The Fall: What’s It All About, Mark E.?

Do you suffer from Ken Burns-induced frontal-lobe fatigue? Are you listless, bored, feeling bland? Saddled with nagging PC guilt? Do you occasionally find yourself slipping into a soporific haze with repeated viewings of the same– you could swear! –black-and-white images of famous jazz musicians beamed through your TV? Are the words “…which would change the face of jazz forever…” echoing constantly in your ears? Take heart, friends, there is an antidote. Just put on The Unutterable (Eagle Records), the 41st album (or thereabouts) by the Fall. It’s sure to jolt you back to grim reality.

Mark E. Smith, who has presided as M.C., clown prince and agitator in chief of the Fall since the group first stepped into the second wave of British punk in Manchester in 1977, is the anti-Ken Burns. Mr. Smith was not put on this earth to glorify and sanctify our most hallowed institutions; he came to shout them down. For the past quarter-century, he has survived in the rock world by making inspirational anti-rock music: a grating, strange, uncompromising brand of funk over which he muses, pontificates, rants and blurts like some backwoods evangelist spitting fire and brimstone at a medicine show. All in all, it’s pretty entertaining–if you can make out what he’s saying.

Honestly, Fall albums should come with a special decoder ring. Mr. Smith’s utterly unorthodox lyrical delivery, which veers from guttural mumbles to oblique shout-outs, all punctuated with his signature verbal tic, an “uh”–as in “I just can’t find my way ’round-uh!”–remains the biggest hurdle to any casual listener. But then, as FallNet, the band’s officially sanctioned and painstakingly compiled Rosetta stone of a Web site, goes to show, there’s no such thing as a casual Fall listener. They are the cult band to beat all cult bands. And as anyone who admits to owning (and not re-selling) a Fall album can attest, Mr. Smith’s fevered, oracular ramblings are the key to the cult.

As rock prophets go, Mr. Smith is our John the Baptist, hovering out there on the fringe of an increasingly lame society, eating grasshoppers, gulping lager, speaking in tongues. And his faithful love him for it. No sooner had The Unutterable come out than lyrics were already being parsed, both on the Web and in print. What does Mr. Smith mean when he says, at the end of “Dr. Buck’s Letter,” “I was in the realm of the essence of Tong-uh”? And who is he talking about in “Octo Realm/Ketamine Sun” when he yelps accusingly, “You’re a walking tower of Adidas crap”? Enquiring minds want to know. I’ll bet even he wants to know.

It makes for some hard listening. For all of the pretension and bombast–the oblique references to H.P. Lovecraft horror stories, the Blakean tirades, the acid-tongued culture-crit smackdowns–you get the feeling, if you’ve stuck it out this long, that, for Mr. Smith, the Fall has been a 24-year-long Dadaist piss-take. Whether this makes you want to slug Mr. Smith or celebrate him, this much is true: His musical career makes for a much more interesting oeuvre than, say, the collected works of Marilyn Manson.

Like countless rock demigods before him–the very demigods he rose up to challenge–Mr. Smith has been known to behave badly. There are many sullen guitarists, keyboardists and drummers out there (some of whom he was once married to; some of whom maybe you were once married to) who wear their time in the Fall like a Purple Heart. He always seems to be firing somebody.

The current lineup (Adam Helal on bass, Neville Wilding on guitar, Julia Nagle on keyboards, Tom Head on drums) has been aborning for the last two years following a fairly pathetic episode. In fact, it’s hard to figure why Ms. Nagle stuck around. The low-water mark of Mr. Smith’s career, so far, involved a short, abortive tour of the northeast U.S. in April 1998 that collapsed when he was arrested at the Quality Hotel Eastside for allegedly punching Ms. Nagle, then his girlfriend. She’d apparently hit him in the head with a telephone only a week earlier, forcing him to take the stage at Coney Island High in the East Village with a shiner.

According to a report filed on Rocktropolis Allstar News at the time, Mr. Smith spent the night in jail, was arraigned on misdemeanor assault charges the next morning, pleaded not guilty, was released and basically went AWOL. The group disbanded. Asked what caused the fracas, their tour manager replied, “Getting the truth out of [Smith] is basically impossible. He’s pretty much inebriated all of the time. I don’t think he’s got a thread of reality running through his life right now.”

Did he ever? It depends how you define “reality.” As he told The Wire magazine in May 1999, in the aftermath of his New York debacle and the bad press that ensued, “They think you’re that daft, but sometimes it’s good to have that image of being drunk and arrogant.”

To judge from The Unutterable , his grip remains tenacious, if a bit more garbled and opaque than usual. The good news is that the band is experiencing a return to form. Their sound–a throwback to the tight, dark, pounding, guitar-driven strains of such mid-80′s classics as This Nation’s Saving Grace –is augmented on The Unutterable by synthesized techno blorps and clanks that bubble up everywhere.

The album serves up one excellent blast after another. It opens with “Cyber Insekt,” a chugging snare beat floating on a scrim of Twilight Zone -ish reverb and synth loops, followed closely by “W.B.” Mr. Smith’s homage to William Blake, which is washed with more synthesizers and rides a repetitive surf-guitar riff. “Look up! The fire, the fire is falling,” Mr. Smith proclaims, “Nebuchadnezzar never knew times like this.” What he said. “Sons of Temperance,” a punk rant against a “crypto-moralist nation” (I think), segues into “Dr. Buck’s Letter,” a weird, plodding recitation of regret over falling out with a friend that ends with a checklist of things the bourgeoisie never leave home without. “Five: AmEx card. They made such a fuss about giving it to me but I spent more time getting it turned down.”

The second half of the album is more haphazard, though just as … redeeming. On songs such as “Serum,” with its bass throb, programmed urban jungle drums and guitars pulsing in a minor key, or the totally conventional verse-chorus-verse garage rock of “Hands Up Billy,” it’s as if Mr. Smith is being dragged in the band’s wake for a change.

Most anyone who once was acquainted with the Fall but let that intrigue slide will undoubtedly greet this album with Urgh–not another one! exasperation. But Mark E. Smith hasn’t crumbled to dust–yet–which is good news indeed for those who’ve grown sick to death of the boring sameness of hip-hop, pop and what’s left of the “alternative” scene on both sides of the Atlantic. Does Mr. Smith see a way out of this predicament? He has this to say about that: “What would life be without comedy? Comedy and music, music and comedy. Devolute!” Words to live by-uh.

– Jay Stowe

Luna: Live Not Live!

“You know we have a live album coming out,” Luna leader Dean Wareham told the receptive crowd from the cramped stage of Maxwell’s in Hoboken on Jan. 20. “Just turn it on loud and light up a cigarette. It’s just the same as this.”

If only that were the case. As the Max-well’s show readily demonstrated, Luna is an exceptional live band. The darkly handsome, Gabriel Byrne-like Mr. Wareham channeled Lou Reed on the velvety “Tiger Lily.” And he bent his raspy voice around the sultry “Pup Tent” like a stripper dancing around a pole: “If you waaaaant me to, I’m going to cryyyy you a river to-niiiight ,” he sang, making a good number of the women in the crowd forget the long, cold walk to the PATH train that awaited them. Mr. Wareham and the band turned the rock anthem “Sideshow by the Seashore” into the centerpiece of the show. He even read from a book called Letters to Wendy’s , a compendium of mail to the hamburger chain, in which one writer suggests: “I think you should put painkillers on the menu.”

Anyone who was standing in the crowd on Jan. 20 probably thought, at some point during the show, that a Luna concert album would be a bitchin’ idea, given Mr. Wareham’s stage charisma and the band’s boundless energy. But Luna’s upcoming Live! (The Arena Rock Recording Company), which hits record stores on Feb. 6, is about as exciting as hearing, secondhand, about some stripper’s pole dance at Scores. It’s interesting, certainly, just not a recording that re-creates the in-concert rush that Luna is capable of inducing.

Live! opens with “Bewitched,” the title track off Luna’s 1994 album. As bandmate Sean Eden paws at a phased guitar, Mr. Wareham croons, “All of a sudden: the girl of my dreams.” The chords are basic, the melody simple and uninteresting except for its tremendous restraint. The song wouldn’t work without it.

The minimal drums, fat bass tones and guitars remain deferential to Mr. Wareham’s plain-and soft-spoken lyrics, and up through the end of the first verse, there’s only a negligible difference between the live and the studio “Bewitched.” Then, just as Mr. Wareham gingerly chirps, “Her sleep is troubled, her face will twitch,” the crowd rears its ugly head. One ” Whooooooop! ” rises from the audience, then several more. By the chorus, the mood and the song are ruined.

Another song, the placid, rockturnal “Moon Palace,” off 1995′s Penthouse , is rendered almost autistic on Live . Mr. Wareham plows through “Well we’re traveling light, / gonna speed through the night” a little too speedily–and monotonously. It sounds like someone’s holding a gun to his head and forcing him to sing.

Besides ill-timed hoots and some uninspired banter about Bastille Day (parts of the album were recorded on July 14), Live! does not take advantage of its live setting. There are no inventive re-interpretations, few psychedelic noodlings from Mr. Eden and no notable lyric changes. The band and the songs don’t feed off the crowd’s energy, as Mr. Wareham did when he performed “Pup Tent” at Maxwell’s; they seem, instead, to work against it. As on “Moon Palace,” the band seems kind of nervous–or scared, maybe, that wrong notes or repartee will be forever preserved in CD form.

Live! ‘s only real bright spot is “4th of July,” which Mr. Wareham originally wrote for his old band, Galaxie 500. His sound has matured since then, and Luna’s version is looser and more sincere than the original. Mr. Eden bangs his whammy bar on some Guns ‘n’ Roses-type high notes, then Mr. Wareham starts talking: “I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit. But your dog refused to look at it. So I got drunk and looked at the Empire State Building.” Then Mr. Eden cuts loose for a Slash-style solo, and Stanley Demeski beats idiosyncratic drum fills as Mr. Wareham tweets, à la Brian Wilson, “Doo doo wah!”

That song only makes things worse, of course, because it shows what Luna’s capable of. As the Hoboken show proved, with or without the letters to Wendy’s, Mr. Wareham and company have a great live album in them. Too bad Live! isn’t it.

–Ian Blecher