Fans could be excused for hesitating before paying recession dollars to see the Fall during Thanksgiving weekend's three-night stand at the Knitting Factory. Stories abound of indifferent gigs hamstrung by clotted electronics, inaudible vocals, equipment sabotage, and walk-offs. Their last stateside trek ended with a notorious April 1998 onstage meltdown at Brownies, the departure of several members, and Mark E. Smith's oft reported brush with New York's Finest.
However, there was hope for the faithful or curious. Overseas, word was that a recently remarried Mark E. was Fit and Working Again, by his standards, with a newly press-ganged, stripped-down band and a fresh, self-released disc, Are You Are Missing Winner. On Saturday and Sunday nights, the "new" Fall's guitar-bass-drums backing trio climbed onstage and established the weekend's blaring vamp-rock template with relative oldie "The Joke"; on walked the heavy-lidded, terminally poker-faced Smith to yawp "Uh right on, uh right on-uh."
Thereafter Mark & Co. followed a steady scriptthe nights had almost identical set listsdrawing on 2000's cleanly produced The Unutterable (from a since-sacked lineup), the bleary Missing Winner, and some miscellany; the proceedings were endearingly characterized by, yes, incomprehensible vocals. Consonant-free tunes like the new, ominously titled "Crop-Dust," with its Eastern-tinged, sinuous guitar lead and one discernible phrase, "stumble through the smoke," led into vehement, enunciated takes on the 1986 hit "Mr. Pharmacist," sparking pogo-dancers and, on Sunday, an audience altercation. The fracas distracted some folks from a winning cover of Tommy Blake's rockabilly "F-Oldin' Money"the title refrain sung with a mock-Elvis inflection. A laconic "Dr. Buck's Letter" alluded to the mental counseling of a Mark E. alter ego, with an ad-lib about toting "a Tolkien or . . . Catcher in the Rye." The growling "Two Librans," with protagonists who "sat on a hill," might have been referencing Yeats's "Lapis Lazuli"if you ignored words sounding like "Chechnya," "Timor," and "Oprah."
The avant angularity of the 1977-1983 Fall and the keyboards of their boppy mid-'80s singles were MIA; but the muscular, two-or-three-chord building-block rock provided the driving beat that's always complemented Smith's slurred delivery. The simplicity let onlookers concentrate on parsing his inscrutable, squinting presence and impenetrable declamations. In all-black, pirate-belted duds, Smith was an elfin Johnny Cash; from other angles, he had an ancient infant's physiognomy or, perversely, a drunken William F. Buckley Jr.'s. He occasionally tried singing without his mic (à la Darby Crash). Both nights he turned his back after the "Way Round" refrain, "I can't find my-uh way-uh"only to lurch around, jab his finger at the audience like a Mancunian Archie Bunker, and hilariously renew the complaint. A deadpan mumble-word interlude asked, "Mo-dern-in-ity, what is it? Where does it come from?" before predicting the revival of jousting and equating Blackpool with ancient Rome. Who knew? Saturday he slipped in a riff about uniformed men on Canal Street. Amid slightly canned sets, such weird glints were a cracked vulture's-eye viewtrademarks of a career spent pecking at modernity.
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