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Fire Engines - Hungry Beat

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Artist: Fire Engines

Album: Hungry Beat

Label: Acute

Review date: Nov. 2, 2007

The tinny guitars, the cowbell-soaked drums, the walking bass lines, the unhinged, unintelligible vocals – everything about the Fire Engines is thrilling the first time you hear them. More abrasive than Orange Juice and less morose than Josef K, these four Scots had a singular sound that has never been successfully duplicated. It's a rich, complex music that retains vestiges of a punk aesthetic even at its most polished moments, an incredible synthesis of garage rock, pop, funk and the avant-garde that still sounds fresh today, perhaps because it reminds us of what we’ve lost.

The Fire Engines came together out of bassist Graham Main, drummer Russell Burn, and the twin guitars of Murray Slade and Davy Henderson, occasionally aided by the latter’s shambling vocals. From January to December of 1981, the band flowered and died in less than a year’s time, cranking out three singles and a mini-album’s worth of material. Group members have gone on to participate in Win and Nectarine No. 9, but nothing they’ve produced is quite up to the standards set here. Intricate, freewheeling compositions are the name of the game, matching furious rhythmic guitar to shards of feedback and spasmodic beats. Early cuts like “Get Up and Use Me” and “Everything’s Roses” have a way of grabbing you by the throat, jerking you around, and forcing you to dance – with the caveat that you trip over your own feet after every refrain.

The band’s first and only LP, 1980’s Lubricate Your Living Room, clocked in at a lean half-hour and is represented on the new compilation Hungry Beat in its entirety (along with four alternate versions of its best tracks). Less compromising than the “Get Up and Use Me” single, the songs rarely employ vocals; on the occasion that Henderson’s mangled inflection does appear, it’s seldom in the form of melodic accompaniment. From the brief “Plastic Gift” to the epic noise-jam “Discord” and the hypnotic riffs of “Lubricate Your Living Room Parts 1 & 2,” the drums skitter over each part of the kit against vibrant bass lines and guitar freakouts that would make Lou Reed smile. The production adds a good deal of charm as well, with every instrument perfectly audible but with a slightly hollow intonation, thin and sharp. Lubricate is distinguished mostly by the band’s inability (or refusal) to play any two notes next to each other, every instrument choosing to repel like magnets.

Lubricate Your Living Room has a rather homogeneous quality to it, as if every song were a nuanced variation on one awesome riff. But those who think the Fire Engines were just a one-trick pony would be wise to listen to some of the oddball pop songs they produced in the wake of that first (and only) album. “Candyskin” is the band’s best-known and most beloved tune, featuring a mellifluous chorus and dynamite string arrangements by Simon Best. The band even resorts to the most saccharine pop trope of all, degenerating into a series of phonetic “la-la-la”s for the song’s finale. Its buoyant, unflagging optimism carried it all the way to No. 7 on the UK indie charts. “Meat Whiplash” continues in this vein, adding to the mix some strangely droning, hypnotic interludes. No longer at odds with each other, the instruments flow together into a deftly layered whole. Their last single, “Big Gold Dream,” is a strange attempt at fusing indie rock and disco, pairing a funky bass with their trademark guitar shards; the chorus explodes in a wave of synthesizers and female backing vocals, making “Big Gold Dream” the weirdest song the group ever put to wax.

All that said, Hungry Beat doesn't contain any surprises for established Fire Engines fans. It's merely the latest retrospective, following closely on the heels of 2006’s Codex Teenage Premonition, and and neither include the band’s classic, raucous cover of Heaven 17’s “We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thing.” But for our purposes, Hungry Beat offers an occasion to celebrate the work of one of the UK’s most brilliant and reckless post-punk bands.

By Seth Watter

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