CD: The Fall, Reformation Post TLC


Last May, the Fall imploded, as is the Fall's wont, on stage in America. Reports vary as to what exactly happened before, during and after the show at the Brickhouse theatre in Phoenix, Arizona. One story has Mark E Smith abandoning the show in order to have a fight in the venue's car park with a member of the support band who had thrown a banana at him. Another has Smith throwing beer at the tour manager, having apparently taken exception to his haircut, then attacking drummer Spencer Birtwhistle with a corkscrew.

Violence, disarray, drunkenness, public humiliation: for any other band this would spell the end. But the stoic Fall fan - and, after 31 years, 53 different lineups and roughly 90 albums bearing their name, there isn't really any other kind of Fall fan left - knows that the Phoenix incident constitutes business as usual for Smith. Indeed, it's some indication of how unique and peculiar the Fall are, that the stoic fan might even look to the incident with a degree of anticipation. In the past, Smith has shown a remarkable tendency to emerge from apparently ruinous calamity bearing remarkable music, not least during the late 1990s after several long-standing members departed following an on-stage punch-up, the aftermath of which saw him arrested. Facing financial ruin, he reappeared bearing one of the great albums of his career, 2000's viciously thrilling The Unutterable.

No other artist in rock history has fed off negative energy with quite the same relish - to paraphrase Philip Larkin, malevolence and spite are to the Fall what daffodils were to Wordsworth. You can see why devotees might gaze upon the unlovely sight of Reformation Post TLC - like all recent Fall albums, its sleeve resembles GCSE design course-work thrown together the night before deadline - and feel a prickle of excitement.

If you are expecting Smith to come out swinging, you won't be disappointed. "I think it's over now," he snarls on the opening Over, Over, "I think it's beginning," and the sense of hostility is heightened by the fact that Over, Over isn't so much a song as a lawsuit waiting to happen. Credited to Smith, it steals both chorus and riff from The United States of America's 1968 psychedelic classic Coming Down. (One note of the latter is changed, a half-hearted shrug in the direction of originality.)

Reformation features a flatly terrifying Smith performance, like rock's answer to Craggy Island's Father Jack - he has added a deeply upsetting, phlegmy gurgle to his array of vocal tics - and, as far as can be discerned from its barked monosyllables, pours scorn on anyone suggesting he do anything other than look grimly forward. Insult Song aims its sarcasm at the musicians who now constitute the Fall; this lot can take it, seems to be the message, they're made of sterner stuff than their predecessors. You can make out the new recruits laughing gamely along, a difficult sound to hear without wondering how they'll feel about Insult Song when the inevitable, and possibly corkscrew-shaped, P45 heads in their direction.

But for all the defiance, something is audibly wrong with much of Reformation Post TLC. The band who stormed off the stage last May were one of the finest Smith has recruited: their economical, diamond-hard garage rock had as much to do with the success of 2003's The Real New Fall LP and 2005's Fall Heads Roll as Smith's predictably brilliant and knotty lyrics. Reformation Post TLC was apparently half finished when they mutinied, and was rerecorded by the California musicians hastily assembled the day after the Phoenix debacle. That may account for the music's curious air of trepidation and politeness, adjectives that should never spring to mind when the Fall's name is mentioned. The only time the music rises to match Smith's anger is on the impossibly exciting Fall Sound. Elsewhere, you find 10 minutes of inconsequential "ambient" noodling called Das Boat: unmistakeably the sound of a band marking time while wasting yours.

When the new recruits stop trying to ape their forebears, Reformation Post TLC takes off. A cover of Merle Haggard's White Line Fever offers the ever-entertaining sound of Smith trying to sing in tune, but, pitched against an unlikely backdrop of jangling west-coast guitars and harmony vocals, there's something weirdly moving about his dissolute croon. The same is true of Coach and Horses, a glum reflection on Victorian funeral processions set to suitably opaque and melancholy guitars, and The Wright Stuff, which takes aim at I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! to a spindly, insistent beat-group backing. It doesn't really sound like anything the Fall have recorded before, which bodes well for the future. As the stoic Fall fan knows, you write them off at your peril.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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