Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Fall

  • Live at the Witch Trials [I.R.S., 1979] B+
  • Totale's Turns [Rough Trade, 1980] B
  • Grotesque (After the Gramme) [Rough Trade, 1981] B
  • Slates [Rough Trade EP, 1981] B
  • A Part of America Therein, 1981 [Cottage, 1982] B
  • Perverted by Language [Rough Trade, 1983] B-
  • This Nation's Saving Grace [Beggars Banquet, 1985] B+
  • The Frenz Experiment [Beggars Banquet, 1988] B+
  • I Am Kurious Oranj [Beggars Banquet, 1988] A-
  • Seminal Live [Beggars Banquet, 1989] C+
  • 458489 B-Sides [Beggars Banquet, 1990] ***
  • Extricate [Mercury, 1990] *
  • 458489 A-Sides [Beggars Banquet, 1990] A-
  • Kimble [Strange Fruit, 1993] *
  • The Infotainment Scan [Matador, 1993] ***
  • Middle Class Revolt [Matador, 1994] Neither
  • The Marshall Suite [Artful, 1999] ***
  • The Real New Fall LP [Narnack, 2004] ***
  • 50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong: 39 Golden Greats [Beggars Banquet, 2004] A
  • Reformation: Post TLC [Narnack, 2007] A-
  • Your Future Our Clutter [Domino, 2010] **

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Live at the Witch Trials [I.R.S., 1979]
After dismissing this as just too tuneless and crude--wasn't even fast--I played it in tandem with Public Image Ltd. one night and for a few bars could hardly tell the difference. Of course, in this case the heavy bass and distant guitars could simply mean a bad mix, but what the hell--when they praise spastics and "the r&r dream" they're not being sarcastic (I don't think), and in this icky pop moment we could use some ugly rebellion. How about calling it punk? B+

Totale's Turns [Rough Trade, 1980]
"The difference between you and us is that we have brains," Mark Smith announces to what the written notes call an "80% disco weekend mating audience" at the top of forty-three minutes of rant. The difference I notice is that the band is getting paid, but never mind--I'm so hungry for punk these days that I'm a sucker for the overall sound, maybe even the attitude. Yet though the minutes are divided officially into ten song titles, I confess I have trouble telling one from another except to point out that "Roche Rumble" is pretty fierce momentumwise. I also enjoy "Choc-Stock" (sounds like "pop star") and "That Man" (sounds like "Batman"). And almost any time Smith revs his delivery up toward squeal. B

Grotesque (After the Gramme) [Rough Trade, 1981]
As postpunk splinters into a thousand shafts of shadow, these arty lefties are definitely going for poetry readings with two-chord backing. My favorite is the first punk song ever to mention Herb Alpert, who appears not as a musical icon but as a record executive--at the company that distributed them back when they were trying to sell out. B

Slates [Rough Trade EP, 1981]
There's no denying it--taken as a whole, the six songs do exude punk-style intelligence. Titles like "Middle Mass," "An Older Lover Etc.," and "Prole Art Threat" don't disappoint--Mark Smith is interested in the kind of stuff you want intelligent-style punks to be interested in, and gives evidence of understanding it, too. But only "Fit and Working Again," marked by an exploding two-note guitar riff, makes itself felt as an individual entity. And in the end it's hard to know exactly what Smith does think about all that stuff he's interested in--except that it's interesting. Inspirational Instruction: "Don't start improvising, for God's sake." B

A Part of America Therein, 1981 [Cottage, 1982]
They're as consistent as the Isley Brothers: no notable rise in quality or interest, and also no falloff. This one's a U.S.-recorded live double divided into north and south discs (San Francisco counts as south, they claim). I prefer the north, especially "The N.W.R.A."--stands for North (of England?) Will Rise Again--and "Totally Wired," which has the boys singing backup and something that will pass for a hook. B

Perverted by Language [Rough Trade, 1983]
New members, even female ones, aren't news with this group, but Mark E.'s guitarist wife Brixe Smith does lend his poetry readings apparent direction. The appearance is created by side-openers that go on so long you don't really notice your attention flagging as their momentum gives way to, well, poetry readings--roughly accompanied, as usual. B-

This Nation's Saving Grace [Beggars Banquet, 1985]
If the sentimental fallacy of good American rock and roll is roots, the sentimental fallacy of good British rock and roll is amateurism. Not that these veterans distinguished themselves from themselves before Yank guitarist Brix E. Smith righted husband Mark E.'s feckless avant-gardishness. Still, what they've arrived at now is cunningly sloppy, minimally catchy Hawkwind/Stooges with each three-chord drone long enough to make an avant-gardish statement but stopping short of actual boredom. And yeah, it beats roots by me. B+

The Frenz Experiment [Beggars Banquet, 1988]
If Brix is so busy leading Mark into the valley of the shadow of sellout, how'd she let him get away with an album of vamps with recitation? Lyrics center around a title catchphrase--"Get a Hotel," "The Steak Place," and "Oswald Defence Lawyer" are the cutest--and allude to crime. Vamps are mostly--shame on you, Brix--catchy. B+

I Am Kurious Oranj [Beggars Banquet, 1988]
Drones, vamps, laid-back forcebeats, and a steady stream of allusive satire add up to the enjoyable postpunk pattern of countless other Fall albums. Yet from the opening nag--"Check the record, check the record, check the guy's track [later 'rock'] record"--small strokes keep me turning this one up. First side's got the nag and Brix's drolly tinny AOR "overture" and William Blake. Second's more patternlike, though who could resist the OMD-Stooges combo? Besides radio, I mean. A-

Seminal Live [Beggars Banquet, 1989]
Back before they were musicians--before they played riffs requiring digital articulation and sang the occasional backup or even response--they tossed off live product all the time. The formula was simple--Mark E. harangued and the band crashed and droned. No atmospheric gunk like "Mollusc in Tyrol" or incompetent covers like "Pinball Machine" and, yes, "Victoria," which in the great tradition of bad live albums betrays its studio version. "Mollusc in Tyrol" and "Pinball Machine," God help us, are studio versions. C+

458489 B-Sides [Beggars Banquet, 1990]
the reassuringly literate clatter of avant-garde background rock--two hours of it ("No Bulbs," "Kurious Oranj [Live]") ***

Extricate [Mercury, 1990]
indefatigable-uh ("British People in Hot Weather") *

458489 A-Sides [Beggars Banquet, 1990]
Beginning, naturally, with the least catchy thing on the record (it came first, and who are they to deny history?), this singles compilation spans the entirety of Brix Smith's controversial (especially if you're an old friend of Mark's) tenure with the eternal U.K. art punks. Their drones don't resolve or climax or even pick up speed, yet though Mark's said to be a poet, they're not just there for the words, many of them undecodable--they're there for the drones. Which just hurry you along on a nagging groove whose intimations of eternity are in no way undermined by Brix's penchant for deep detail. The only Fall record any normal person need own. A-

Kimble [Strange Fruit, 1993]
great original sound ("Spoilt Victorian Child") *

The Infotainment Scan [Matador, 1993]
great original sound, one hell of a cover band ("Lost in Music," "I'm Going to Spain") ***

Middle Class Revolt [Matador, 1994] Neither

The Marshall Suite [Artful, 1999]
Alt-rock won't die till they ban Pignose amps in Mark E.'s senior residence, but that doesn't mean he'll put this much into it ("F-'Oldin' Money," "Touch Sensitive"). ***

The Real New Fall LP [Narnack, 2004]
"I hate the country sound so much/I hate the country folk so much" ("Boxoctosis," "Contraflow") ***

50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong: 39 Golden Greats [Beggars Banquet, 2004]
To pin down those poet rumors once and for all, I availed myself of my freenet privileges and read his verse online whilst hearkening to its musical realizations off. Don't believe the hype. Mark E. Smith is a carper, a haranguer, a ranter, best comprehended in alienated snatches. But so what? Almost all of these well-culled "songs," which include half a dozen already singled out on 1990's Brixified 458489 A Sides, catch his Hyde Park cadences at their most barbed, annoying, and possibly prophetic, with the groove muscling up after the middle-period keybs go away. Unique, minor, forever eternal. A

Reformation: Post TLC [Narnack, 2007]
This does get weird, quiet and slack second half, although, really, why shouldn't his wife sing "The Wright Stuff"? In any case, the first half regales and/or lacerates with the mad purity and/or skeptical hilarity Mark E. Smith was put on the planet to take to his grave. Recorded with Los Angeles pickup musicians, although now I guess we just call them the Fall, immediately after his band of seven years ditched him in Phoenix, it states its business out of the box: "I think it's over now I think it's ending/I think it's over now I think it's beginning." Then it does its business with "Insult Song," a six-minute shaggy groove story about being stuck with ree-tards from the Los Angel-eeze district. A-

Your Future Our Clutter [Domino, 2010]
But it's a really great groove--with a really great frontman ("Y.F.O.C./Slippy Floor," "Cowboy George"). **

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