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Mark Stewart - The Politics of Envy

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Artist: Mark Stewart

Album: The Politics of Envy

Label: Future Noise

Review date: Mar. 27, 2012

The first wave of post-punk experimenters have been resilient, showing little of the complacency that settles in with other long-running performers. In the last 10 years, early oddities like The Pop Group’s Y have been re-assessed as classics. The Bristol brats’ band name was facetious at the time, but in the three decades since Y’s release, danceable rock that’s half synthesized and half ramshackle has become a free standing wing of pop, far closer to mainstream than it was the first time around. It’s opened up a new style of DIY: If those dudes’ disjointed beats and dogmatic rants can make the kids move, maybe our own little band of incompetents can run a party, too.

Still, The Pop Group, led by Mark Stewart, worked in an era when just modest sales could buy an artist time and gear to become more professional. As post-punk’s output became slicker, ironically, it became less influential. No one is going to model a track on late-’80s Wire when the strong skeletons of Chairs Missing are worth reanimating.

In 1979, when Stewart’s nagging crackle guided his band though funk and reggae rhythms, it sounded unlike anything else in the record shops. Soulful music was supposed to have smooth singing, or a least an on-key rasp. Stewart’s rhythmic fascinations later helped establish industrial music. His style favored big, programmed beats and cynical narratives, topped with the wide-open possibilities of studio production.

There’s a Pop Group spryness to Stewart’s latest full-length, The Politics of Envy. Basslines are persistent and motivating. This album is more of a party than most of his industrial-weight work, though it’s too overblown to be considered a return to early form. Co-conspirators (members of the Slits, Raincoats, Primal Scream and PiL) pitch in, and it’s hard to say exactly what they contribute other than singing along to the polemics. The chittering guitar is PiL’s Keith Levene, and the octogenarian filmmaker Kenneth Anger contributes Theremin. Both sounds could have come from anyone, but Theremin is an inspired choice of instrument to place before a non-musician you want in the album credits.

The big exception to the anonymity is Lee “Scratch” Perry, who does his crazy-prophet thing for "Gang War.” His presence pinpoints why this record is an entertaining, yet unsuccessful listen. The backing dub is strong, basically phased “Louie Louie” chords splattered across gunshot snares. But Perry opens the verses singing "Viva, Chavez." Contrarianism and radical chic can have their place, but the shout-out to a confirmed buffoon is simply deflating. (Hamas, Hezbollah get more ambiguous name drops, for what it’s worth.) Listening to Perry always involves panning through silt for gold, and putting up with utterly misguided rambling. This one is just sadly out of touch, and it’s hard to tell if Perry is deferring to Stewart or vice versa.

Because he’s been following the game so long, Stewart’s stylistic change ups come naturally. The bass wobbles of "Codex" work as their own thing, a degree away from dubstep clichés. "Gustav Says,” a goth night at the discotheque, is the most successful track because its goals are modest. Hardly austere, the layers still just aim for a good beat with a mysterious hook. For most of the record, Stewart looks to demolish Babylon, and he tries too hard. For a guy who came up with some of the more jolting statements against New Wave, he slings a lot of stock lines these days. I’ll bet you can fill in the blank here: “There’s a method to the madness / like there’s a reason to this rhyme / an ultimate weapon / for the perfect ______.”

Other members of the post-punk peerage have released good albums full with studio wizardry. Gudren Gut’s I Put a Record On and Barry Adamson’s Back to the Cat are bracing listens that only long-surviving nonconformists could have made. They’re also introverted affairs. Maybe the problem with The Politics of Envy is that these tracks just sounded too good playing back on shiny studio monitors to a roomful of old friends. If he’s struggling to say something about the wider world, maybe Stewart should consider a retreat into his own eccentric interior.

By Ben Donnelly

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