Having fronted the Fall for a quarter-century and change, sui generis Mancunian sneerer Mark E. Smith has inspired the requisite volley of wisecracks about how he’ll be doing this in his wheelchair, none of which seem particularly off the mark. Smith provided fans with a preview of coming attractions when the Fall played the Knitting Factory in April. Smith fractured his hip in a non-metaphorical fall earlier in the year, and was thus confined to the posture of a lap pedal steel player. Deprived of his usual mic-stand-clutching stance, he was as commanding a presence as he’s ever been, particularly during a hilarious yet heartfelt one-note rendition of “Walk Like a Man.” The punchy set hit some highs that Fall fans have come to rely on—the band’s ever shifting lineup notwithstanding, it never fails to gorge itself on the moshing grind of “Mr. Pharmacist,” the greatest Fall song they never wrote—and flogged a few of the catchier chants from the band’s new album The Real New Fall LP. That disc’s unwieldy title stems from the fact that an early, reportedly slicker, version of the record got hijacked onto the Internet, after which Smith was moved to grunge up the mix for its official release. Enriching the lives of obsessive collectors everywhere, the record’s U.S. version boasts yet another mix (crisper, heavier on the acoustic guitars) and two new tracks. Exchange rates being what they are, it’s the one to get.
But is any version of Real New, as critics like to put it, a return to form? It’s certainly an improvement over the band’s last album, Are You Are Missing Winner, which at its worst (a grievously ill-advised rethink of Iggy Pop’s already ill-advised “African Man”) reeked of a listlessness suggesting a disastrous disengagement between crank Smith and his cranky persona. Still, the band’s prodigious recorded output—too prodigious, actually, as said output is littered with really dodgy live sets on fly-by-night labels, not to mention that the initial digitalizations of its early catalog sound as if they were mastered off bad vinyl through a board with a blown channel, on account of they probably were—has inspired the requisite volley of wisecracks about if you’ve heard one Fall album you’ve heard them all. Listening to the excellent new two-CD Beggars Banquet compilation 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong, I get a different and far more frightening idea: You haven’t heard a single Fall album until you’ve heard them all. (Full disclosure: I’ve lifted this theory from film writer Tim Lucas, who has waxed similarly about pervy no-budget auteur Jess Franco.) Because as gratifying as the 39-track selection is, from the dizzyingly irritating “Repetition” to the garbage-can-lid clatter of the faux epic “The Classical” to the insolent riff-rock of “Cruiser’s Creek,” when I’m listening I’m all too aware that I’m missing the stomping “Bingo Master’s Breakout,” the immortal sludge of “Slang King,” the gotta-have-more-cowbell crunch of “Right Place, Wrong Time,” et cetera. There is no such thing as too much of this shit.
What makes Real New real good is that it’s got more of the really good shit: “Theme From Sparta F.C.,” a loutish chant extolling the virtues of Ancient Greek soccer, “Contraflow,” a breathless slam on England’s green and pleasant land, and “Boxoctosis,” which features one of the great insistent choruses of our time. “Open the box/open the box/open the goddamn box,” Mark E. and the boys (and Mrs. Smith, keyboardist Elena) grunt, as if they’re cheering on Pandora. Smith is the post-industrial materialist’s answer to qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. While Nusrat trilled to the heavens in sessions lasting three hours or more, Smith is well into his third decade of concocting two-to-10 minute blasts of ice water into the face of hell. A miserablist drone with a killer backbeat—there’s Western Culture for you.