Graded on a Curve:
The Jazz Butcher,
The Wasted Years

As the project of Pat Fish, The Jazz Butcher has endured through myriad changes in the UK music scene. The outfit’s early output, namely debut Bath of Bacon, A Scandal in Bohemia, Sex and Travel, and Distressed Gentlefolk, offers endearing eccentricity and when absorbed chronologically, increasingly sharp songcraft. With the new reissue The Wasted Years, ordered listening is made easy, the set gathering these four albums, originally cut in ’83-’86 for the Glass label, onto four CDs and tucking them into a slim hardcover book with notes from Fish; it’s all assembled by Fire Records, who’ve become deft hands at assembling retrospectives of ’80s post-punk material.

The Jazz Butcher has evolved quite a bit over the decades, but right from the beginning, sullen they were not. In Bath of Bacon, which dropped one of its prepositions at some point after its release in 1983, is infused with humor from the start, with “Gloop Jiving” a plunge into faux-cabaret finger-snap tomfoolery. Announcing himself as The Jazz Butcher and coming of like a highball-in-hand smoothie, guitar and sax help set the mood behind him.

It leads into an R&B revue styled theme song (think “Land of 1,000 Dances”) that’s somewhat anemic compared to its inspiration. But in large part due to guitarist Max Eider, there’s a musical sharpness that eventually shares the spotlight with said humor (due to the Brit nature of it all, that should be humour, I suppose), a circumstance further aided by Fish’s budding acumen as a songwriter; his strongest are “Playtime,” “Sex Engine Thing,” and “Zombie Love.”

Non-serious subject matter is often indicative of a lack of ambition, but not Bath of Bacon, which as it unwinds sorta connects like post-punk upstarts in an Orange Juice or Style Council mold striving to be the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band of their generation. The sheer range, from French pop imitations (“La Mer”) to pop exotica nods (“Chinatown”) to a Normal nick (“Grey Flannelette”) to an ode to young felines (“Love Kittens”) help counterbalance inconsistency as bold swipes of the Modern Lovers (in “Sex Engine Thing”) and Steppenwolf (in “Poisoned by Food”) reinforce the not-yet-pro nature of it all.

The gorgeously infectious guitar-pop of opener “Southern Mark Smith (Big Return)” makes immediately clear that A Scandal in Bohemia was a major stride forward, a scenario only accentuated by a bigger studio and a solid backing band (including Eider, Owen Jones and notably, David J, formerly of Bauhaus), though Fish’s eccentric flourishes and genre hopping continue to formulate the distinctive approach that’s brought the Butcher persevering cult status.

However, the differing styles cohere much more effectively, with the pre-Beatle ’60s pop of “Soul Happy Hour” flowing into the neo-rockabilly of “I Need Meat,” which leads into the acoustic Eider highlight “Just Like Bettie Page.” Side two holds the art-funky “Marnie (Muscovite Mix),” the blast of punkish heaviness “Caroline Wheeler’s Birthday Present,” and an additionally fine slice of guitar pop in “Girlfriend.” Overall, humor is less of a defining trait, with the exceptions being “Mind Like a Playgroup” and more so closer “My Desert.”

Fish, or as he was credited on the back cover, Butch, hadn’t scaled back his observations, they just worked better as pop-rock lyrics, especially on the macho pub asshole takedown “Real Men,” and if still not at peak ability as a singer, he’s getting nearer. Horns are still occasionally in evidence, but the cocktail-jazz aura has dissipated, which is a nice turn of events moving forward.

Sex and Travel is variously listed as a mini-LP and a full album, but its eight songs total half an hour and deliver a full meal. If elements noticeably came together on A Scandal in Bohemia, here they gel completely, with some important adjustments, primary amongst them Fish graduating from sly joker to even sharper wit as his vocal talents bloom. Furthermore, the Butcher is no longer accurately assessed as genre-jumping, with the songs wide-ranging but unified.

It first side opens with consecutive pop gems in the decidedly indie poppish “Big Saturday” and the deftly Ray Davies-ish “Holiday,” tucks in the rollicking shout-along “Red Pets” and closes with a long dose of well-calibrated sophistication “Only a Rumour.” On the flip, “President Reagan’s Birthday Present” builds to a rousing conclusion, “What’s the Matter, Boy?” lightens the mood, and “Walk with the Devil” takes a cinematic turn. “Down the Drain” might seem a slight bit of fun at first, but it delivers a satisfying conclusion.

It also spelled the end David J’s involvement, as he split for Love and Rockets. From there, the group recorded the live Hamburg and the “Hard” EP (neither included here) under the name The Jazz Butcher & the Sikkorskis from Hell, and then again adjusted the moniker to The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy for the ’86 album Distressed Gentlefolk, which rounds out this set as it details Fish’s continued blossoming as a songwriter and vocalist.

And the range keeps widening. “Falling in Love” leans into country without faltering into trite mimicry, “Big Bad Thing” is a fun rocker halfway between Robyn Hitchcock and Dave Edmunds, “Still in the Kitchen” dices into ’80s pop-rock with slight hints of third album Velvets, and “Hungarian Love Song” is bouncy guitar-pop. Side one’s closer “The New World” brings back the jazz, this time via balladry triggering thoughts of smoldering ashtrays and two-drink minimums. It borders on the too-sophisto, but that seems deliberate; through Fish’s raised vocal game and Eider’s typically fine execution, it works.

Clean-toned Wes Montgomery-isms open side two, but even with a markedly jazzy piano solo from Max Steeds, “Who Loves You Now?” is an excursion into mainstream ’60s pop. The appealingly jangling “Domestic Animals” is a showcase for Fish’s non-diminished wit, but “Buffalo Shame” is a study in the overelaborate as it extends the cinematic, storytelling angle expressed on Sex and Travel’s “Walk with the Devil.”

Rebounding nicely is the organ-laced pop-rock of “Nothing Special” followed by another ballad in “Angel,” though even the inclusion of sax proves less jazzy as the matters get nearer to ’80s anthemics, ending the LP and The Wasted Years on a soaring note. Distressed Gentlefolk is described by Fire as an attempt to make the “greatest album ever,” and that’s apparent; it’s got too much sheen and a couple of iffy ideas, but is thankfully not strained. Pat Fish took The Jazz Butcher on to the Creation label and beyond with much success, but these albums are where it all started, and they shouldn’t be slept on.

Bath of Bacon
B

A Scandal in Bohemia
B+

Sex and Travel
A-

Distressed Gentlefolk
B+

The Wasted Years
A-

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