Mike Rubin

"E is For Everything"

THE VILLAGE VOICE, September 21 1993, pp. 71-72

"I'm full of surprises now," announced the Fall's Mark E. Smith; (the E stands for Endurance) on "The Birmingham School of Business School," the opening cut of 1992's Code: Selfish. Such a proclamation was not only a fuck you to those who'd forgotten his band (Manchester, Class of 1977, one year before Joy Division) in favor of newer Northern flavors and prescriptions, but a shock in itself, since the Fall have made a career out of the avoidance of unnecessary surprises. Like no one since James Brown, Smith and accomplices have tirelessly reworked variations of their trademark groove: an electrified avant-skiffle that combines scruffy prole art-punk, Teutonic trance-dance, and a rockabilly backbeat. Bassist Stephen Hanley takes it to the bridge, guitarist Craig Scanlon paints the lines in the toll lane with shards, of noise, and Smith stands in the middle of the road hollering at passers-by, replacing Brown's deep-gut "hunh" with a nasal "ah" - a rhythmic device that allows him to ensnare any word in his metered grasp.

With Fall albums coming as frequently as seasonal changes for the last 14 years, it was easy to take their remarkable consistency for granted. And with no U.S. deal for either Code: Selfish or 1991's Shift Work, it's taken American audiences a little longer to discover that Smith's got a brand-new bag So he has to say it loud, he's back and he's proud, all over again. After a string of hit-and-miss domestic releases, The Infotainment Scan (Matador/Atlantic) is their most durable effort since the breakup of Smith's marriage in 1989 (the E stands for Ex), lowering the volume of the keyboards that threatened to turn the last two albums into a rave and restoring the dense bass and guitar brawn to the kind of raving the Fall are known for: Smith's scabrous commentary and Dylan-esque Tarantula-speak.

One of pop music's more charming cantankerous cranks ("The Classical"'s introductory remark, "There are 12 people in the world; the rest are paste" has always been one of my favorite greeting card salutations), Smith seems still crazy after all these years (the E stands for Eccentric). Doing the rounds of the English music papers a few months back, the hardest working Mancunian in show business spent less time hyping the new album than dissing Pavement for sounding like the Fall used to ("Right fuckin' rip-offs....They've sold about 100,000 fuckin' LPs, these bastards"), betraying both a jealousy of the youngsters' ability to toss off good hooks like beads of sweat and a lack of market understanding that rivals Chevy Chase's.

But Smith has his tender side too. "I've sold my car/thrown in my job/I'm 34 years old," he croons over gentle guitar strumming and handclaps, and synth in Infotainment's "I'm Going to Spain," and even if he's really 35 and the song is a 1975 British novelty hit, it still sounds goopy enough to have come from his heart. Perhaps chastened by his busted marriage or the ignominy of being dropped by their British label (the E stands for Entropy), Smith seems to be confessing more, singing less from a character like his old alter ego R. Totale than from himself In "Paranoia Man in Cheap Shit Room," describing a "paranoid man in his mid-30s/at the height of paranoia/at the zenith of his powers" from beneath a great big Scanlon riff, he might even be dissecting his rant-prone persona.

Then again, given his crypto-poetic stance as a self-proclaimed "Slang King," one can never be sure exactly what Smith is complaining about (the E stands for Elliptical). Just when you think he's railing at Suede in "Glam Racket," haranguing "you hang around with camera crews and shell suits" over a souped-up "Rock and Roll Part 2" Glitter-assembled by Lawnmower Man beat, he starts babbling about rhinestones and a Clearasil museum" where "Duracell is in` con junction," and it turns out the suede he's interested in is a fabric.

As Smith sorts out his private demons and public enemies over Simon Wolstencroft's diatribal rhythms, the Fall's dynamic has localized in the struggle between the encroachment of keyboards upon Scanlon's guitar work. While Smith's partnership with singer-guitarist wife Brix helped shift the band from their droning atonal minimalism to a droning, atonal melodicism, her departure left a vacuum that Smith has filled with Dave Bush's synthesizer. The keyboards dominated Shift Work and Selfish, but on Infotainment they rightfully take a backseat to Scanlon's vintage scraping and scratching. Only on "Service" and "A Past Gone Mad," where electronic drum beats start exploding like those panting, gear-shifting, 10-speed bikers in Kraftwerk's "Tour de France," do the keyboards seem capable of setting off a disco inferno.

Live last month at the Grand, though, the synths evened the score, obscuring the guitars in the mix. In a set that focused mainly on the new album, Smith was at his antiperformer best (the E stands for Entertainer), fussing with the microphones and standing around grimacing so much he literally delivered his lines tongue in cheek.

Longtime drummer Karl Burns, missing for the last seven albums, was back in tow as a second percussionist, aiding and abetting the able Wolstencroft. After an absence from these shores of four years, however, the muddy sound didn't matter; finding the Fall fit working again was the big payback.

The Fall will be at the Academy on September 17.