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The Fall - The Complete Peel Sessions 1978-2004

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Artist: The Fall

Album: The Complete Peel Sessions 1978-2004

Label: Castle Music

Review date: Nov. 28, 2005

From a distance, the box that holds this six-disc collection of all 24 of the Fall’s sessions for BBC DJ John Peel looks like a brick. Up close, its chipboard sleeve looks more like a thick volume on your bookshelf. Both are a propos, for this set is a cornerstone not only to the Fall fanatic’s library, but a volume to consult for anyone trying to make sense of the significant rock music of the last quarter century.

Echo and the Bunnymen, the Dead C, Pavement, Mouse On Mars, they and many others have paid explicit homage to the Fall. The band’s invented whole careers for others, then cast them off in their shark-like restless insistent on keeping moving to keep alive. The Complete Peel Sessions charts an alternate time-line through all of the band’s phases; from their brilliant, primitive early recordings through their engagements with slickly coifed semi-popularity in the late ’80s and ’90s to their recent garage-steeped renaissance; from entropic racket to clanking rockabilly to fucked-up (or not) dance-pop; from the bitter rant “Industrial Estate” to the lacerating character portrait “Hip Priest” (which bizarrely appeared in the basement stalking sequence of Silence of the Lambs) to the obscurely telegraphic “Levitate” to their recent shamelessly hand-waving cover of the Move’s flower-power anthem “I Can Hear the Grass Grow.” It captures them impossibly good (the three Godlike sessions from 1980 and 1981), really bad (a pathetically sluggish performance of “Touch Sensitive” from 1998 by a version of the band that would soon break up in the course of a legendarily chaotic American tour), and compellingly ugly (a lumbering, synth-heavy cover of the rockabilly obscurity “Jungle Rock” from the same session that brings you face to face with an artist aware of his dissipation, trapped and furious but by no means down for the count). It redeems songs like “Garden” (from the March 1983 session) that failed on record with more vigorous performances. The crisp almost-live-in-the-studio recording renders comprehensible lyrics that were lost in the murk. You can hear the band breaking in new songs, reinterpreting old ones, doing things they’d never do on an album. Christmas carols? See session 18, from 1994, for a “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” that’ll bring a tear to your eye.

There is no typical Fall sound aside from the inimitable snarling, drawling, pitiless utterances of band-leader and sole constant member Mark E. Smith. He’s most legendary (and most easily mocked) for one vocal tick; his tendency to end lines with the syllable “uh,” as in “Hail the New Puritan-uh Righteous maelstrom-uh, Clock one-uh!”

But that’s just the first in an ever-expanding lexicon of rolled Rs and lip smacks and tongue pops and irate sputters that pick up where words leave off. I swear, on recent records it even sounds like he varies the amount of denture adhesive he uses in order to illustrate or obfuscate some lyrical point. But it’s not as though words fail Smith. He’s churned out some of the most powerfully impenetrable verbiage in rock and roll, only to turn around and mumble “I’m a mummy” with palpable glee. To hear Smith in his early prime was to see England from the point of view of one of the country’s lesser-valued vantage points, that of the barely-working working class that inhabited the nation’s crumbling industrial north in the grim 1970s. But where most of the class of ’76 lodged their grievances with shouted slogans, Smith often dragged out a plethora of skewed but keenly observed details and tied them up like sailor’s knots. Then he’d trip you up with a distillation like these lines from “Container Drivers”: “Bad indigestion / Bad bowel retention / Speed for their wages / Suntan, torn short sleeves.” After that, do you ever need to hear another song about truckers? Over time, Smith’s mutterings have grown increasingly cryptic, but he can still land blows on tunes like the recent “Contraflow,” where he spouts about hating the countryside and its denizens.

There’s no point serving up a disc-by-disc commentary of this collection. No matter what phase you love the most (even Smith’s mother couldn’t love ‘em all), you’ll find something on every disc worth investigating, pondering, hating, and ultimately embracing.

By Bill Meyer

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