Graded on a Curve:
The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click)

The Fall’s Mark E. Smith is not a nice guy. Stories of his violent outbursts, willy-nilly firings of faithful band mates, and raging bouts of paranoia are well documented. Ian McCulloch of Echo and Bunnymen described Smith as “The most well-balanced person in the world—he’s got a chip on both shoulders.” And Smith himself once described what being a touring member of the Fall entailed: “On my tour bus you have to sit and listen to what I play. You’re not allowed to speak… if you argue, you get kicked off the bus.” Let’s face it, the man is a despot, which helps to explain why almost as many musicians have quit the Fall as have been thrown under the tour bus by Smith.

But if Smith is capable of being a spiteful prick he’s also a genius of sorts, and he knows it. Since 1976 the Fall have produced a staggering amount of music, all of it primal and totally idiosyncratic and much of it stone cold brilliant. The late English DJ John Peel paid Smith and his ever-changing line-up of serfs and underlings the ultimate compliment when he said, “The Fall have given me more pleasure, over a longer period of time, than any other band.” Over the past four decades the Fall have had their ups and downs, but every time the critics write Smith off as a wasted tosser or a sad parody of his younger self, he pulls a brilliant new record out of his ass. You dismiss the unprepossessing Smith—with his wizened face, false teeth, and rounded shoulders—at your own peril. The self-proclaimed Hip Priest may look like Everyman—his anti-fashion sense is legendary—but he’s anything but.

Take 2003’s The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click). The albums preceding it had been fair to middling at best, and the critics were once again wondering whether the very hard-living Smith had finally lost the plot or was merely coasting—and ripping off the Fall’s fanatical audience with subpar product in the process. But Smith once again rebounded victoriously with an album that is simultaneously primitive and avant-garde, brutal and sublime—in short, as ugly and beautiful an LP as any the Fall have ever produced.

Just listen to the throbbing bass—brought to us by the excellent Jim Watts—that propels the steamrolling “Mountain Energy,” and the way it marches in perfect lockstep with the cave man simple drumming of Dave Milner. Or to the careering football anthem “Theme From Sparta F.C.,” with its slashing guitar by Ben Pritchard, blustering bass, and Smith’s barked vocals. “Come on I will show you how I will change/When you give me something to slaughter,” sings Mark E., and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a more intimidating opening to a song. And things get even more menacing on the driving “Contraflow,” a feedback-drenched and heavy-duty number on which Smith gleefully repeats the lines, “I hate the countryside so much/I hate the country folk so much.”

The static and pulsating “Last Commands of Xyralothep Via M.E.S.” is guaranteed to send you into a trance, while “Janet, Johnny, & James” boasts a bona fide pretty melody over which Smith, the greatest anti-singer of them all, quietly croons. Okay, so the Mancunian madman doesn’t croon so much as narrate, but he puts the words on the beat like a traditional singer, which is a miracle in and of itself. “Recovery Kit” is a wonderful slice of insinuating funk, while “Open the Boxoctosis #2” is a catchy and propulsive rant that features the wonderful refrain, “Open the box!/Open the box!/Open the goddamn box!” Then there’s the rinky-dink organ-powered “The Past #2,” on which Smith growls, rants, and rolls. Meanwhile, a big distorted bass and some twisted computer noises introduce the C&W lark that is the Fall’s cover of Lee Hazelwood’s “Houston,” entitled “Loop41 Houston.” Smith has always had a wonderful knack for choosing covers; the Fall’s take on Sister Sledge’s “Lost in Music” is to die for, as is the band’s version of The Other Half’s “Mr. Pharmacist.”

Dozens of musicians have been chewed up and spit out of the Fall Machine over the years, and many of those musicians were deemed irreplaceable to the Fall sound. Why does Smith persist in axing superb musicians? Ex-fall member Martin Bramah writes Smith’s behavior off as a form of self-sabotage: “His own will stops him from being more famous than he is. Whenever people get too interested in him he goes out of his way to destroy that interest.” There’s no denying that Mark E. Smith has an uncanny facility for bringing whatever happy home he finds himself in down around his ears. But creative chaos obviously suits him, and it’s possible that in his case self-destruction is far from being a fatal character quirk—it’s a form of constant renewal, a creative process.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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  • dan_oz

    One of the highest accolades in the British pop firmament is to have been kicked out of The Fall… The implication being that at one point you were hired.

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