Is it really time once again for one-paragraph reviews of albums I’ve listened to lately? My word, how the time doth fly.
Radiohead, Hail to the Thief. Enough ink (virtual and real) has been spilled about this already so there’s no chance I’ll have something original or thought provoking to say about it, but once more into the breach: While I admire Radiohead for their continual ability to reinvent their sound, Kid A and Amnesiac were in retrospect a little too atmospheric and meandering for my tastes, lacking the mix of musical adventurism and visceral sonic punch that made OK Computer one of the bestest albums ever. Hail to the Thief isn't quite up to the brilliant standard of that high water mark, but it's a damn fine piece of work on its own merits and contains two of their best realized songs to date, “2+2=5” and “There There.”
Various artists, No New York. Long out of print (I snagged my copy from one of those evil, soul stealing file sharing networks), this is one of those critical touchstones that is more often cited than listened to. It’s a decidedly schizophrenic listening experience, featuring four bands that had only passing aural similarities despite their involvement in the late 1970‘s “no-wave“ scene. Of the four, James Chance and the Contortions sound the most conventional - twitchy rhythms and squawky saxophone lines, sure, but it’s oddly danceable stuff grounded in the funk tradition. The four tracks by Teenage Jesus and the Jerks were the lowlight, presaging Lydia Lunch’s career as an annoying, self-righteous lefty/academic feminist spoken word artiste who finally ditched all pretenses of a music career. (Although the line “..and I puke elastic” is a personal favorite.) Mars’ careening, anarchic approach is the most interesting, highlighted by the incredible “Helen Fordsdale” - an urgent, skittering, jibbering mess that somehow manages to steamroll itself forward while threatening to fly apart at every turn, it’s like nothing created before or since, and an example of the best possible results of the “untrained amateurs” punk ethos. DNA’s best stuff would come later (the Taste of DNA EP), but Arto Lindsay’s dissonant guitar scrapings were already in full bloom here. All in all, worth a listen for those interested in experimental rock music, but as a listening experience it’s an extremely uneven venture.
The Fall, Country on the Click. My expectations for new Fall product have declined significantly in recent years. Since the 90’s high water mark The Light User Syndrome, the Fall’s last few albums have ranged from decent-but-uninspired (Levitate, The Marshall Suite) to flat out awful (The Unutterable, Are You Are Missing Winner). So Country on the Click is a pleasant surprise - not a return to former glory, but a damn solid set of songs played with a crisp edge by this year’s model of the Fall. Mark E. is in restrained form, only getting off some trademark bile in “Contraflow,” but that’s probably for the better considering how rote his rants have sounded lately. “Theme from Sparta FC,” a chantalong in the “Big New Prinz” tradition, the killer chorus of “Green Eyed Loco Man” and the chugging guitar riffs of “Contraflow” are signs enough that the Fall still have some life, which is a good sign since they’ll probably continue churning out albums every year as long as Mark E. Smith draws life on this planet.
Armand Schaubroeck Steals, Ratfucker. One of those weird “the hell?” out of print audio curiosities that treads that well-worn line between utterly brilliant and completely insane. Armand Schaubroeck is a Rochester-area guitar store impresario and former teenage petty thief who released several albums in the 1970s, mostly revolving around his criminal past and the seedy underbelly of 70s era American culture. Ratfucker is a damned odd mix of vaguely bluesy rock-based grooves, cheap analog synthesizers, inappropriately used female backup singers, and Schaubroeck’s Lou Reed-meets-Frank Zappa-in-a-dark-alley-and-whacked-out-on-paint-thinner talk-sung raps. Highlights include the title track (a meditation on pimpin’ and its difficulty, with a weird fixation on the black market baby trade), “Independent Hitter” (in which Schaubroeck spews the word “fuck” more often than Tony Montana) and the 12 minute epic “Queen Hitter,” an ode to killing one’s wife that somehow incorporates both the Peter Gunn guitar riff and “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”