The Boy Named If


Album: The Boy Named If

Artist: Elvis Costello and The Imposters

Released: January 14th, 2022

Highlights: Farewell OK, The Difference, Paint the Red Rose Blue, Magnificent Hurt

It is a fact of life that most artists go through a very defined creative cycle as their careers go along. Early on, sometimes immediately and sometimes following a few works that display growing pains, they come off as musical revelations that can do no wrong, as the combination of a fresh artistic vision and the sharp pen of youth paves the way towards greatness. After that successful stretch, which to some lasts only one record and to others might be extended for quite a while, a degree of dullness begins to set it, be it because the songwriting chops start to fade or because said artist fails to successfully evolve past the musical style that initially brought them so many laurels. At that point, a fork on the road appears; one that, some may argue, separates the great from the good, the average, and even the bad. For while in some cases the degradation of creative output is irreversible, with the path ahead only presenting diminishing returns, others are able to take a higher ground that will lead to some late-career achievements.

Given he is neither Nick Cave nor Tom Waits, two of the few who have somehow escaped this narrative of ups-and-downs to stay exclusively on the road of creative success, Elvis Costello has followed this route. His initial run of glory came to a halt with the nadir of his career, 1984’s “Goodbye Cruel World”, and ever since then Costello has failed to reach the highs of that first run. In Elvis’ case, though, the narrative comes with a caveat, because despite the fact his discography since the 1980s holds no equals to classics such as 1978’s “This Year’s Model” and 1980’s “Get Happy!!”, the once angry and nerdy British punk has at least managed to keep the journey interesting and dignified thanks to a pen that still has some bite as well as a wish to experiment and build collaborations inside a myriad of musical genres, such as classical, R&B, baroque pop, and even hip hop.

As strange as it may sound, Costello’s remarkable consistency in the decades following his peak years is somehow detrimental to the perception of how good “The Boy Named If”, his 32nd album, actually is. The reason is quite simple: when an artist has been consistently good, but never exceptionally bright, for so long, it is pretty easy to take their presence and their achievements for granted. As such, any claims that point to the latest release by Elvis Costello as a work of some quality do not leave much of an impact in the ears of those who are still keeping track of the man’s career; after all, he has been so steady for such a lengthy period of time that the fact he has put out a good work is not news: it is almost a given. On the heels of such regularity, the only shocking news that could come out of Costello’s camp is if he happened to fall on his face and put out a record as bad as “Goodbye Cruel World” or as dull as “North”.

To correctly put “The Boy Named If” in perspective, rather than singing praises to its quality, a better strategy – therefore – is going ahead and relying on the old cliche of claiming this is the best record the artist has put out since a stellar and preferably very old album of choice. In the case of “The Boy Named If”, it might be the best release by Costello since 1982’s “Imperial Bedroom”. Of course, every listener’s mileage varies, especially when it comes to a songwriter with such a large, varied, and consistent discography as Elvis; consequently, there are those who might prefer his soulful collaboration with legendary Allen Toussaint, “The River in Reverse”; the frantic and wordy country of “King of America”; the rocking rebirth of “When I Was Cruel”; or the catchy material of “All This Useless Beauty”. However, quite likely, longtime Costello fans will hold “The Boy Named If” in very high regard.

Opener and third single “Farewell, OK” might lead one to think “The Boy Named If” is successful because after roaming through quieter realms of pop music, Costello has opted to pull out his guitar to rock like he did in the late 1970s. Considering the tune’s vicious riff, furious pace, and nearly shouted vocals, that is an easy assumption to make; one that is further confirmed by other noisier cuts on the album, like “Mistook Me for a Friend” and “Magnificent Hurt”, a duo where a mighty beat constructed around bass and drums as well as keyboards who sound fiercely cutting bring back memories of the “This Year’s Model” era. However, as a whole, the Costello seen in “The Boy Named If” is not the angry punk of his early days, but the pop chameleon that would emerge from 1979’s “Armed Forces” onward.

Considering Costello’s stunning eclecticism, it would be a bit unfair to say “The Boy Named If” is an excellent display of his multiple facets; after all, thirteen tracks and fifty-one minutes is far from being enough to encompass every genre he has toyed with during his career. Yet, “The Boy Named If” almost qualifies as a friendly abbreviated summary. There are sophisticated, percussive, and playful exercises that tread the line between pop and rock (“Penelope Halfpenny” and “The Death of Magic Thinking”); there are impressive and immediately likable electric ballads (“The Difference” and “My Most Beautiful Mistake”) as well as a gorgeous piano-based meditation (“Paint the Red Rose Blue”); there are heavy and loud guitar attacks (“The Boy Named If” and “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love?”); and even a couple of melodic detours into theatrical vaudevillian terrain (“The Man You Love to Hate” and “Trick Out the Truth”).

All in all, it is not a recipe that is new when it comes to Costello albums; in fact, his previous release, 2020’s “Hey Clockface”, already displayed a similar combination, even if it had a larger focus on mellower tunes. However, this time around the proceedings feel different due to how Elvis sounds absolutely revitalized. It is not because he rocks out more often, though that certainly helps; it is simply due to how “The Boy Named If” has neither dullness nor notable missteps. Sure, some songs are more interesting than others, and that evaluation will most likely hinge on what flavor of Elvis Costello every listener enjoys the most and the least. But overall, the record feels like peak Costello because he is clearly operating in maximum force both in melodies and lyrics. Truth be told, even through the lowest of his lows, Elvis retained the ability to come up with absolutely fantastic couplets, but in “The Boy Named If” he returns to the mojo of his peak. Melodically, meanwhile, where some of his recent works had some less-than-inspired moments, “The Boy Named If” is consistently good with remarkable and plentiful peaks.

Because of that, Costello’s 2022 release gives him the undeniable late-career peak that many of his songwriting peers had already achieved. To mention a few, “The Boy Named If” is to Elvis what the trilogy starting with “Time Out of Mind” was to Bob Dylan, what “The Rising” and “Magic” were to Bruce Springsteen, what “Old Ideas” was to Leonard Cohen, and what “Turbulent Indigo” was to Joni Mitchell: a late-career victory that more than being good is actually a return to the form of the days of glory. Since Elvis Costello never struggled creatively for as long as those other legends, it is easy to take “The Boy Named If” for granted as yet another solid work. But it only takes a few listens for one to realize this is quite a special pearl on a consistent sequence of gems.


Sweep It Into Space


Album: Sweep It Into Space

Artist: Dinosaur Jr.

Released: April 23rd, 2021

Highlights: I Ain’t, I Ran Away, Garden, And Me

The canon of rock music has no shortage of groups that made a career out of regurgitating the same format over and over again. AC/DC has spent nearly half a century writing variations on the same blues-infused hard rock framework; the Ramones were so technically limited all they could play were fast down-stroke tunes that were coated with lovely pop hooks; Motorhead put out twenty-two albums of furious and concise heavy metal nuggets whose brevity and speed were almost punk; The Fall became legends by creating thirty-one records in which a drunk curmudgeon from Greater Manchester rambled endlessly and unintelligibly over a clockwork-like industrial post-punk clang; and Dinosaur Jr. has been out in the wild for more than three decades mostly betting on the same recipe of loud guitars played with reckless abandon, beautiful melodies delivered with lazy vocals, and – of course – blistering solos that display mind-boggling skill.

Out of that entire list, which certainly could be longer, Dinosaur Jr. is the band that has been more successful at avoiding criticisms of artistic stagnation, and it is possible to understand why. Unlike AC/DC, the trio from Massachusetts never came close to having enough worldwide appeal to rake in millions of dollars via albums and tours; unlike the Ramones, they were never crowned the kings of a specific genre; unlike Motorhead, their output has neither been constant nor too prolific; and unlike The Fall, they are not lead by mad a man who has left a trail of bad attitudes behind him. As it turns out, there are benefits to being the lovable slacker underdogs of a genre that is, by nature, underground, and Dinosaur Jr. has absolutely taken advantage of all those perks.

Starting their thirty-first year as an active band and going into their twelfth album, nobody really expected J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph to do anything different. After all, theirs has been a winning combination that has yielded no flagrantly bad works and given them an untouchable cult aura in the eyes of the few who have heard about them. Moreover, always followed by a slacker fame that has probably grown annoying, J Mascis is simply not the kind of guy who seems to have enough energy to leave his comfort zone. However, in “Sweep It Into Space”, Dinosaur Jr. sounds quite different.

It is not that J Mascis and the boys pull out synthesizers, go acoustic, or embrace the contemporary quirks of indie rock to perform singalong anthems. There is nothing that radical here. Much to the relief of Dinosaur Jr. fans, “Sweep It Into Space” is an album that respects the band’s signature: its constitution is guitar, bass, and drums; it features all the rough corners, in writing and performing, of garage rock; it sports lo-fi ethos; its guitars are loud; its songs have humble lengths; its melodies are of a captivating relaxed beauty; its instrumentals are almost always on attack mode; its solos are an utter thrill; and it is sung by a man whose weird nasal high-pitched drawl would be enough to keep him away from the microphone in any band where he is not the boss. What makes “Sweep It Into Space” so different are the little details, which within the group’s limited scope of work combine to bring change of a relatively big scale.

It is hard to establish where the shift stems from; maybe the guys just wanted a change of pace. But the album’s credits point to the man controlling the soundboard: Kurt Vile, of The War on Drugs fame. Out of all Dinosaur Jr. albums, “You’re Living All Over Me”, from 1987, had been the only one in which J Mascis did not act as a producer. In “Sweep It Into Space”, he shares the duty with Vile and the result is a bit tamer than usual. Gone is the screaming loudness that made listeners feel Mascis was always on the verge of blowing up an amplifier as they wondered if the album should not have come with some sort of label warning that putting one’s face too close to the stereo whilst playing some tracks could lead to deafness or mutilation. That big and dirty Dinosaur Jr. guitar chug is obviously still present, because that is what Mascis and his peers do, but what was once an impenetrable wall of furious sound is cut down to an angry parapet.

It is arguable that some damage is done in that process: Murph’s drums, which were usually given a very frontal space in the mix, are sent to the back and lose their usual pounding force; fans who prefer a more aggressive tone may look at “Sweep It Into Space” as the first time in which Dinosaur Jr. has sounded old and safe; and the fact Mascis’ voice is not shrouded in a loud instrumentation makes its natural awkwardness, which is usually lovable, the center of attention. But “Sweep It Into Space” also gains quite a bit from that new approach. Perhaps influenced by the knowledge his vocals would be upfront, Mascis pulls off a great performance within his limitations, almost going as far as expressing the feelings his lyrics talk about. More importantly, be it as a consequence of the emphasis on voice or due to inspired writing, the melodies are simply the most consistently excellent ever since those of “Farm”, the 2009 delight that proved the reunited original Dinosaur Jr. trio could still put out records that matched those from its classic era.

In addition, thanks to the production, “Sweep It Into Space” has some extra color in its tunes. Surely, as a Dinosaur Jr. work, there are examples of nearly all kinds of loud guitar playing: in “I Ain’t” they are a constant underbelly of noise; in “I Met the Stones” they flirt with metal crunch; in “To Be Waiting” there is a soloing guitar that draws sweet melodic lines on top of a basic strum; in “Hide Another Round” they play with start-and-stop riffs until letting it all loose in the chorus; and the list goes on. However, mellower details are also thrown into the mix, and they bring a nice variation to the album. “I Ran Away” as well as “And Me” underline their electric racket with crispy acoustic guitars that recall those of poppy The Cure classics “Just Like Heaven” and “In Between Days”, giving a breezy forward motion to these catchy tracks; guided by a piano, “Take It Back” swings in its chorus, making it feel like it was recorded while the band members danced around the room with joy, which is rather unexpected and unlikely; finally, Lou Barlow’s “Garden”, which might be the best cut of the record, has quiet-and-loud dynamics that enhance the inherent beauty of its gorgeously moving chorus.

Allied with the production, these details make “Sweep It Into Space” easily rank as the softest album Dinosaur Jr. has ever put together. As such, one’s enjoyment of the material contained within it will strongly depend on how tolerant that listener is to watching a band known for their volume and noise tone it down a little bit. If that notion is accepted or overcome after multiple listens, “Sweep It Into Space” should earn its place as not only one of the strongest works by the band since their 2005 reunion, but also as the most accessible and universally enjoyable point of their wonderful discography. Because, unquestionably, in their previous eleven records of racket, Dinosaur Jr. has eventually been more intriguing and downright better than they are here; but as beloved underdogs well into their fifties, these alternative legends have just put out their most unique work, and they did so without losing sight of their unmistakable essence.




Album: Bug

Artist: Dinosaur Jr.

Released: October 31st, 1988

Highlights: Freak Scene, Yeah We Know, Pond Song, The Post

As a more extreme and less popular version of the punk rock movement which inspired it, the American hardcore scene of the 1980s also naturally featured a far lower degree of professionalism. That is not to say the people involved in it did their job poorly or amateurishly; in many cases tasks were actually performed with much more passion than in its seminal counterpart. But given the corporate world of big labels and magazines showed little to no interest in taking over the reins of the music that was being made in the underground, the influence of money was minimal and positions – whether they were on the stage as a band or behind the scenes as part of the network that supported hardcore musicians – were far more accessible to anyone who was willing to give it a shot.

Ultimately, what this wide entry point meant was that nearly anyone with a guitar or the wish to say something could find a way in; a reality that for punk rockers in the 1970s quickly dissipated when the huge companies stepped in to attract its most famous offspring. As a consequence of that fact, American underground bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, the Minutemen, Fugazi, and the Butthole Surfers, which were mostly made up of individuals whose visible artistic talents did not match up with the expectations of the mainstream, could plug in to the amplifiers and rock.

In their midst, however, roamed one guy who was a bit out of the curve. J Mascis, the leader of Dinosaur Jr., was certainly a member of this independent environment. His talents, though, were more akin to those of folks who transited in the pop music charts. He could play guitar with a high degree of technique and he would showcase that ability clearly by frequently stepping into blistering solos. He could write songs based on classic chord changes that exhibited a smoothness that recalled power pop. And, on what was perhaps the biggest challenge to the ethos of a deliberately noncommercial scene, Mascis could write melodies with the potential to reach thousands. As such, it is no accident that to many of his musical peers, the vocalist and guitarist of Dinosaur Jr. was always seen as the man with a gift.

In spite of these greatly marketable skills, Mascis and his band never made it big, which means that something stood in the way. Anyone listening to “Bug”, the third release by the group, ought to recognize at least one of the elements that ended up keeping Dinosaur Jr. out of the big leagues; and that would be noise. Mascis enjoys playing as stridently as possible, making it sound like whatever amplifier he is using is about to implode due to the volume. Because of that, his simple, approachable, and lovable pop writing is drenched in a vicious guitar attack that veers into the limit between what is tuneful and what is feedback. If that is not enough of a tall barrier to widespread recognition, then Dinosaur Jr. builds it higher thanks to the vocal drawl and slacker attitude of Mascis.

Those two characteristics need to be mentioned together because they are nearly inseparable. Like a moody teenager or a stoned uncle, Mascis sings as if he is totally detached from both the feelings he is talking about and the noise he is making; his attitude tells listeners that he either does not care or is simply too cool to make an effort. Locked inside this unique lazy demeanor that would go on to construct the careers of a few bands, such as Pavement, Mascis does not even try to sing within the parameters of what most would judge as merely adequate; likewise, although his inborn creative greatness hands him a bunch of pop rock gems, his choice is to leave them unpolished and augment their original roughness by giving them a bath in underground noise alongside his bandmates Lou Barlow and Murph.

This battle of accessibility versus laziness and abrasiveness not only defines the entire career of Dinosaur Jr., but also firmly puts them in the underground scene they would otherwise not be a part of. “Bug” is particularly notable for being the point in which that combat reaches its most interesting level. It is not a stalemate, because laziness and abrasiveness certainly win the round, but the balance feels just about ideal. Whether they are pushing forward furiously (“Let It Ride”) or floating in a lazy haze (“The Post”), the members of Dinosaur Jr. here are always pairing up the right amount of melodic goodness to keep one attentive with the correct dosage of ear-splitting madness to stop the whole project from diverging into the mellow terrain its sweet hooks could lead it into. The sole exception to the norm is “Don’t”, which – sung by bassist Lou Barlow – is a cacophony of screaming vocals and guitars, hence shifting the equilibrium too much to one side.

Like it happens with nearly all other works by the band, it is nigh impossible to say the murkiness of “Bug” is polished, but the album holds a few touches of care that greatly benefit its excellent material. “Freak Scene”, the best cut of the record, is a delightful constant barrage of fuzzy strum, but its melodic beauty is enhanced by an accompanying acoustic guitar on its second verse; and that element reappears with even more constancy in “No Bones”. At one point, “They Always Come” brings down the noise to let the melody shine, but Mascis humorously turns the tables by singing in an unusually muffled tone. “Yeah We Know” has a rhythmic driving force that when combined with the cold vocals recalls The Jesus and Mary Chain. “Pond Song” seemingly nods to R.E.M. by featuring jangling verses and a chorus that tames the feedback slightly. “Budge” has a hook played on a relatively clean and slim guitar that nods to Sonic Youth’s more conventional moments. And before getting to its glorious chorus, “The Post” has a large, sparse, and dark soundscape on its verses, which indicates some post-punk influences coming from The Cure, Talking Heads, and even Joy Division.

“Bug”, therefore, is not just an album in which the struggle between pop rock sensibilities and freewheeling hardcore noise-making that defines Dinosaur Jr. gets to its most ideal level. It is also a work that knows how to nudge its sound, even if ever so slightly, towards interesting places that add an unexpected variety to the band’s usually steady music. Given his slacker spirit, it is unlikely J Mascis will ever admit putting effort into bringing out the best of the tunes he wrote for the project or even working on any of the songs until they were truly complete. And anyone listening to the album is sure to feel parts are missing or that “Bug” was not finished. But the fact is there is nothing really missing, and the record is as complete as pretty much any mainstream release. The noisy, chaotic, and lazy mess is just how Dinosaur Jr. operates; and although that has certainly kept them out of the top of the charts, it has also made their greatness even more interesting. And that quality has never found a better display than “Bug”.


Hey Clockface


Album: Hey Clockface

Artist: Elvis Costello

Released: October 30th, 2020

Highlights: No Flag, They’re Not Laughing at Me Now, Newspaper Pane, Hetty O’Hara Confidential

Back when he burst into the scene during the tail-end of the 1970s, it was pretty hard to tell Elvis Costello was going to end up being one of rock’s most eclectic songwriters. Looking like a British, punk-rock-influenced reincarnation of Buddy Holly, with glasses and suit naturally included into the package, Costello made a name for himself by fusing literacy, anger, and heartbreak into three-minute catchy wordplay-ridden hand grenades that exploded with the maniacally skillful new wave sound of his legendary backing band, The Attractions. Despite the success of that early package, though, it would not take long for the singer to show there was more to his musical palette than a well-dressed and sleeker take on punk rock, because right on his fourth album, “Get Happy”, he jumped ship to land on a mind-twisting twenty-track exercise of making Blue-Eyed Soul sound as frantic and vicious as possible.

Many years and a lengthy career have unfolded since that day, and Costello took good advantage of that time to explore the full extent of his eclecticism, not only by penning tunes with multiple stylistic leanings, but – perhaps more significantly – collaborating extensively with an astoundingly large group of musicians that includes Paul McCartney, the London Symphony Orchestra, Aimee Mann, Allen Toussaint, The Roots, Burt Bacharach, The Brodsky Quartet, Nick Lowe, T-Bone Burnett, Anne Sofie von Otter, and others. It is a list that displays Costello’s initially geeky appearance was not just superficial, as the man’s desire to work together with various different names reveals the heart of a music nerd has always lied within him.

When talking about his 2020 release, “Hey Clockface”, such consideration is important because, through more than thirty records and countless flirts with distinct genres, Costello had – until this point – never produced a work with so much self-contained eclecticism. Sure, he had plenty of stylistically colorful albums before “Hey Clockface”, such as his divisive 1989 work, “Spike”, and his widely beloved “Imperial Bedroom”, from 1982. But listening to “Hey Clockface” is likely to give his longtime fans a feeling that a life’s worth of musical exploitation has led to the stunningly varied moment at hand.

It is not that “Hey Clockface” comes off as a lazy recapitulation of what has happened so far; Elvis Costello is too much of a restless mind for such dull sameness, but there is indeed some blatant retreading. A trio of piano-and-voice tunes (“The Whirlwind”, “The Last Confession of Vivian Whip”, and “Byline”) recalls, for instance, “North”, the album of love-related ballads he put out in 2003. The vaudevillian title track as well as “I Can’t Say Her Name” nod to detours in the genre that the singer has made in the past, with the former being more energetic and the latter carrying a quiet defeated tone. “I Do (Zula’s Song)” channels his soundtrack work: with words that speak of love but instrumentation that hints at something darker, the song could be one of the pieces of a noir musical. And the theater stage would also be a very fitting place for the presentation of a track like “What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?”, an acoustic lament with the occasional appearance of jazzy brass.

Contrarily to that more traditional set, the album – be in its overall production or in writing – gives plenty of signs that it is still pushing ahead. In the case of those more refreshing tunes, an interesting pattern emerges. As it happens pretty much everywhere in “Hey Clockface”, these are cuts that can be safely traced back to a specific point in the singer’s career. However, their arrangements – which join old-school sounds, contemporary grooves and beats, as well as the signature Elvis Costello layer of boldly placed noises – do one good job at arguing this group of songs as a whole happens to be quite different from everything he has done.

It may seem like a complicated configuration, but take the example of “No Flag”. Here is a track that would fit right at home – both in spirit and quality – in the three fantastic albums that constitute his post-punk phase. It is vitriolic; it has Costello part shouting and part singing; it is guided by a guitar riff that alternates sheer grinding force with poppy hooks; and it has a chorus whose unexpected greatness is reserved to masterful songwriters. Yet, dressing the song up is a cleverly lo-fi treatment, one that could have come out of Tom Waits’ “Real Gone”: rather than drums, the song’s percussion is a pulsating beat and some scatting; Costello’s voice is distorted; and the tune has a brief psychedelic bridge when a mass of quirky sounds joins the central beat.

Other examples like that are plentiful in “Hey Clockface”. “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” feels like a reread of “Hurry Down Doomsday”, from 1991’s “Mighty Like a Rose”, since it has Costello sort of rapping and sort of ranting over a beat made up of more elements than one could count. “Newspaper Pane” starts by threatening to be post-punk, but slowly cooks into another monster: a stream-of-consciousness jam that has keyboards and brass combining into one great groove. “We Are All Cowards Now” is made of darker material lyrically, as its words read like a very accurate description of our contemporary social environment, but is supported by an equally creative backing of effects, pianos, and guitars. Finally, “They’re Not Laughing at Me Now” is yet another song that could be the theme of a character in a musical (in this case, someone that waits hopeful for the day it will all turn around), but its cacophonic drums and its thin keyboard hook (worthy of The Attractions) give it a more outside-the-box presentation.

It is undeniable that “Hey Clockface” suffers a bit from its eclecticism: the mixture of quiet piano tracks, vaudeville-inspired theatrical moments, and tunes holding a more contemporary and forward-looking perspective makes it feel like three unfinished albums glued together under the same package. Its greatest flaw, though, is that it has Costello’s pen alternating heavily between brilliancy and dullness. Out of its more traditional tunes, only “Hey Clockface” and the closer piano ballad “Byline” are noteworthy, with the others not just getting lost in the midst of dull melodies and basic arrangements, but also being painfully concentrated on the second half of the record. Joined by two forgettable spoken-word pieces, the lackluster tracks amount to half of the package. The remaining songs, each with its own intensity, lean towards the positive side of the quality spectrum, but are not shiny enough to make “Hey Clockface” better than decent. The fact that most of them are cut from the same cloth, however, indicates that perhaps the album would have benefited from a more prolonged gestation period; one that would allow it to overall sound more like “No Flag” and less like “The Whirlwind”, and for its eclecticism to be trimmed down to a more focused and refreshing release.


Fetch The Bolt Cutters


Album: Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Artist: Fiona Apple

Released: April 17th, 2020

Highlights: I Want You to Love Me, Rack of His, Ladies, Cosmonauts

Standing at the end of Fiona Apple’s 2013 record, titled “The Idler Wheel” for brevity purposes, there was a remarkable tune named “Hot Knife”. In it, the album, already notable for how its stripped-down nature augmented the invariable visceral quality of Fiona’s writing, chose to take that rawness one step further. Rather than being anchored by the singer’s piano, the song was built on the combination of a nigh ritualistic drum and an army of overdubbed voices that repeated a straightforward catchy line over and over again as if part of a tribal chant. Percussive elements and somewhat odd structures were, until that point, not unfamiliar to “The Idler Wheel”, as those two pieces are an integral part of that work’s unique sound from beginning to end; “Hot Knife”, though, is significant because it marks the moment when they simply overtake the musical traits one would expect out of a Fiona Apple track.

Discussing “Hot Knife” is necessary because, quite appropriately, its position as the closer of “The Idler Wheel” turns it into a very blatant bridge between that release and “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, the first Fiona Apple record to be published in eight years, showing – therefore – a staggeringly continuous musical evolution by an artist who had not created an album in a long while. Superficially, to someone who is familiar with Fiona Apple’s material, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” could be explained as the extension of the musical concept found in “Hot Knife” through the duration of a full-length record, with only a couple of clear links remaining to connect it to the piano-driven – and more conventional – portions of “The Idler Wheel”. Sticking solely to that description, though, would be ignoring the depth, power, and artistic merit of one spectacular release.

As Fiona Apple fans know, the singer-songwriter has, despite her fame, lived a quiet simple life away from the spotlight in recent years, frequently alternating between taking her dog for a walk and staying home. And it is precisely from her house that Fiona drew much of the musical inspiration for “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, as most of its tunes were gestated by her and the members of her band as they walked around the place banging household objects and singing melodies over the percussion. Although the final product is by no means entirely home-made, as it carries the crispness of tasteful studio production, it absolutely retains that do-it-yourself spirit, not just because it deliberately keeps unexpected moments in, such as Fiona giggling randomly, cursing for messing up the lyrics, and her dogs barking loudly at the end of a tune, but also due to how the beats – visibly made with whatever was available at the moment, like a chair, a metal butterfly, or good-old stomping – are always the heart and soul of the tracks.

Fiona’s piano is not absent. Smartly, as if to slowly ease listeners into the wild ride, the record opens with two songs, “I Want You to Love Me” and “Shameika”, that are grounded on the instrument. However, by the time “Shameika” approaches its chorus and the piano starts to follow the percussion’s primitive bang, rather than be accompanied by it, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” starts revealing the mischief that it is up to. And when the third track comes around, Fiona’s signature musical weapon will be out of the picture, only making another two punctual appearances: in the chorus of “Under the Table”, quite briefly; and in the pre-chorus of “Cosmonauts”, one of the best sequences in the album and a moment that – both instrumentally and melodically – would not feel out of place in “When the Pawn” or “Extraordinary Machine”.

Stylistically, though, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is defined by the instances when the rhythmical elements take the front seat, and the tunes that fall into that category can be further – and roughly – classified into two types. For starters, there are those essentially constituted of only banging and singing. “Relay”, “Newspaper”, “Heavy Balloon”, “Drumset”, and “On I Go” qualify as such, and their bare-bones construction highlights the fact that many of the album’s melodies – as stated by Fiona herself – came to her while she was walking or marching, whether outdoors or indoors, as they have a primitive, rhythmic, and natural flow. Meanwhile, with beats adorned by an upright bass, keyboards, and light guitars, all sparsely presented, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, “Under the Table”, “Rack of His”, “Ladies”, and “Cosmonauts” carry an inescapable and sometimes smoky jazz vibe that evidences the album’s loose, relaxed, comfortable, and improvisational creation.

The rough, visceral, and basic edge that lifts “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” spectacularly sometimes works against it, especially when Fiona chooses to build sections of songs – and occasionally whole tunes themselves, like “On I Go” – on hooks or lyrics that are repeated way too often, which will certainly lead a few folks to wish some cuts had been more developed. However, at the same time, that instinct-based constitution ends up being a perfect fit for a record whose central message is so urgent, relevant, and necessary that it lightens up furious fires in the hearts of those that can nod to it with the recognition that they can relate to what the lyrics describe.

Across “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, Fiona occasionally jumps out of her central subject to write a genuine love song (“I Want You to Love Me”), discuss depression (“Heavy Balloon”), take a look at long-term relationships (“Cosmonauts”), explore loneliness (“Drumset”), and even reminisce about a childhood schoolmate (“Shameika”). Through most of the way, though, the album sees her channeling the abuses, violence (be it physical or psychological), and terrible relationships she has gone through to talk about the desire to speak out against all of it. Truthfully, from a general point of view, it is a collection of topics she has written about in the past with a high degree of frequency. However, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” – perhaps due to the passage of the years as well as the contemporary context surrounding all types of harassment towards women – presents a different perspective on the matter, reading and sounding like a call to arms for women around the world. The title song, for instance, urges those in damaging relationships to escape. While “Under the Table” focuses on the refusal to be silenced by men, and “Relay” is about having the courage to stop a vicious cycle that has the one who has been hurt spreading the pain towards others.

Furthermore, “Rack of His” turns an objectifying remark employed by men on its head, with an angered Fiona brilliantly singling out the rack of guitars of her lover both as a target of destruction and as a metaphor for the women he has used. “Newspaper” and “Ladies” approach, each in their own way, the partnership that should exist between women when confronting their abusers. “For Her” is a look at the discredit with which those who report rape are faced. And closer “On I Go” refers to the strength to keep on going despite it all. Given the number of women that will relate to “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, the album easily ranks as the most meaningful work ever produced by Fiona Apple, and it is also certainly the one most relevantly aligned with the context around it. With that urgency in mind, the frantic energy that punctually betrays the record balances that problem by actually augmenting the importance of the message. And carrying remarkable lines and inescapable melodies by the dozen, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” will certainly be heard, remembered, and give motivation to those in need of a voice.

Fall Heads Roll


Album: Fall Heads Roll

Artist: The Fall

Released: October 3rd, 2005

Highlights: Pacifying Joint, What About Us?, Blindness, Youwanner

Word on the dirty back alleys of rock music has it that The Fall, the highly prolific English post-punk outfit led by Mark E. Smith, produced – during their forty-two-year career – thirty-one albums that were all variations on a single theme. To a point, such poisonous gossip is true; after all, the group’s leader himself, in one of the most notable tracks put together by the band in the years that preceded the release of their debut record, boasted that: “We dig repetition in the music / And we’re never going to lose it”. Aptly titled “Repetition”, the song would go on to serve not just as a defiant anthem, but also as a musical manifesto to which The Fall would always remain faithful.

The repetition, however, though steady and relentless, was sneaky; constantly coming in different flavors. The band, slowly yet surely, incorporated new elements into their sound and dropped countless others in such an organic way that those who were tracking it closely did not see it happening, for exactly like looking at oneself in the mirror every day, the change could only be perceived by being confronted directly with the past. Therefore, even if most entires that stand side by side in the discography of The Fall are at times hard to tell apart, the differences come in droves when the items being compared are chronologically distant.

“Fall Heads Roll”, although certainly a product of various shifts, does not exactly respect that norm. Undoubtedly, like the albums that came right before it and similarly to every single piece in The Fall’s oeuvre, it grinds in a way that is as demented as it is threatening, like a chainsaw-wielding killer who is trying to break into a house and murder its occupants by using his only weapon against all obstacles that stand in his path, whether they are as solid as walls or as easily breakable as windows. Additionally, under the endless cyclical destruction, there can be found a myriad of synthetic noises, brought in by talented keyboardist Elena Poulou, that add a modern touch to the roughness while nodding to the electronic beats with which The Fall played during much of the 90s.

Yet, “Fall Heads Roll” feels rather different. Coming close to many releases, with its predecessor “The Real New Fall LP” being the exception, in which Mark E. Smith sounded bored and the band lacked any sort of forward energy, it is full of vitality; as if that old grumpy and drunk neighbor who could do nothing but yell threats from his window suddenly decided to get out of the house and attack by-passers. More relevant to that notable distinction, however, is the fact that the album simply sounds extremely muscular: it surpasses all other The Fall records as far as sheer strength is concerned, meaning that “Fall Heads Roll” pounds so heavily at its loudest moments that it might as well be pointed out as Mark E. Smith’s shot at hard rock.

It goes without saying that if “Fall Heads Roll” can indeed be labeled as such, then it is hard rock in The Fall’s own terms. The riffs are, as usual, so short and simple that it is sort of surprising nobody had ever used them before; or perhaps their absurd straightforwardness is what kept them from being taken by other folks in the first place. Moreover, the only sort of musical acrobatics that occur can be found in the band’s ability to build mighty grooves that sometimes go the distance by repeating the same idea over and over again while Mark E. Smith rants like a maniac over them. At last, while the instruments are captured with a clearness and crispness that is nearly unforeseen for a group like The Fall, the iconic singer is – as rules dictate – positively impossible to understand to many people in Britain and to almost everyone outside it.

Out of that fine-tuned formula, the band extracts a few career highlights. “Pacifying Joint” is a delightful racket; an obvious pinnacle in The Fall’s integration between repetitive riffs and electronic music. “What About Us?” follows the same recipe, with the difference being that the pulsating waves coming out of the keyboards build to an amazingly catchy chorus based on a call-and-response hook sung by Smith and Poulou where a man from East Germany complains to Harold Shipman, a real-life doctor and serial killer, that the criminal should give the morphine he uses to murder old ladies to him instead. Meanwhile, “Youwanner” is constructed like a vicious ever-descending spiral that drags listeners into its deadly guitar-based downward trip. And then there is “Blindness”; easily ranking among the best tracks The Fall produced during their incredible run, it is a gripping seven-minute jam that starts only with drums, bass, and keyboard but slowly swells to a tsunami of sounds that is both unstoppable and inescapable.

Although these tunes stand tall amidst the collection that surrounds them, the rest of the cuts in “Fall Heads Roll” are not to be ignored either. “Midnight in Aspen” and “Early Days of Channel Führer” are oddly introspective and nearly beautiful, with the latter featuring a very rare sight in The Fall’s catalog: an acoustic guitar. In “I Can Hear the Grass Grow”, a brilliant The Move cover, and “Bo Demmick”, which uses the Bo Diddley beat, Smith pays homage – in his own way, of course – to a passion of his that has always been present in the band’s sound: old-school rock and roll. “Ride Away” is an odd piece of stumbling reggae which immediately qualifies as the weirdest opener to a The Fall record. “Clasp Hands” has the group coming quite close to their post-punk origins. “Assume” is centered on an interesting snaking guitar line. “Breaking the Rules” is short and carries a riff that is almost playful. And “Trust in Me” is a bit of a lackluster closer that could have worked better towards the middle of the album as it does have a hypnotic weirdness to it despite a general lack of inspiration.

Given the overall consistency of The Fall’s lengthy and productive musical journey, “Fall Heads Roll” does not – in the end – feel like a revelation or a culmination. Its excellent integration between guitars and keyboards had already been achieved, albeit under much lighter distortions, in 1993’s “The Infotainment Scan”. Furthermore, the mightiness of Mark E. Smith’s band, although never captured so clearly, was not a secret to those who were paying attention. Yet, “Fall Heads Roll” is significant, not just because it is – ultimately – the heaviest album ever put out by The Fall, but also due to how it is a very strong late-career work. One that announced, twenty-four albums and twenty-nine years into the group’s arch, that they still had fuel to burn; and one that, with Smith’s passing and The Fall’s retirement, shines among the best pieces assembled by a one-of-a-kind relentless and repetitive madman.

Extraordinary Machine


Album: Extraordinary Machine

Artist: Fiona Apple

Released: October 3rd, 2005

Highlights: Extraordinary Machine, Get Him Back, O’ Sailor, Oh Well, Please Please Please

The third entry in the small, yet remarkable, discography of Fiona Apple is especially notable for two reasons. The first is, of course, related to the confusion that surrounded its release. Going through a grueling breakup, producer and friend Jon Brion met an idle Fiona for lunch and begged her to save him by going into a studio, writing some songs, and giving him some work. The singer-songwriter complied, and the two, during a long period of time, labored over what would be the first version of “Extraordinary Machine”. The material produced in those sessions, however, would never officially see the light of day, as the record company judged it to lack any sort of commercial quality.

What followed was chaos, as tracks produced by Brion began to leak to the press, fans organized protests outside of the label’s headquarters asking for the album to be released, and Fiona rushed back to the studio with a new team of producers to rebuild the record from scratch, later attributing that decision to how the lack of an incubation period for the tunes before they were taken into the Brion-led sessions made her unsure of the direction in which she would lead the songs. After all that glorious mess, and an extra bunch of months in the studio, “Extraordinary Machine” would finally make it to the public more than three years after the lunch that originated it, but in clothes quite different from the ones it was going to wear at first.

Much like Fiona herself, the Brion album was charming and quirky, with its strong piano-based tracks being backed by tasteful, yet wacky and overpowering, string arrangements. Contrarily, the output of the sessions guided by Mike Elizondo and Brian Kehew is more pasteurized, fitting in more nicely not just alongside contemporary music as a whole, but also with the two albums Fiona had put out before it. Despite its more straightforward approach, though, the officially released version of “Extraordinary Machine” is bursting with personality, not only because – as a Fiona Apple record ought to be – it carries the emotional hurricane that lies within the body of a clumsy transgressor, but also due to how it captures that outcast soul at a very transformed state.

And that is where one will find the second defining trait of “Extraordinary Machine”: the fact that Fiona is still an introspective, confused, somewhat miserable, and lovely weirdo, but that she has learned how to get a major kick out of the situation. The album still has plenty of room for mad and intense Fiona, as she breaks windows that might metaphorically represent love, threatens to kill an ex-lover, and pens a couple of tunes that are unmistakably sad. Most of the time, however, what she is doing is actually having a quiet ironic laugh at the crap life throws at her while letting her friends know that she is doing just fine, it is just that her mind operates on a unique wavelength that makes her a bit hard to grasp.

The title track and opening number, one of the two songs that appear just as they were recorded by Jon Brion, is already a universal declaration of sorts. The “Extraordinary Machine” is none other than Fiona herself, as over plucked strings and occasional horns that bring about a vaudeville vibe, she announces both her oddness and her resiliency. Still, it is no wonder her friends are terribly preoccupied, as over the course of the album she seems to – in lyrics that are too personal to be fictional – completely clear the checklist of possible relationship troubles. There is the ex-boyfriend that is hard to forget and the men that she goes through in her failed attempts to find someone that moves her the way he did (“Get Him Back”); there is unrequited love (“Parting Gift”); there is cheating (“Oh Well”); there are abusive (“Not About Love”) and non-functional (“O’ Sailor”) relationships whose true natures are only revealed in hindsight; and there is a myriad of insecurities regarding the truth behind expressed feelings.

Emotionally, “Extraordinary Machine” is nothing but devastating. It is unlikely, for instance, that the fantastic love-related metaphors Fiona pulls off during “Red Red Red” or the frustration expressed in “Oh Well” will fail to make a brokenhearted individual cry. Likewise, the piano-and-voice rawness of the performance captured in “Parting Gift” shows a human being at a rather broken state. It is, therefore, quite a miracle that, overall, the tone carried by the record is one of brave defiance and humorous self-awareness. When Fiona is not standing proud and tall amidst her tears, she is poking fun at her misery with marvelous insight, and – in the two cases – what supports her seems to be the understanding, acceptance, and pride she has of her uniqueness, for, as she states in the lines that close the album, “Everyone else’s goal’s to get big-headed / Why should I follow that beat being that / I’m better than fine”.

As much as the Brion version of the record is undeniably more interesting and creative from an artistic standpoint, the Mike Elizondo and Brian Kehew production suits the material perfectly. With her piano and voice always firmly holding the spotlight, Fiona’s gifts are well-supported by clever instrumentation and varied arrangements. In the moments she is focused on sadness, the drums, keyboards, guitars, strings, and horns that accompany her powerfully rise to let her stand afloat; meanwhile, in the moments she aims to laugh while looking at the mirror, the music gets quirky and wild, as it does in the vibraphones used in “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)”, in the noisy undercurrent of “A Better Version of Me”, in the colorful energetic groove of “Please Please Please”, or in the frantic break of “Not About Love”, when Fiona spits words out like a machine gun and the band goes bonkers.

These alternations between the Fiona who is sullen as well as angry and the Fiona who is basking under the light of her weirdness are certainly an important part of the high degree of quality found in “Extraordinary Machine”. However, those features would not hold much weight if the album lacked in songwriting, and it is in that department in which it shines the most, as – once again – the singer displays, besides notable consistency, an impressive ability for being creative in lyrics and melody without losing the firm grip she has on the traits that make a track be simultaneously likable, accessible, and odd. It is an intersection inside which Fiona has existed from the get go, and in “Extraordinary Machine” it is thoroughly explored once more; as bonus, though, it comes – this time around – with a better, renewed, and more confident understanding of herself as a person, and both her lyrics and the tone of her songwriting gain quite a bit from that development.

Captain Fantastic And the Brown Dirt Cowboy


Album: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Artist: Elton John

Released: May 19th, 1975

Highlights: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Tower of Babel, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, We All Fall in Love Sometimes

Extravagance has, for the longest time, been an adjective that is closely related to Elton John. From the glasses to the outfits; from the life of luxury to the massive vices; from the wild on-stage persona to the charming yet difficult off-stage personality; from the exuberant pop craft to the abundant musical inconsistencies; the journey of the singer-songwriter has been one of intense extremes, with little room being left in his lore for moments of calculation or control. And along that road of excess, the first of the two albums he would release in 1975, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”, represents perhaps the peak of all the absurdity.

Surely, with its eleven tracks and forty-six minutes of length, the album looks rather humble when put beside the sprawling magnificence of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, which – released two years before – featured seventeen tracks and almost reached for the eighty-minute mark. However, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is not outrageous in sheer size; its utter lack of restraint actually comes to the forefront in the nature of its content. In it, both Elton John and Bernie Taupin, his lyricist, choose to build an autobiographical record that, rather than telling their story in straightforward terms, dresses them up – respectively – as the titular pair of heroic characters, making the work qualify as a huge exercise in constructing one’s own personal mythology.

If that sounds like exaggerated self-importance, that’s because it certainly is, especially when one considers that, by 1975, Elton John was merely six years into his career. And if there ever is a point when it is acceptable for artists to pay homages to themselves, it absolutely does not come so soon in their trajectory. Yet, for John and Taupin, the ego trip just works. Partially, it clicks because, given his track record, it seems to be just the kind of ridiculous attitude the singer would have, and his ability to pull the preposterous off with a tongue in his cheek just makes the acrobatics endearing instead of objectionable. But, more flagrantly, it succeeds because, following a quick succession of seven great albums packed with gems and only one dud of a record, the quickly put together “Caribou”, it is simply impossible to say the pair were not entitled to toot their own horn in public, for they were in the midst of one of the greatest creative runs in rock and roll history.

With that being said, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is not the best Elton John album. It does not have the cohesiveness and rich musical heritage of “Tumbleweed Connection”; it lacks the immediacy of “Honky Château”; and it fails to match the variety and quality peaks that lie within “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. Furthermore, its excessively sleek production not only reveals shades of the middle-of-the-road pop rut John would be locked in for many of the years that would follow the record’s release, but it also somewhat erodes that hectic, unpredictable, wild, loud, and rough nature that can be found in the best cuts of the classic era of his career. Nevertheless, when it comes to sheer consistency, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” stands firmly next to the finest works the singer has produced.

The title track, which opens the album, starts with a gorgeous country segment worthy of the greatest moments of “Tumbleweed Connection” before turning, during its second part, into a very good rocker. And it is in the first half of that tune that the key to the album lies, because in it the junction of the delicate acoustic guitar strings and John’s moving singing makes the narration of the meeting between the city-slick Captain Fantastic and the country-raised Brown Dirt Cowboy be both humbling and touching, as it depicts – with absurd honesty – the uphill battles the pair faced before they found each other as well as in the beginning of their shared career. The empathy created by those brief, but magnificent, two minutes is essential, not just for how it dispels any potential aversions to a self-homage, but also because struggle is, in fact, the subject around which the entirety of “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” seems to be built, as – one way or another – nearly all of its songs touch on that matter.

With listeners firmly attached to the two central characters and, therefore, interested in the fights they have to win, the album departs on an engaging musical and thematic journey that does not embellish fame, choosing – on the contrary – to mostly tackle the brutal elements that come with it, especially as it centers on the years when Elton and Bernie were still trying to make it big. There are nods to substance abuse; references to the schemes and politics of the entertainment industry; notes on the grueling challenges young artists need to face, as they are explored by publishers and forced to relentlessly tour small venues to earn enough money to buy a meal; takes on the personal and emotional troubles that come with such high demands; and, on a brighter side, sweet homages to the beauty of shared artistic creation, which, in the end, is what keeps the ship afloat.

Musically, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is mostly formed by tunes that lean towards slow tempos and bittersweet tones, as both John and producer Gus Dudgeon go for an accessible brand of soft piano rock with plenty of keyboards, extremely clean guitars, and a nose for moving songwriting. There are, obviously, tinges of other stylistic influences that had – before that point – been part of the singer’s repertoire, like the country-flavored spectrum of American roots music and a flashy glam approach that merges the rock and roll silliness of Marc Bolan with the flamboyant well-produced characterizations of David Bowie. But, despite those forces and a handful of moments when the record either threatens to take off, as in the frantic chorus of “Bitter Fingers”, or rocks out shamelessly, as it does in “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket”, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” feels like a large collection of tracks that flirt with balladry.

To some, that may lead the record to be an excessively sterilized version of Elton John, but the most likely outcome is that it will actually be perceived as one of his greatest moments. The melodies are invariably excellent, even if they are not, for the most part, as immediate as those carried by John’s most famous hits; and allied with the candidness of Taupin’s lyrics, the general sweetness that permeates them, and the fragility that is displayed throughout its running time, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” is successful in being not only a wonderful listen, but also in transforming what could otherwise be a concept that reeks of indulgence and self-importance into a likable look at the wildness of the pursuit and attainment of fame.

Machine Gun Etiquette


Album: Machine Gun Etiquette

Artist: The Damned

Released: November 2nd, 1979

Highlights: Love Song, Melody Lee, Plan 9 Channel 7, Smash It Up

The Damned were great pioneers. After all, not only were they the first punk rock group from the United Kingdom to release a single, 1976’s “New Rose”, but they also – beating both The Clash and the Sex Pistols by some months – hold the distinction of being the first representatives of the genre based on the Queen’s islands to put out an album, 1977’s “Damned Damned Damned”. History, however, ended up not being too kind to the blokes from London, for while The Clash and the Sex Pistols seem to be eternally interlocked with the idea of British punk rock, The Damned remain too obscure to have their name recognized by a wider audience.

Perhaps, such a fate can be attributed to the fact that, despite writing some pretty remarkable tunes, the band clearly lacks that transcendental track that refuses to fade into the abyss and succeeds, therefore, in reaching new generations; or maybe what The Damned truly miss is that one defining record that leaves such a considerable mark in history that its title and quality resound through time strongly enough for it to be rediscovered over and over again by young music lovers. The most accurate answer, however, is probably a combination of these two factors and a few others, but regardless of the solution to the mystery, the fact remains that The Damned are relatively unknown.

If there is an album by the band that could carry their name forward, though, it would be their third effort: “Machine Gun Etiquette”. One could easily argue that “Damned Damned Damned” is a more relevant piece due to its historical value and its truer adherence to the fast, raw, and basic ethos of punk. And that evaluation would not be too out of the mark, because “Machine Gun Etiquette” – as its release date indicates – sits right in the middle of a transition, one where the world was abandoning the tight confines of the genre’s smoking wreckage and heading to the much wider palette of sounds of the post-punk movement.

And The Damned, as a living organism that existed in that context, was not immune to that change, because the album shows the group beginning to shed their original skin for something different, a much needed transformation considering the disaster of their sophomore work, “Music for Pleasure”. Certainly, the position of “Machine Gun Etiquette”, stuck right between The Damned’s fast-paced origins and their unexpected turn towards gothic rock, makes it a weird pick as the band’s signature work, for transitional albums rarely feel sufficiently well-formed and focused to reach that status, but the bottom line is that it encompasses the best of the two worlds The Damned would end up embracing during their career, for its rougher tunes are nicely written, vicious, and varied; while its stylistic experiments in post-punk, still not straying too far from pure rock, stand as nice complements to the record’s most aggressive moments.

On its more raucous side, “Machine Gun Etiquette” exhibits an excellent nose for matching brutal strength with catchiness. “Love Song”, the opener, is very much punk in speed, but it pairs the simplicity of its verses with a chorus that is poppy in melody and a constant soaring guitar that delivers an abundance of short solos; the call-and-response format of the title track works like a call to arms, a characteristic that is accentuated by a short instrumental interval that evokes the image of marching rioters; “Melody Lee” opens with a sweet piano introduction, an annunciation of the odd sweetness of its melody, before the band blasts recklessly into a relentless attack; “Anti-Pope” is sung so quickly that the group appears to stop in the middle of it for some improvisation in order to allow Dave Vanian to catch a breath; “Looking at You” is a very well-executed MC5 cover; finally, both “Noise, Noise, Noise” and “Liar” have fantastic choruses built for some angry sing-along.

Meanwhile, the album’s cuts that completely go beyond the boundaries of punk rock, which are a minority, seem to anticipate some of what was to come for rock music in the 1980s. “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today” and “These Hands” use keyboards to evoke very distinct feelings, with the former going for an apocalyptic vibe in its darkness and structural chaos, as if it were a lost Echo & the Bunnymen track, and the latter assembling an unexpected circus tent that attracts demented clowns.

The highlights of that diverse bunch, however, are two tunes that are more grounded in straightforward rock. “Plan 9 Channel 7” is punk rock for the cemetery, as the junction of its church-like keyboards and expansive guitar sound creates a dense gothic atmosphere that gains contours of vampirism thanks to Vanian’s baritone vocals. Aiming towards a rather different target, “Smash It Up” – broken into two parts – slowly builds to a destructive conclusion: the guitar of its opening instrumental segment rings with a cleanliness that would make it fit like a glove in an R.E.M. or The Smiths track; the song, however, soon speeds up into music that is the perfect soundtrack for an audience to do exactly what its title and chorus urge one to before ending on a drunk choir that seems to be performed by individuals that are about to realize they may have gone too far in their inebriated outburst.

With that aggregation of odd parts, “Machine Gun Etiquette” does ultimately come off like a document that captured a creature right in the middle of its metamorphosis, as it is clearly leaving behind the past whilst not having its feet totally planted in the future. Still, the quality of its pieces (with “These Hands” being the sole weak tune) as well as the strong show put on by the band, as both Vanian and guitarist Captain Sensible pull off the performances of a lifetime while drummer Rat Scabies appears in much better form than he did in the debut, make “Machine Gun Etiquette” not just the definitive The Damned album, but also an excellent portrait on how the bridge between punk and post-punk was constructed.



Album: Dragnet

Artist: The Fall

Released: October 26th, 1979

Highlights: Psykick Dancehall, Printhead, Muzorewi’s Daughter, Spectre Vs Rector

Accessibility is not a word one would use to describe the work of The Fall, the post-punk English band led by rock music’s most beloved curmudgeon, Mark E. Smith. Yet, when they presented themselves to the world via their first full-length record, “Live at the Witch Trials”, they did so through songs that, although dirty in their aura and rough in their musicality, did receive a production treatment that made them stand somewhat close to the angriest spectrum of the predominant scene.

Nobody really played like The Fall, nobody wrote lyrics like Mark E. Smith, and nobody had the guts to sing their words in a manner that resembled the vocal approach of the band’s microphone-wielder. Yet, a listener with some knowledge on the musical currents that sprung out of the smoky wreckage of the punk movement would easily place the music of “Live at the Witch” trials somewhere towards the end of the 70s. It is a nature that, by all means, is not enough to outweigh the group’s idiosyncrasy to the point it makes the songs of their debut friendly to a wider audience, but it does have the effect of making the tracks slightly approachable.

Released just seven months later, “Dragnet” goes the other way. Like “Live at the Witch Trials”, it contains post-punk music at its boldest and raunchiest state. Unlike it, though, it takes no steps whatsoever towards making its tracks less abrasive. Where the former had found a way to filter its filthiness without extracting the most poisonous particles out of its thick muddy juice, the latter submerges that already radioactive substance repeatedly in the sludge that pours out of the factories that dominate the northern portion of England.

And it all turns out to be a fitting choice; after all, formed in the Greater Manchester, The Fall – from the get go – came up as a vehicle for Mark E. Smith to air the grievances of a working class that was as oppressed by the system that pinned it down as it was by the smoke of the industries that turned the cities and neighborhoods where its members lived into suffocating traps. And Smith did so by ranting, often wildly and incoherently, over circular, repetitive, and psychotic riffs and grooves that sounded as if they had come out of the sewers of his hometown. Unsurprisingly, that is just about what he and The Fall do during the course of “Dragnet”; the difference is that, here, the soot is broadcast through the speakers in lo-fi frequencies, as if the album had been recorded by placing a set of microphones around the open manhole out of which the grime in the city’s bowels sang of the horrors it saw.

Smith’s lyrics, partially a collage of words and partially free prose, stand between surrealistic realism and the incoherent ramblings of a bitter man; yet, even to those who are unable to crack them or understand the words drenched in his thick accent, it is quite clear that they ride waves of anger. He does not care about how they come out or if they harmonize with the instrumentation; it is only important that they get out of his system, not to alleviate his rancor, but to make way for more garbage-laden speech. Always anchored in maniac and frantic repetition, The Fall’s music finds plenty of room to breathe varied air in “Dragnet”.

Frequently, it drinks from literary sources: in Dice Man, based on a book of the same title, Smith nods to freedom of choice by relating the story of a man who makes decisions based on the roll of a dice while the band puts a twist on a traditional Bo Diddley riff; meanwhile, “A Figure Walks” and “Spectre Vs Rector”, the album’s longest cuts, are winding and monotonic jams that become stellar in how their music and lyrics give off a horrifying atmosphere that does justice to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Similarly dark are “Muzorewi’s Daughter”, which verges on the disturbing thanks to Smith’s shrieks during the chorus and verses carried by a riff that resembles the menace found in The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs”; and “Before the Moon Falls”, where with the apocalypse approaching, Smith, cryptically, speaks of everything from establishing a new regime to thanking the heavens the lack of jobs in the north has helped him avoid the traps of routine and working-class marriage.

The Fall’s favorite pastime, though, seems to be the implosion of musical structures that could – if executed by other bands – be immediately likable; and Smith’s favorite activity is the airing of vicious words towards the music industry. The former can be seen in opener “Psykick Dancehall”, where a stellar snaking riff goes wild in the speedy and energetic chorus; in “Flat of Angles”, in which a rare warm acoustic strum and a noisy guitar are used to illustrate the psychosis of a criminal hidden in an apartment where he believes he is being watched; and both “Choc-Stock” and “Put Away”, which could be catchy if they were not so messy and noisy.

On the other hand, the two preferred strands of band and singer come together in “Printhead” and “Your Heart Out”, which could be poppy if Smith were not ridiculing negative reviews that The Fall got from members of the press that disliked his mixture of talking with singing and even went as far as calling him a drunk and stating the band was “little more than a big crashing beat”. Although – to a point – accurate, those evaluations failed to see that it was through these characteristics that Mark E. Smith and The Fall gained a cult following, inspired other groups, occasionally flirted with the mainstream, took post-punk to unique terrains, and achieved success and respect by following their own rules and staying true to who they were. And in “Dragnet” those qualities were very much present and blatant, even if slightly hidden below inscrutable lo-fi production.