge is against society. Or life. Or whatever. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Smith is dedicated to rattling life’s cage in as irritable and noisy a manner as possible.

That said, during the era of Brix Smith—Mark E.’s then spouse—the Fall came precariously close, at least by uncompromising Fall standards, to sounding like a commercially viable proposition. And it’s this period that 458489 A-Sides documents. The better part of these songs don’t sound like they were recorded in a Jiffy John, and many of them are positively perky, and not in the twitchy amphetamine-fueled way of such songs as “Totally Wired,” “Rowche Rumble,” and “Kicker Conspiracy.” Nor do any of them drag themselves through the sludge and slime like “Repetition,” which is as close as you’ll come to a Fall theme song and to which (or so I suspect) John Lydon owes his entire post-Sex Pistols career.

On such songs as “Oh! Brother,” “C.R.E.E.P.,” “Hey! Luciani,” and the cover of the Kinks’ “Victoria” the Fall sound both chipper and well produced. You don’t even feel grimier for having listened to them. “Couldn’t Get Ahead” also boasts what could almost be called pop appeal, as could “Rollin’ Dany,” a rockabilly lark that demonstrates Smith actually understands that there are other types of music out there unlike his own. And Smith also demonstrates a crisper sound on the punchy “Hit the North Part 1.” And while Fall’s cover of The Other Half’s immortal “Mr. Pharmacist” verves towards garage rock, it’s still likeably straightforward.

Which is not to say that the songs on 458489 A-Sides make for easy listening. “Wrong Place, Right Time No. 2” is wonderfully annoying in its pounding repetitive way, and the same goes for “Jerusalem” and the lumbering “No Bulbs 3,” on which Smith grouses about the lack of light in his flat. I would also like to single out the great “L.A.” for its monstrous drone and magnificent bass line, to say nothing of Brix’s repetition of the wonderful lines, “This is my happening! And it freaks me out.” Also on the side of repetition for repetition’s sake: the one-bass-note stunner “Big New Prinz” and the telltale bass throb that is “Living Too Late.”

So forget what Christgau said. The Amazing Mr. Smith has given us so much over the years, and if you really want to try to even begin to wrap your mind around The Fall by means of a single purchase, go with 2004’s 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong (39 Golden Greats). Or 2002’s Totally Wired—The Rough Trade Anthology. Because the truth about Smith is that it doesn’t really matter whether he’s going lo-fi or more hi-fi, as he flirted with doing during the Brix Smith era. There’s just no way to damp down the life-long cranky old man’s singular insistence upon rattling the bars of this cage called Life.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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