Echo and the Bunnymen – Crocodiles [US Release] (1980)

Sire/Korova Records ■ SRK 6096

Released July 18, 1980

Produced by The Chameleons (Bill Drummond, David Balfie) and Ian Broudie (Tracks A4, B1)
Engineered by Hugh Jones and Rod Houison (Tracks A4, B1)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Going Up
  2. Do It Clean¹
  3. Stars Are Stars
  4. Pride
  5. Monkeys
  6. Crocodiles
  1. Rescue
  2. Villiers Terrace
  3. Read It in Books¹
  4. Pictures on My Wall
  5. All That Jazz
  6. Happy Death Men
¹Not present on original UK release, but included on a bonus 7″ with early pressings
While Paul Westerberg’s strange “side solo act thing” Grandpaboy is still echoing through my head at the moment, a mild spur toward writing here has convinced me to take up the reins and launch in again, after a good many weeks of just not feeling it and not wanting to half-ass it instead. Of course, that kind of approach can occasionally work, but this is intended to be a joyful thing, not a chore, and everyone I know wasn’t even keeping up after I started slipping more toward weekly entries, so it isn’t as if I’ve left a relative gap for anyone paying attention (PS: if I have, you should probably tell me. If someone else is interested, there’s far more reason to stick to doing this more regularly!)

When I think of post-punk, my first thought is still pretty consistently of Gang of Four. It’s not fair, of course: one of the things I even like most myself is the insane variance of styles and approaches bands that appeals to me most about the genre (and its sometime-close relative, post-hardcore). Echo & the Bunnymen kind of exemplify one of the far bounds of what I think of–mostly because they aren’t a sound I think of at all. Much like The Boomtown Rats or the Talking Heads and punk,¹ I’m aware of the classification and even the justifications, but I think of them more as popular, familiar, readily grasp-able bands. Mainstream or pop, even–not in that bizarre, disparaging sense most use those terms in now, just in the sense of more familiar instrumentation and song-writing, even if with a clear identity. I can’t pin down what it is that makes my brain draw the lines where it does, except perhaps to say that here I think it’s the dominance of Ian “Mac” McCulloch’s voice, particularly over Will Sergeant’s guitar, but that’s just a guess, as it’s an instinctive thing.

As I think is probably increasingly common, my first (knowing) exposure to Echo and the Bunnymen was in 2002 (I suppose that won’t be increasingly common, for obvious temporal reasons) when I watched Donnie Darko, which quickly became my (still uncontested, for reasons that don’t belong here, as we’re talking about music, not movies) favourite movie. The theatrical cut² of the film opens with Echo’s “The Killing Moon”, which appeared on the later album Ocean Rain (the other I have on vinyl by true coincidence–I don’t see Porcupine or Heaven Up Here often, and the self-titled album is distinctly disparaged, so it was simply the other I ran into, not one pursued).

I’d actually already heard Echo in a similar but relatively peculiar context: released as a soundtrack the same month as their then final (if you will) album, the self-titled Echo and the Bunnymen, The Lost Boys contained their cover of The Doors’ “People Are Strange”. I first saw the film with young eyes and didn’t quite catch on to the variance in sound it had from the original track, which I also heard plenty of at a young age. Maybe it was the appropriate placement of a non-goth but goth-esque³ band with a movie reveling in both goofy camp and darker violent moments, rendering it too appropriate to stand out from its predecessor.

I began slowly collecting Echo albums two years ago, beginning with the 2003 expanded CD of this very album, and culminating with the comparable releases of Heaven Up Here and Porcupine. I was in the throes of my fascination with post-punk and earlier post-hardcore, so it only made sense. It did mean that an absolute torrential influx of music into my library prevented a lot of it from fully penetrating, but I got a feel for the sound of Echo, nebulous though it was.

“Going Up” is appropriate as an opener for the way it slowly winds its way into play, Pete De Freitas pushing it forward until Sergeant jams down a chiming set of chords that drop the band right in your lap. Les Pattinson’s bass is the one element that keeps itself even throughout both the opening rise and the splashing constancy of the song as it follows. One of my favourite moments on the entire album comes just after the midpoint of the song, Pattinson continuing on as Mac’s voice fades, Pete holding a steady beat, and Sergeant layering a coiled non-solo lead over an occasional spark of clean, clear individual strings. Mac’s voice occasionally wobbles back in and out almost unintelligibly until the song fades on this curious and unexpected twist of sound.

The next track on my copy was not on the original UK release (surprise, surprise…) and was most uniformly (non-limited-type) released as a b-side to the non-album single “The Puppet”, and I continue to be baffled at it not having been released as an independent single. “Do It Clean” is a charging song, Pete riding a hiss of cymbal over Pattinson’s climbing bass until producer Balfie drops an almost Steve Nieve-y key riff in to smash the song in. As he fades, Mac takes the song over, throwing in what is, no doubt, the catchiest chorus on the record (even if it wasn’t on the original record!). It’s a rush with a throbbing bass and a nice, fast drumbeat. I guess, though, the band eventually agreed–apparently the song is wildly popular now, and was even (in live form) b-side to “The Killing Moon”, which I’ve always understood was a rather successful single, independent of its usage in (a few, actually) movies.

“Stars Are Stars” drops the pace and tone down a fair bit–for all that there’s a downward curl (mixed with a sort of sneer) to Mac’s voice even in the uptempo “Do It Clean”, this is even more miserable, in its way. It’s something like an amped up version of the most morose moments from Robert Smith, slower for Echo, but still fast for its mood. Sergeant inserts a solo that’s simultaneously knowingly simplistic and acutely unnerving at each note, repeated a second time and seeming to instrumentally echo (ahem) the words and sounds of Mac that precede and surround it. Pete’s enthusiastic drumming, particular, a periodic, bass-heavy fill are what keeps the song moving.

There are hints of that Andy Gill-style jerky, angular, strike of guitar in Will’s opening moments of “Pride”, but they are smoothed and curved back in filter by the time of the verse. Momentary interruptions of a xylophonic instrument and the crash of that sharpened intro as chorus fill out the song’s sound and identity, one that’s primarily defined by those rounded edges on the guitar, murky like the water of a lake, but still clear enough to keep on.

There’s something of the early U2 sound (slightly pre-dating, but largely contemporaneous) in “Monkeys”, a moody, contemplative rumble with flights of wiggly, springy guitar. Les’s bass is the controlling force, though, except at the chorus, where Sergeant’s reverberating squiggles become clean, sharp, and straightened points of melodic focus. It’s perhaps the most recognizably “post-punk” of tracks on the album, and that’s a very good thing.

The title track is probably the closest match the original running order had to the energy of later insertion “Do It Clean”: Pete’s drumming and Les’s bass are both at their most frenetic, even when Mac’s voice drops along with the song, for a booming moment of low-end groove–which fascinatingly ends on a sudden chime at a bright and high pitch. But Les and De Freitas won’t let the song relax long, and shove it back into overdrive, letting Will’s lead moment turn to a rapid struggle of furious riffing on adjacent chords, turning to a broken record of jagged peaks of muted chords.

While extra songs were inserted, the running order is actually mostly intact–much like the original, the US Crocodiles opens the second side with the single “Rescue”, which was released before the album initially. Not riding the intense energy of a “Do It Clean” or a “Crocodiles”, it’s still a noticeably pop-inflected song, and an unsurprising choice for single. The high-point-low-point alternation of Will’s guitar is emblematic of much of the post-punk-y hits of the 1980s, nudging even at the edges of its cousin indie-rock and the more moody work of the Smiths when at its chorus, though De Freitas acts far more as a rock drummer in his force than Mike Joyce would–a natural difference in musical styles, but a noticeable one.

“Villiers Terrace” is unquestionably my favourite Echo track, bar none. I may not be alone in this, as the most extensive fan site out there shares the name. “I’ve been up to Villiers Terrace/To see what’s happenin'”, goes the chorus, and it’s catchy as all hell, yet distinctly ominous and shaky–Mac’s description encourages that feeling, though, as he continues: “There’s people rolling round on the carpet/Mixing up the medicine/[…]/Biting wool and pulling string…” David Balfie’s quiet return on piano perfectly enhances the weird, discomforting and hallucinatory, semi-horrifying observational feeling of the song, with a prettily rising but somewhat off riff. The song pulses and grooves, but is spiked with those incredulous descriptions.

Sonically, “Pictures on My Wall” is a very appropriate follow-up to “Villiers Terrace”. The intro is the still-hot but low-burning embers of that fire, bellowed up to steady, even flames by the verse, crashed into a thunderous bolt at the end of the chorus, droning keys stretching out behind it. Pete peddles mightily behind it, pounding up the snare to an all-ride hiss that breaks with a round-trip fill. It would be a somewhat spooky trip through a decaying, darkened hallway (lined, of course, with old pictures) if not for Pete and Les, who give it too much motion to be completely mired in spookiness, without completely interrupting that moody darkness.

Somewhat appropriately, the wide-release of “Read It in Books” was as the b-side to “Pictures on My Wall”, which means its placement here is perfectly logical. It’s a continuation of the subdued tempos and tones (but not moods) the previous tracks have started to establish, too. While there’s power and force in the song from the rhythm section, it never really gives the track the kind of oomph that would render it something beyond moody and darkened. Mac’s voice seems to be at its most unrestrained, even when it is low, quiet and breathy.

Stompingly rhythmic, “All That Jazz” is another nudge toward that Gang of Four-type aural aesthetic, the rhythm section carrying much of the song’s groove while Sergeant’s guitars strike across the top of it. It isn’t, of course, some kind of rip on the (semi?)famous Leeds band: a late break in the song for a melodic low end ripple over a pounding patter of percussion is unusual and unique in sound, especially as the rest of the song crashes back in on top of it, shoving the entire track and the album back to a kind of energetic peak that stops suddenly when the track ends, bringing us to the final track and a more wandering, experimental feel.

“Happy Death Men” is oddly appropriate for its odd title. It seems to wander in in a daze, sprinkling random key sounds across its length. Mac’s emphatically punctuated repetition of the title in the chorus is oddly endearing and also just odd, considering the words. At something like the first third’s end, his voice leaves the instruments behind, as they seem to jam or otherwise experiment, until a horn section (!) suddenly appears, repeating the slight melody and particularly rhythm of Mac’s vocal chorus. When his own voice returns, the song takes yet another turn toward the meanderings it saw just moments before, once again punctuated by those horns, but now joined by Mac’s voice. Pete gallops off toward the end of the song aggressively, wildly–Will lets loose a furious wail of sharpened, passionate soloing, the horns find tentative footing, and everything crashes and wanders off into a slow fade.

I feel as though I wandered into an awful lot of comparison here, but it is for me (as with most people) one of the easiest methods of describing musical sounds–language alone can only get one so far before the limitations of subjective description begin to interfere and cause a kind of divergence in perception. Still, it implies a kind of “secondary” status for the band, which is undeserved–comparisons should largely not be treated in that way anyway, but instead for the reason I at least intended above: familiarity via parallel.

The cover of Crocodiles is actually quite interesting, and I cannot leave without commenting to that effect: the boys are standing, leaning, and sitting in various less-than-happy ways (and, in Mac’s case, rather bewildered or shocked) in a forest in Hertfordshire, but one that is rendered bizarre, artificial-looking and even vaguely psychedelic in its forced, colourful lighting⁴. It’s a pretty striking image–I don’t know if I could call it evocative with regard to the music, but it is at least peculiar and darkened enough to suggest the unusual tones and bleak tones of the album. Credit goes to one Brian Griffin, who certainly deserves just that.

¹I’m of the mind that both left the genre pretty rapidly and wandered into entirely different territory, but the first album from each feels pretty firmly punk-y.

²The director’s cut version restores INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart” to this place, which has a uniquely appropriate lyrical moment as it’s edited. I think it angers some people because of INXS’s obviously more popular (and more “pop”, often in that aforementioned disparaging sense) nature, and thus severely deprecated “cred”. Whatever. But then, I own an awful lot of INXS records.

³Mac’s lyrics and his vocals would not be too out of place in those circles, at the very least, and the dripping, downward crawl of that song (and the especially warbly sound of Will’s guitar, too) only enhanced this.

⁴Reminiscent, I feel, of Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories


Day Thirty-Six: Caustic Window – Compilation

Rephlex Records ■ CAT009LP
Released June 1, 1998
(EP release dates below)
Produced by Richard D. James

Let’s just get this out of the way up front: I’m cheating. While the credited artist for this release is “Caustic Window”, that is, in fact, one of the (many) pseudonyms of one Richard D. James, whose most famous monikers are AFX and, of course, The Aphex Twin. If you’ve been reading here a while, or if you just click that link, you’ll see that this is not the first of his releases for me to cover here. However, because I feel it’s legitimate to treat this as a “C” release (alphabetically speaking), it avoids the issue of clustering multiple days around a single artist and allows me to cover more of my collection while not (strictly) violating the alphabet. It’s not the only time this will occur, but this is the time they’ll come closest together (the other I can think of off the top of my head is Leon Russell, who will obviously appear much later, but who released two albums with Marc Benno, at least the first of which was credited originally to The Asylum Choir).

In any case, this is a compilation of the 3 EPs James released as Caustic Window, which were put out by the label he co-founded, Rephlex. The original releases of each EP were actually a bit larger, some tracks being shaved off with the CD release of this as Compilation as well as the original vinyl issue of it as a 3xLP in three conjoined clear plastic sleeves. Each EP loses one track in the process, those being: “Popcorn” (a version of the Gershon Kingsley track made famous by Hot Butter) from Joyrex J4, an untitled track from Joyrex J5 typically nicknamed “R2-D2”, and “H.M.N.E.” (“Humanoid Must Not Escape”) from Joyrex J9i.

Despite the compilation’s release date above, the EPs were released much earlier, and I’ve included those release dates below each EP’s title.

Joyrex J4

Originally released July, 1992
(Originally CAT004)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Joyrex J4
  2. AFX II
  3. Cordialotron
  1. Italic Eyeball
  2. Pigeon Street

The title track from Joyrex J4 is built from the sound of a wobbling piece of cardstock (unlikely this is actually what was used, but it tells you what it sounds like), but quickly eschews this by turning into the acid house that makes up all of these EPs. The beat is pounding and rapid, not necessarily designed for actual dancing (allegedly, James created his early track “Digeridoo” and its 140bpm beat to wear dancers out at DJ gigs). Layered into the beat are more wobbling–though the later instances are more electronic, an angular rise-and-fall melody, a distant, phasing buzz and a difficult to describe sound that skips as if being halted from high speeds.

“AFX II” (while there are some instances in which James obscures his identity, to the point that speculation still marks releases from that artist insofar as who it actually is, often he makes no attempt to hide it, and does so only as a matter of distinguishing styles and labels they are released on) is one of the hardest beats in the set, sounding as if it’s a second generation recording, and maybe, just maybe, built on ambient sampling of some banal piece of machinery. It’s a short track, but an appreciably aggressive one.
“Cordialotron” is one of the tracks that most recalls his only-slightly-earlier work on things like Selected Ambient Works 85-92. It’s not a very hard beat, though it’s definitely strong enough to fit in its place in these releases. It’s strongly melodic, via its use of a looped melody that emulates a keyboard, and a warping sort of “lead” that rides over it. If you liked SAW8-92, this will feel way more familiar and comfortable, with the production approach also resembling that, with that echoing spaciousness and a minimal drum section (for this release, anyway).
The haunting (reversed) Julie Andrews (!) sample that opens “Italic Eyeball” implies we’re in for more ambient techno, and doesn’t really let down. It’s still very strong on rhythm, even as compared to “Cordialotron”, but it the woodwind-esque ethereal melody has a semi-central role, and the percussive section does actually deal in varying pitches, even using a bass-like loop to help glue the track together.
“Pigeon Street” is a wonderfully cheerful slice of fun, at only 0:23 running time, sounding as if it might have been taken from a children’s program from the late 70s or the 80s, cheerful and melodic, using plunking melody for rhythm, and “nasal”  bounces for the “lead” melody. Unsurprisingly, there was a children’s program on the BBC in ’81, that actually did use a partly synthesized theme song (it doesn’t sound at all alike though, especially as it is primarily an actual acoustically played theme).

Joyrex J5

Originally released July, 1992
(Originally CAT005)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Astroblaster
  2. On the Romance Tip
  1. Joyrex J5

Unsurprisingly, “Astroblaster” returns us to the more hardcore side of James’ Caustic Windows material, pulling out a truly stomping beat, and keeping its melodic variations somewhat abrasive and metallic, as many of the sounds are on these EPs. A harsh buzzing hum is the primary melodic “instrument”, one that in some ways hints at the sounds that would work their way into his less repetitive (ie, not acid house) releases in the coming years. Hints of the sounds of “On” can actually be heard here, though used in entirely different ways.

“On the Romance Tip”, at open, almost sounds as though it could turn out to be truly ambient: the opening segment wouldn’t have been out of place on Selected Ambient Works, Volume II, but an actual percussive track does worm its way in after a few measures, placing it more in the vein of the original Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and its “ambient techno” designation. As such, this is still the kind of track most people will find more pleasant and more palatable. The sustained notes that make the melody are cold, distant and expansive, but quite pretty. The fidgety secondary rhythm track keeps it all moving and from being too somber, too. It actually ends with the sounds you’d expect more from the earliest electronic artists, who recorded in the early 70s, sort of like really badly synthesized strings–a sound I happen to enjoy, actually.
Because the emphasis of these EPs is on primarily acid house tracks, the title track for Joyrex J5 ends this version of the EP (it does end the original version as well) on that note. It is a less harsh track than “Astroblaster”, though, even if it is the longest track in the entire series. The beat is rapid and not overly focused on bass, which keeps the track centered more in the midrange and helps its comfort level for listeners a lot (barring those who are really big on the harsh sounds, anyway). The completely unrelated rhythm and melody that comes in about a third of the way through is not an unusual technique at this point for James, and the way it comes in and ignores everything else, just hovering in the background with a sense of mysticism is part of what tends to make his work better for sitting and listening, or listening more than just feeling in a rave-y context (that’s why he suggested that his work be called “Braindance”–which appears on the only liner notes for this album, apparently actually trademarked–instead of the pretentious and snobby “intelligent dance music”). Oddly, that melody, despite its completely disjointed placement, manages to make the song quite pleasant indeed, even as the sped-up-saw sound of the primary hook cuts at your ear.

Joyrex J9

Originally released September, 1993 (J9i); December, 1993 (J9ii)
(Originally CAT009i and CAT009ii)
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Fantasia
  2. Clayhill Dub
  1. The Garden of Linmiri
  2. We Are the Music Makers [Hardcore Mix]

If you don’t like the harsh noises, “Fantasia”, at least its opening, are not going to be your friend. Something like a machine starting up, or failing, or a locked groove of the same, it drops quickly both in pitch and even existence for the squeaking alarm-like centrepiece of the song, which is backed by a pounding, bass-heavy rhythm track, and a jagged, distorted lead “melodic” line. That line is aggressive, but actually quite cool. It’s actually hard for me to really say “harsh” here except in comparative terms. This shouldn’t really be “ear-bleed” kinds of harsh at all, just not something that makes you sigh contentedly. Of course, amusingly, a few minutes in (another of the longer tracks here), we hear a sample from a (purported) porn film–“Oooh, ooh!” from a female voice, which is eventually given a moment in isolation to play fully: “Oooh, ooh! That’s great, yeah!” says an, ah, excited female voice. While James has done this kind of thing before (and would again later), it doesn’t seem at all like it’s really “connecting” to porn or making the track actually sleazy: instead, it feels like James is wryly referencing the quality of his music (which he would also later do without the orgasmic association, via tracks like (despite what the title might imply to you) “Cock/Ver10”. 

“Clayhill Dub” is likely so named because it is focused less on bass kicks than it is on a bassy melodic line, which throbs throughout and keeps the song centered entirely around the low end. Occasional splashes of metallic clank and rattle, echoing or just striking momentarily wander in here and there, but largely it’s just that bassy line.
“The Garden of Linmiri” uses an alarm-like noise, not unlike “Fantasia”, but more like hearing a large factory’s alarm from outside, with the kind of distortion that comes from an intentionally ridiculously loud noise as muffled by the walls of a building. Squeaky, high-pitched rhythms (a favoured sound for James in faster tracks), is the trade-in for that alarm sound’s patient repetitions, as well as another of the full-on, hard beats (think “Astroblaster” above), with four-on-the-floor, but done with the drop of a boulder on concrete. The strike of grinding on metal alternates beats, while it all eventually mutates into an aggressive, clatter of pounding on thin metal trays in a rather catchy and appealing way.
Making it only appropriate that these are the two James releases I’m going to cover, the compilation closes with the “Hardcore Mix” of “We Are the Music Makers”, from SAW85-92. Let’s be honest: while it may have been James’s sense of humour to tell us one of his big pop star remixes was an unrelated track he had laying around, passed on because he was caught offguard by the deadline (the man has also said he checks our records by “smelling the grooves”, and that he used a goat to help create Drukqs, and that it was most helpful after he got it a “hoof mod”), this would not be surprising as an approach for him. The only connection here is that of Gene Wilder’s sampled voice, speaking that same line: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of the dreams…” The beat itself is another hard one, four-on-the-floor accented with a secondary beat between the third and fourth. The focal point is a rhythmic brushing sound, as of stiff bristles taken back and forth across a floor, but clipped free of any higher pitches. A yawning, distorted buzz falls repeatedly in the background, keeping the pace of the track not quite so fast as the fully rhythmic portions would imply.
I’m normally not one for house or trance or any of the more repetitive strains of electronic music, simply because it seems like the repetition is intended to maintain danceability–a sound that can be appealing for its consistency, but that, as a focal point, doesn’t build for active listening unless done with that in mind (or because the artist in question likes to do so anyway). James’s Caustic Window material isn’t an exception to the style, really, but it does keep things interesting, as James may DJ for shows (and did then, too), but he’s also made it clear that music seems to be more of a listening interest to him than a dancing one. I think, then, that this reflects in how he puts even house-based tracks together. It is more repetitive, to be sure, and is not my favourite of his material, but that’s honestly not saying much when this is the artist in question. It is a bit odd that my collection of his work on vinyl is exclusively his analogue-produced material (this, SAW85-92, Analogue Bubblebath 3, and the Analord series of releases he did in 2005 on a return to that kind of equipment from his computer-based work in the preceding decade or so). Still, his work in electronics (I think we can believe that one, as well as his claims to modifying the equipment himself)  makes the material unique within the framework of the genres and styles the material falls into.
Just don’t go into this expecting free, easy, happy kinds of stuff. There are better releases from him for that kind of thing–but getting this kind of hard, harsh, rough stuff from him, this is probably the top.
  • Next Up: Chemical Brothers – Brotherhood

Day Thirty-One: Burning Airlines – Identikit

Arctic Rodeo Recordings ■ ARR044

Released May 8, 2001¹
Recorded by John Agnello with Jake Mossman; J. Robbins and Burning airlines
Mixed by John Agnello with J. Robbins, Mike Harbin, and Peter Moffett
Mastered by Alan douches
¹This expanded vinyl released 11/16/2012

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Outside the Aviary
  2. Morricone Dancehall
  3. A Lexicon
  4. The Deluxe War Baby
  5. A Song with No Words
  6. All Sincerity
  7. The Surgeon’s House
  8. Everything Here Is New
  1. Paper Crowns
  2. Blind Trial
  3. Identikit
  4. Tastykake
  5. Earthbound
  6. Election-Night Special
  7. Dear Hilary
  8. Action
Track listing note: many of the tracks are shuffled from their listed order, but the above is the order in which they actually play. “The Deluxe War Baby” is shifted to its place above from being listed between “The Surgeon’s House” and “Everything Here Is New”. “Election-Night Special” is listed between “Identikit” and “Tastykake”. The lyrics are also printed in this written order, not the order in which they play.
Out of all the polls I’ve run, I had a feeling (much like I suspected March on Electric Children would be the least acknowledged entry so far) Burning Airlines would be the most “difficult” vote to squeeze out. I pushed pretty hard on the Boomtown Rats, but I sort of gave up with Burning Airlines. Most people I know are in the wrong music generation (regardless of their actual age) and/or scene to know Burning Airlines, and I know that is the one thing that really makes people reluctant to throw out a vote. I decided to get around this in a sneaky and vaguely ridiculous way: I actually asked J. Robbins (check those credits up top) and Peter Moffett if there was an album they’d prefer me to write on. Mr. Robbins’s been nothing but kind with my intermittent fawning and questions, and said very nice things about my writing on his previous band, Jawbox. On this he suggested I flip a coin to pick the album, and that he’d be happy I was writing about either, which I can understand and respect–there’s going to be plenty tied up in these for someone involved. I asked Mr. Moffett a bit more privately, and didn’t even catch the first notification that he’d actually answered. The response was just a single word: Identikit. It was a relief, in a way; a singular vote from another fan that wandered into my question to J. and voted for Mission: Control! which would have stuck me with another tie and, well, another coin toss, actually. I wanted to have something fresh and different to break this one up, though, and so Mr. Moffett gets a gracious thanks for taking the time to answer me and break the tie–even if it was before there was a tie!
As I mentioned, I wrote a lot about Jawbox on my last blog–or, at least, I wrote one really emphatic entry about them. A commenter (one of very few I ever saw!) suggested I check out J.’s other bands, and started with Burning Airlines (to be fair, they were in chronological order). Of course, in a weird way, it was actually Burning Airlines that inspired the basic level of interest anyway–this was the band that released a split with At the Drive-In after all. But their CDs seemed to be thoroughly out of print: I tried ordering one through my local record stores, and no dice (the other was more blatantly out of print). I put a word in with the record stores that new me and bought used music from customers, but it took months before I finally stumbled into one at Schoolkids in Raleigh, NC. And as my jaw dropped (really), I looked below it to find the other. They were slightly mangled, but fully playable, and I was happy as could be when I walked out of the store that day. I enjoyed the heck out of those albums, and it wasn’t more than a few more months when the release of both albums on vinyl was announced.
While J. has been in demand as a producer and released work with a few more bands, his son Callum has been a large part of where his energy has been focused, even publicly. Callum was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) and the medical bills related to this are not the kind that are easy to deal with, so the vinyl release was announced as partly being another fundraiser for that reason. Between the excitement of the announcement–as well as the news that bonus tracks would be included–and the fact that part of each sale was going to help Callum, it was kind of a no-brainer to order up. Still, I was basically broke–between jobs, to some extent–so I worked out an advance Christmas present order from my parents to make sure I could get my hands on both, worried as I was about them disappearing.
I haven’t listened to them much, purely because they’re at the beginning of the alphabet, and I knew I’d get here soon (and that doesn’t mean I didn’t listen to the original CDs, my digital copies, my digital copies of related tracks, or the included expanded CDs!). I selected the colouring of this one out of the three available, much as I did with Mission: Control!, and settled on the colour I just didn’t have in my collection yet–the blue and white swirl. The availability of the two records from Arctic Rodeo themselves hints at something that surprised me in the album selection: Mission: Control! is the sold out album, was the first one I was told to listen to, and was the one voted for by a fan (outside the poll). It makes it interesting, then, that both Mr. Moffett and two people who did vote picked it in the end. It’s a happy sort of occurrence that I like for the very fact of its unexpected nature.
Arctic Rodeo packed the record in a resealable plastic sleeve, with the record in a plain white paper sleeve outside the actual cover to keep it from being split in transit–a nice bit of care that not even used sellers often bother with. They also allow for colour selection (though the red/black is all that’s left of Identikit, or with them at all from the band), which Dischord (the U.S. label that originally released the first two Jawbox albums, as well as the LPs from Channels and Office of Future Plans, both of them J. Robbins projects) does not provide, though they still have stock of both albums. Eventually, some more of their releases should be showing up in this blog, once they arrive (the label is in Germany, and has a smaller staff, but are very good about what they do).
Now, I said that Mission: Control! was the album that was singled out as good when I first picked up both Burning Airlines albums, but I picked up both of them at the same time. There was no intermediary period where I only had one to wear in before I heard the other, which I think is a decent part of what keeps that impression burning with fans. I mean, when an album opens with a song like “Outside the Aviary”, it’s difficult to see what anyone could see as lacking. J.’s voice comes in immediately, aggressive but not angry in sound, “Now clarity lost out to desire, and I married the madness in her eyes”, riffing rapidly behind himself on guitar in a way that brings melody but leaves the focus on voice and words. A wild bursting slide brings Moffett’s “membranophones and idiophones” in on a fill, with Harbin blurring into the background just a bit, until J.’s riffing slips down to a much quieter lick, one with a downward turn that puts that kick into the song that let’s you know it’s not like every other song you’ve heard, but is so completely organic as a move that it isn’t at all a gimmick just to be unique. Moffett doesn’t let up at all, though, rocksteady and pounding along on a seemingly simple beat, as Harbin rumbles up and down, taking control of the instrumental melody behind J.’s voice, which is suddenly harmonized by Moffett in a very pretty way, who suddenly takes off with a fill that launches the song into the air: J.’s voice regains an edge as Moffett adds a lovely series of “Woo-oo”s that would seem weird in a song like this–especially coming out of a drummer this emphatic–if they weren’t somehow just right anyway. There’s a fantastically rapid series of kicks from him as J. and Peter launch into an alternating repetition of the song’s title, before a halting beat and riffs end the song suddenly. 
“Morricone Dancehall” has a guitar sound at open that is bent just off clear and keyed, giving it a metallic edge, like two strings wobbling toward each other as a guitar is tuned, but stopping short of actually reaching the same note. Moffett enters underneath, with a much more peculiar beat than “Outside the Aviary”, that blends in a delightful way into Harbin’s burbling bassline, the both seeming to intertwine as they both hit their lowest pitches. “Damned!” J. suddenly interjects, “Is this the body you were last found living in? What you bury has a way of blossoming, all that bitterness in bloom on your skin,” his words furiously running into each other, but unslurred, though there’s just a hint that his voice is coming from a distance or through a muffling like a microphone. The guitar is no longer riffing and clanging metallically, but quavering in slightly dissonant waves. The original sound returns though, for a much more ominous bridge where Moffett joins Robbins: “And all the aces are wired, and all the forces conspire in this brutal bed” that suddenly turns to a sneer from them both: “Without the body there is no crime”. After running through this chorus a second time, a wandering series of notes ended with chords is backed by a wonderfully smooth, looping sort of bassline from Harbin. 
Staccato riffs that hold the same note for four beats at a time open “A Lexicon”, before Harbin hesitantly enters, the bass only marking a bit more time than the guitar. When Moffett enters, the stiffness of the song is suddenly released with a beat that almost shifts it toward a danceable sort of groove, a neat trick when it happens, made that much more impressive by the way that it plays with and against Harbin’s half-rhythmic, half-melodic bassline. J.’s riffing doubles then builds with Moffett, and then drops away to clean, clear single-picked guitar notes. But then both the stiff, nearly monotonic guitar and the dancing drum turn to a sound that feels more like the sound you’d expect from a rock band, despite never making apparent that it was going to turn “normal” for any reason.
The song the band contributed to the At the Drive-In split was “The Deluxe War Baby”, which appears next on the record, built on a partly muted guitar lick that lollops along with the bass to give it almost the sense of a Western-y, cowboy-type sound, until Moffett’s wild drumming carries them all into a more fully ranged period of the song that also sends Robbins’s voice up into its heights. The whole thing swings, but not swing like a swing band, more like a pendulum with a groove to its arc, bobbing just slightly, moving forward instead of standing in place. Not a song to sneeze at, and a perfectly reasonable selection for inclusion on a release usually intended to function as representative (as with Jawbox, the version appearing on the split is a different recording, so far as I can tell).
“A Song with No Words” is nothing of the kind, as J. even opens the song singing, “Here are some words…” but it most certainly could’ve survived even as an instrumental. A dissonantly melodic (yeah, figure that one out–it’s a Robbins specialty, though) opens the song, scrabbling along the strings but never losing a moment as it shifts in pitch. It disappears in favour of letting Moffett lay down a short, sharp rhythm that seems to keep the rhythm on the hi-hat (and the occasional “thing that goes ting-a-ling”, as well as the one that goes “plink”²) separate from the drum and kick. Mike is again playing a chopped up bassline, but this one sounds like going up and down a few stairs at a time, then pausing to consider. It’s the heartbeat of the song, as both J. and Peter are wandering in far more directions on either end of it. It’s a slower, more relaxed song as compared to the prior ones, and that opening lick is just fantastic.
I don’t know where J. gets to find all the cool drummers, but he seems to do so anyway. I spent a lot of my writing about Jawbox talking about the mighty Zach Barocas (which I apparently was right to do, in his eyes), and Moffett shines in this band. “All Sincerity” has enough space in it to make this apparent: tiny, wonderfully varied fills litter the song, all adding just a little bit here and there, but a simple listen sounds more like it’s just a nice rock and roll beat. This is also an opportune time to point out that when J. said in his thing with Death Cab’s Chris Walla that he agonizes over lyrics for a long time, it shows: “Let’s clarify this twist/Pin this butterfly kiss/Senseless senses sweetly simplify/We twitch like marionettes in lascivious bliss/Silhouette, silhouette, how black is your heart?” Woof. It’s not the only example on here, but working in a tongue-twisting set of words and that much alliteration without sacrificing sense or simply setting up everything around it is some kind of achievement.
The burn and brush of “The Surgeon’s House” is another highlight: that lick from J. is amazing, the way it leans you back like a friend but has a devilish sort of subtext in tone–the kind that I just cannot wait to hear again every time I hear it. Mike anchors it heavily with a tightly cadenced bassline, and Peter laying down a jazzy beat that’s more cymbal and brush than powerful kick just lets that lick shine like it should. Robbins also works out a much quieter version of his voice than we’ve heard on the album so far, letting the track seem non-threatening until the lick flexes its muscle, eventually beginning to completely overtake everything else, wandering in and out and around itself, Peter backing it with the song’s most forceful drumming. 
Strange electronic noises (I’m voting for “space sounds” by Mike here, though that phrase is subject to lots of interpretation) open “Everything Here Is New”, and a reverberating guitar joins them to create a quirk that turns mysterious. There’s a mist over the track, and what’s under it is unclear–the instruments are apparent (or, at least, clear–those noises are beyond my amateur ear’s ability to place). Harbin’s bass weaves right around Robbins’s voice, which sweeps an arm out to display this world of newness, ghosts, shell games and emptiness to the listener.
I was tempted to completely deadpan the idea that “Paper Crowns” was about a birthday party at a Burger King, but the only concession I’ll make to that idea is admitting it. On the surface, the opening of the song would be normal were it not for the skronking bend that appears at the end of each repetition. Tambourines that echo ’60s pop in sound and rhythm are hiding in here (perhaps that’s what goes “ting-a-ling”?), backing a full-bodied set of vocals from Peter and J. in unison. Peter takes some control for a later bridge, which eases the tempo of the song like an ethereal connector between the beginning and end of the song–and let’s Harbin get in a few notes in the forefront. And then it all spirals off into a glitchy electronic breakdown that kicks us right into “Blind Trial”.
At open, J. is flattened ears and questioning, guitar playing a broken jangle, quiet and muted, and Peter and Mike adding a rhythm section straight out of pop punk–1-2,1-2 drums, steady quarter notes on the bass, and then all of them go somewhere else for the chorus: a tightly wound spring of guitar and a bass free of restraint, drums no longer stuck with just snare-kick-snare-kick, yet all still absolutely controlled. Interestingly, it’s the moment the vocals are most “normal”, a nice, “simple” chorus! And then it starts to breakdwon at its second appearance: “This drug was never approved” J. sings, and the signature changes entirely, stretching and dragging as if the drug in question was affecting the song itself. It finds its feet again, though, regaining its control and returning the original chorus. Then a near drum solo turns to spacey stretching and repetition from J. and Peter’s voices.
Did I say Peter got to shine earlier? Go back and forget that. The opening of the title track is something else. Where you would think to hear a simple roll across toms, there’s an alternating in pitch that means either there’s a very deep tom, or he’s alternating toms and kicks (!)³, usually more the hallmark of long-winded drum solos, but here worked directly into the song as Robbins and Harbin join on top of it. The ringing harmonic-style sound J. uses heavily in Burning Airlines is heavy here. The chorus is almost a “breakdown”–driving, rhythmic riffing and pounding drums define the beat absolutely explicitly.
“Tastykake” is interesting: Harbin’s bass is the only instrument that sounds normal. Moffett gets to open another track with a thump-skitter sort of beat that turns to a rapid, wild solo, but sounds vaguely deadened, as does the hanging distorted effect of Robbins’ guitar. Quiet and warm, J. sings an opening line that I can only suspect refers to his wife, but could just coincidentally name someone with the same first name. Still, the song seems to have a sense that that’s the sort of relationship it would be directed at in some respects. It feels as if the instruments are crushed into a small box as it opens, but opens up when Moffett adds a shaker to his rhythms, and J,’s guitar widens its own sound, his voice opening up, too. 
Often an appropriate choice for latter ends of albums, J. sings with acoustic guitar on “Earthbound”, a thumping low string creating the only audible rhythmic anchor. The guitar has a similar “crushed” sound to “Tastykake”–a deliberately off, simple, rough recording. A wobble snakes in and out of the part, but J.s vocals, especially when joined by Peter on the chorus, are clear and pretty. 
“Election-Night Special” is the low-end gravity of the album: thumping bass, kicks and even low end riffs drive the whole thing (my inexpert ear even suspects there might be some down-tuning at play here). It’s almost fragmentary in its appearance: it’s only 2 minutes, and opens with the crescendoing snare hits that a fair number of songs do, and when it cuts off, feels more abrupt than sudden, despite no cuts in the actual playing.
Another song with multiple recordings and appearances, “Dear Hilary” is a cover (of sorts) of the band Metroschifter, and also appears on the “Metroschifter” album Encapsulated (it’s actually their then-new album, only it’s recorded by bands they chose–clever idea, really). The band worked from a demo outline to create the song. It’s a smart choice for the final song (bear with me, now, if you’re looking at the tracklist), as it’s the work of the band, but is very much not the style they’ve displayed elsewhere in the album. A clean, haunting guitar finger-picking is the core of the song, eventually doubled, then later backed with almost pure-cymbal “drums”, but for a falling set of tom beats repeated intermittently. Harbin anchors, and J. and Peter’s voices join together, the closest the song comes to aggression. J. finally repeats the opening line and throws himself at it: “Dear Hilary, how many years has it been/Since you were going off to college and you wrote me a letter?” It closes with the kind of line and sound that just hangs in the air afterward: “The hardest thing about opening up to someone is putting so much power in their hands.”
However, I mentioned this album is expanded. It now closes with a cover of Sweet’s “Action”, which the band plays quite straightforwardly–and who can blame them? This kind of infectious glam rock is just fun, and I have little doubt it’s also quite fun to play. The solo J. peels off is more in line with the kind that fits the song–not that I’m going to pretend to be familiar with the original version of “Sweet”, and it’d be disingenuous to run out now and try to compare them quickly as I write. It feels like a bonus track, in the sense of a hidden one–like the kind of thing that would “hide” at the end, instead of being right out there. A delightful addition, really.
I thanked Peter Moffett earlier for nudging me into a final decision regarding albums, but I should also thank J. Robbins who was kind enough to satisfy my pedantic desires and tell me that “Action” was actually recorded for the Japanese release of this album–as well as commenting on my Jawbox entry, and answering my request for a decision on this topic, too (even if his answer was to not choose one!). If I sound overly chummy, I don’t mean to; I just send him electronic questions here and there when I can stop fidgeting and worrying over it long enough to bite the bullet and accept that I might be obnoxious in doing so. 
Regardless, when I wrote about Big Star, I mentioned that there was actually one band I’d demand people listen to before I did Big Star, and only as relates to the comparative familiarity of the world at large. Then backpedaled a bit. That’s because I don’t have Jawbox or For Your Own Special Sweetheart on vinyl, which I think I mentioned. I’ve only got a lone single (“Absenter” b/w “Chinese Fork Tie”). If pressed, though, this is the band I’d tell people they need to hear. J.’s style on a guitar manages to simultaneously cover strange, alien, atonal, dissonant, and catchy, melodic, and irresistible. Moffett and Harbin don’t leave the band’s sound anemic outside of the most established musical voice, either, and neither fail to live up to his work, nor sit flaccid in the back and pound out boring tripe, instead adding equal and interesting parts to create a still unique sound.
One of the most bizarre things I ever read was the series of negative reviews for their two albums on Amazon that complained that they sounded like new albums from Jawbox. Why this was something to complain about is entirely beyond me–and it wasn’t even, contextually, something those reviewers saw as bad. Not even repetition–actual evolution. It boggles the mind even now. I’d kill (hyperbole, of course) for new Jawbox–to find an evolution of that sound was…indescribable. There are so many bands and sounds I wish I could get more of, instead of complete disappearance or lackluster retread. Here we have a band that actually is distinctly different, even as it ties backward. Burning Airlines have a more “upbeat” sound to them than the latter half of Jawbox: wiry tension, aggression, or semi-morose tones defined a lot of that band’s latter work. Not in a bad way (if it was a bad way, Jawbox would not be one of those albums that somehow worms its way into my regular listening all the bloody time), but in a way that just felt a part of the sound.
Burning Airlines may not be quite cheerful, I suppose, but it’s almost like melding the crashes, bangs, and clatters of Jawbox back into a more pop-like format (which should never be considered or taken as an insult, for the record, which I think my collection will show increasingly). The harmonic leanings–most definitively apparent in Mission: Control!‘s “Scissoring” even give J. a different feeling in this band.
I guess the end result is: don’t complain about good things. And certainly don’t complain about amazing things that you almost never get.
²It’s a triangle. But that’s one of the things he’s credited with on the album, alongside things that go “plonk” and “plink”–the latter I decided were the claves in “A Song with No Words”, but onomatopoeia can, oddly, mean different sounds to people. Oh, yes: also membranophones and ideophones. IE, his brand-conscious “blue drums and shiny cymbals”. Yeah, I really read all of the liner notes. An amusing parallel to J. and Mike’s usage of Schecter Guitars–“blue drums and shiny cymbals”. Ha!
³I apologize profusely to drummers who know things, including Peter Moffett himself. I’m not a drummer, I can only describe the sounds I hear–I’m not going to swear if I’m not pretty darn sure, just try to associate the sounds enough that it might make sense to someone else.
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Day Twenty-Six: The Boomtown Rats – Mondo Bongo

Columbia Records ■ PC 37062

Released January 24, 1981¹
Produced by Tony Visconti and the Boomtown Rats
Engineered by Chris Porter and Tom Winter
¹Original tracklisting; UK release

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Mood Mambo
  2. Straight Up
  3. This Is My Room
  4. Another Piece of Red
  5. Go Man Go
  6. Under Their Thumb…Is Under My Thumb
  1. Please Don’t Go
  2. The Elephant’s Graveyard
  3. Banana Republic
  4. Don’t Talk to Me
  5. Hurt Hurts
  6. Up All Night

Anyone who knows this album (and let’s be honest, that’s probably zero people I know, and thus zero people reading this) might see something a bit peculiar above. And there is something peculiar. Anyone who has done much research into British music in the 1960s–and it doesn’t take much–will start to see a large volume peculiarities. There was no Yesterday and Today, no Beatles VI, no Who album titled Happy Jack–and the list goes on, and on, and on, and on. Even AC/DC (who were only British by birth, and even then only 3/5 of them) suffered this with the weird melding of the albums T.N.T. and High Voltage, with some tracks from these scattered around, and others lost until the release of the ’74 Jailbreak EP in 1984, four years after the death of Bon Scott in 1980–to say nothing of the more minor fiddlings with the other albums cannibalized to encompass that release. Bewildering re-arrangements and tossed-in-a-blender releases are a hallmark of U.S. releases of artists from other countries, and often done in fashions more like High Voltage, where the title stays the same and nothing else does–the tracklisting, the cover art, even the placement in the chronology of release. This is actually another tiny part of my frustration with blogs setting out to cover 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: if you are unaware, you may not actually be listening to the recordings you are being directed toward. If you are told to listen to Raw Power in the modern age, chances are you aren’t going to hear David Bowie’s mix, unless you know to seek it out. If you are told to listen to a number of Frank Zappa’s albums with the Mothers of Invention, censoring, strange mixes and other alterations will occur (though you can be forgiven, in that case, for thinking perhaps they are intended in some cases).

The original UK release of Mondo Bongo had a matching first side, but the second varied significantly, as “Don’t Talk to Me” was instead later released as the B-side to “Never in a Million Years” (a single from follow-up album V Deep), “Up All Night” was from V Deep and released as a single, and both “Fall Down” and “Whitehall 1212” appeared on the album instead. In the US, these tracks were released on V Deep (“Whitehall 1212”), and, well, not at all (“Fall Down”). I was aware of these changes by the time I picked this up, but I didn’t really expect to run into the original UK tracklisting at any point. Bob Geldof (writer/vocalist) and Pete Briquette (bassist and occasional co-writer) rearranged the tracks again for the 2005 remaster series, wherein everything went absolutely bonkers, “Straight Up” opening the album and being followed by “The Elephant’s Graveyard”–and more shuffling all the way through². If I didn’t give you any of that background and you decided to listen to this record, you’d have a good chance of finding yourself mightily confused–especially if you were to download or purchase it on CD. If you find something interesting here, keep all that in mind: this listing isn’t hanging around except on used vinyl!

“Mood Mambo” is a peculiar choice for an opener: jittery bongos, a thumping bass kick, and Geldof in his story-telling mode, the beat rapid enough that you aren’t going to mistake that arrangement for a beat poetry session. “I’m in the mood to–” he says, and the band comes in with just backing vocals, singing “Crazy bongo!” as Pete Briquette’s bass enters, with a line that seems vaguely detached from the frenetic bongo playing. The band’s backing vocals continue, as does Geldof telling his story. Short blurts of electronic noise (likely at the hands of the band’s keyboardist, Johnny Fingers) and an echo on Geldof’s lines on occasion keep us floating entirely outside the punk/new wave sound the Rats originated in, or even the less punk realms they’d begun exploring most thoroughly on The Fine Art of Surfacing the year prior. Eventually everything hushes and Geldof whispers, too, but as he says, “You see, they’re in the mood to…” his voice returns to its normal volume, as does the rest of the band. Repetition of the backing lines with Geldof improvising elaborations and nothing but bongos behind them fades the song out.

Actually a clever choice for an opener on the remastered CD, “Straight Up” starts with yo-yoing drums from Simon Crowe and riffs from Gerry Cott and Garry Roberts. Fingers enters in the background on an organ, but after the initial sting of those riffs, the bassline tries to drag the song through a descending spiral, eventually succeeding and taking over the song with a propulsive line that acts as a more distinct backing for Geldof’s vocal. Fingers moves to piano and adds only intermittent force to the rhythm, catching more of the melody as they run into the chorus, where the organ holds and wails, but turns back to a piano that now follows the speeding bassline of Briquette to enforce its rhythm. Synth-inflected keys and varied drum fills mark a brief interlude, before the original bright, strong riff comes back. After the final verse, the song fades on the sounds of the interlude, which runs over Pete’s downward spiraling bass.

Almost absent of any lyrics at all, barring the title, “This Is My Room” is practically an instrumental song. A slow, bell-jingling introduction gives way to a harp-like cascade of electric keys from Fingers that slowly shuffles, gathering its force into a steady beat moved more by bass than melody. On piano again, Fingers drops the odd fluttering melodic line, the song running through a rise a few times with non-verbal vocals from Bob and the rest joining it. A solid chord from the piano is answered by thunder and the song changes, allowing a synthetic line to define it. “This is my room/Oh yeah/This is my room”, Bob sings, over dramatic rolls and rhythmic strumming of guitar. “I can sleep alone/I know how/I stay here on my own/And now/I wake from sleep with little rest/It’s 10 by 9 and in a mess/A window shut but facing west/A worn out rug, an old address/And…/This is my room”. Rolling timpani and emphatic guitar riffs give a huge weight to a simple, descriptive song.

Though I’ve seen it maligned on occasion, I’ve always liked “Another Piece of Red”. Fingers uses a pretty piano intro that morphs briefly into a musical quote that I couldn’t name if I tried (and I tried) but that is often used to “announce” a scene is set in Britain. I’d be quite grateful if anyone can in fact give me a title! [Update: It’s “Rule Britannia”, which I was convinced was the piece in question, but was deflected from when I heard how it starts. Probably should have listened to more of it! Thanks to Liam for this clarification] Anyway: Geldof begins singing about watching Zimbabwe fall from British control in the 1980 elections there that removed Ian Smith. Over nothing but Johnny’s piano, Geldof sings of the slow descent of British imperialism, pausing before the chorus for a rising drum roll from Crowe, and the addition of Briquette on bass for the following verses that list the countries falling away from the British Empire, Crowe contributing a light rhythm.  At the next chorus, the song is returned to just Geldof and Fingers, with the briefest addition of whistling and martial drumming, ending the song with a drum roll crescendo.

Huge drums–timpani in part–and Pete’s bass open “Go Man Go!” with a steady pace, but a very big sound. Fingers adds synthetic keys in a more bright melody that gradually pulls Crowe into a more rock-ish drumbeat. A very up-front-mixed vocal from Geldof (who answers himself in backing vocals) runs the vocals over a rhythm section almost alone, though a whirling organ line from Fingers brings the song to its chorus, which is primarily call-and-answer where the answer is always the title of the song, punctuated by the rhythm section. Synthesizer lines and Geldof’s back-and-forth with himself are expanded a bit in the following verse, later leading to a repetition of the chorus briefly delayed by a saxophone solo from Dr. David Machale (later immortalized in “Dave” on In the Long Grass, though the song was changed to “Rain” in the US, allegedly because some radio executives were concerned a man singing to another might be a bit “too gay”–always good to know the reasons behind those decisions are not irrational so much as stupid). The song ends with a long outro, then a squawk from Machale that Geldof responds to by saying “One more time”, but he earns instead a synthetic sting from Fingers.

Geldof re-arranges and re-works the Stones’ “Under My Thumb” into “Under Their Thumb…Is Under My Thumb”, a thumping beat and a reggae rhythm matched to a great beat from Crowe. An echo on intermittent drum hits and Geldof’s own voice echoes (ahem) the production techniques of the greats of dub. The pace and the peculiar key solo from Fingers keep the song firmly grounded in the Rats’ musical aesthetic though.

A peculiar percussive solo opens “Please Don’t Go” before turning into a more frantic and clear but difficult to separate rhythm motion added to by upward slides from Briquette, though the song breaks into more comfortable territory when Machale’s sax joins and Geldof begins telling another story, backing himself with the title of the song for a second time. While his story-telling is casual, and even his more distinctly sung backing, as well as Machale’s sax are relatively easygoing, Crowe and Briquette thunder onward underneath him, though Crowe’s drumming remains wild and varied, too, further emphasizing its difference from the rest of the song. There’s a momentary relent that allows Briquette to take control, giving Bob the opportunity to sing scat (!) for a few measures. An overlay of electronic keys from Johnny is allowed to shine over it all for just a moment, but the drums regain control, eventually crossfaded into another mechanical and rhythmic sound, which is eventually left in isolation: the tapping of a typewriter.

The biggest single from the album in the U.S. (I believe, at least–this band is not loaded with information around the net, and what’s there is often conflicting, at least in part, and they were never near as big in the U.S. as anywhere else) is “The Elephant’s Graveyard”, which is perhaps the most normally Rats song, with hints of Steve Nieve-y-circa-This Year’s Model³ organ from Fingers, which is followed by a more grand line on piano for a moment. Ever energetic Pete and Simon keep the song moving through either as Geldof sings about Miami, Florida, and Florida’s nature as “retirement state”, balanced against the riots that were incited by the death of Arthur McDuffie there. “Guilty, ’til proven guilty/Isn’t that the law?/Guilty, ’til proven guilty/That’s what we all saw”, goes the chorus–seemingly speaking for the jury that acquitted the accused police officers, but ending by turning it on them for a moment, exiting on calls of “Shame, shame, shame-y shame”.

On the other hand, the more definitive biggest single in the U.K. was “Banana Republic”, Geldof’s acerbic and acidic, but relatively casual description of Ireland, the band’s home country, from which they were banned from performing. A reggae-style bassline, the scratching, palm-muted guitar and the basic drumbeat adding up to the same give the song a rather odd opening, a drum roll seeming to announce the song proper, but instead leading to a repetition, over which Fingers vamps in a more organ-like keyboard line. When the song does begin, it speeds its pace and shifts entirely, to a  more full sound, with even faux accordion moments. The burbling, bubbling Briquette’s bass keeps the sound of the introduction, though, and the near-falsetto backing of the chorus and Bob’s own subdued reading of it–especially contrasted with his emphatic though seemingly jaded and unemotional (in tone, though not word) delivery of the verses. Partway through, Bob’s voice repeats the description of who he thinks controls it all–“The black and blue uniforms/Police and priests” and then echoes into the distance. We come back to the introductory reggae style, which continues of a lengthy outro, slowly breaking down until Briquette is left repeating his part alone at the end.

A very rough guitar and Geldof give a completely different impression of “Hurt Hurts” than the song itself bears out. Crowe’s huge drum sound announce the song’s title with handclaps and more volume and emphasis than the opening of the song. The movement in the pseudo-chorus is full and rhythmic, with an unusually low piano riff defining much of it. The crash and thump of Crowe’s drums, though, is the signature of the song, pounding out under the lightly echoed calls of “Hurt hurts” from Geldof, interestingly outshining the chorus proper as a hook.

Inserted from a b-side for the U.S. release, “Don’t Talk to Me” is perhaps the most “normal” song on the entire album, with Bob doing his best Buddy Holly impersonation (think “oh-ho-ho”), with a nicely backed chorus performed by him with the rest of the band, a load of handclaps and a bit of semi-standard guitar. There’s even a hint of some 60s (surfish) guitar sound, and an actual guitar solo.

“Up All Night” is on loan from another album entirely, though thankfully at least one produced by the same people. It’s also not too far off in sound from the rest of Mondo Bongo, so its appearance isn’t entirely unwelcome. Bass-dominated, the song is almost nothing else, though bongo-based percussion is also present. Guitars are all texture and often not present. Johnny’s fingers are also intermittent at best. The echo on Bob’s answering lines in the chorus are also reminiscent of the peculiar production choices on Mondo Bongo that set it so distinctly apart from its predecessor, The Fine Art of Surfacing. Fingers does get a solo, and the “Say it ain’t so, Joe/Say it ain’t so, Joe-woah-woah-woah/Oh-woah-woah-woah” bridge actually make for a solid ending to the album, even if the changes inherently raise my hackles.

Of course, hiding after this is the “hidden track” “Cheerio”: a very rough, live acoustic guitar backs Geldof through a very short song. “You’d better hurry up and say something/Or else I’m gonna go”, he sings, and the album ends. Ah, wait, no: “Okay./That’s fine by me./Cheerio!” Geldof sings with an angelic chorus of the rest of the band behind him, repeating it to the end of the album.

The Rats are one of my favourite bands. To many, that goes without saying. It shouldn’t be too much a surprise–even in the future, looking at past polls you can see what a volume of their stuff I have as compared to effectively any other artist (and it doesn’t include my double 7″ for “Charmed Lives”, either). I own all six albums on vinyl and CD, and scattered bits and pieces outside of that. They hit my sweet spot, really: a professional, unusual, but pop-oriented band. There’s a sensibility to Geldof’s songwriting that is easily seen in the choice to label a Rats-plus-Geldof-solo compilation Loudmouth, and in songs like his “Great Song of Indifference”, a live take of a first world occupant talking about their callous disinterest in suffering around the world. As with many things Geldof sings and does, there’s no sense that he’s preaching with a fuzzy head or cynicism about the cause: he never pulls punches (though he occasionally plays politics) about what he thinks is important–when he wrote a song about the man who took his wife away from him and later killed himself, it’s neither devoid of sympathy nor maudlin: “What the fuck’s goin’ on inside your head?” Frustrated, angry, but not dismissive, it’s the nature of Bob’s approach to things. He’s jaded and arrogant, but not without awareness of the fact that he’s limited. Matched to his musical sensibilities (steeped in punk, but later let dry out in other genres, most clearly starting with this album), it’s a great mix.

I’ve always thought of Mondo Bongo as “the experimental album”, with their self-titled debut being the most “punk”, A Tonic for the Troops building that sound into their own–often the moment I like most in bands–and The Fine Art of Surfacing putting a finish on it. I’m not left with that opinion changed, but as with every time I listen to one of the last three Rats albums, I’m reminded that I often sell them short. I’d still recommend a few of the others (Tonic, Fine Art) first, but this isn’t the failure some make it out to be.

²If you want specifics:

  1. “Straight Up” – 3:15
  2. “The Elephants Graveyard” – 3:43
  3. “This Is My Room” – 3:35
  4. “Another Piece of Red” – 2:35
  5. “Hurt Hurts” – 3:05
  6. “Please Don’t Go” – 3:34
  7. “Fall Down” – 2:26
  8. “Go Man Go!” – 3:52
  9. “Under Their Thumb” – 2:41
  10. “Banana Republic” – 4:55
  11. “Whitehall 1212” – 3:43
  12. “Mood Mambo” – 4:06
  13. “Cheerio”

³Steve Nieve is and was the keyboardist for Elvis Costello, first with the Attractions and now with whatever the heck he’s calling his band.