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8/10 ReviewBot300 Staff review, 15 November 2012
I’ve long been a fan of Luke Haines. I celebrate him as one of the country’s most acerbic, mischievous and underappreciated songwriters, and he’s more often impressed than disappointed, from the proto-Britpop glory of The Auteurs to the blase synthpop of Black Box Recorder, the vicious avant-pop of Baader Meinhof and a string of increasingly bizarre solo albums.
The last one contained a series of surreal scenarios featuring a cast of real-life characters from the golden age of British wrestling, and this time round he’s recruited a couple of chums, Cathal Coughlan (also of Microdisney and The Fatima Mansions, who takes joint responsibility for the singing and songwriting here) and Andrew Mueller, to expand this idea of the surreal reappropriation of historical characters and scenarios. The concept behind this record is to reveal a secret and previously unheard history of the British Isles, and even comes with a timeline poster taking us from the Anglo-Bulgarian War of 1241-1784 to the “4-day live coverage on RTE of State Wedding of Gerry Adams and Germaine Greer at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, concelebrated by various clergy and military leaders, including Rt Rev Kevin Myers, Primate of All Ireland.”
There’s two CDs here, with the option of listening just to the 15 songs, or the complete epic, sprawling show, which includes spoken interludes between each track which offer a somewhat Douglas Adams-esque dry commentary on the previously unrevealed activities of Chris Evans, Hawkwind, the actor Tony Allen, Enoch Powell and many more. It’s often hard to tell when it’s being played for laughs, there’s an almost Dali-esque quality to the way we’re left in a state of almost perpetual confusion as they spin increasingly implausible tales with a deathly earnestness. At one point there’s a happy occurrence of the phrase “effin’ and jeffin’”.
It’s a sprawling, confused mess in many ways. The songs are all arranged on guitar, piano and cello for a quite staid chamber pop feel mixed with a touch of pastoral psych-pop, I guess sonically it’s somewhere between the Divine Comedy and the Magnetic North, maybe? Couglan seems to handle the majority of the vocals but Haines pipes in with a few tracks too. There’s a very English, almost traditional style of songwriting, which is largely concerned with weaving this mind-melting narrative and seems a little short on acidic asides and caustic wordplay that might make 76 minutes a bit less of an endurance test.
Sometimes it really does feel like a deliberate stream of overblown nonsense, but even then it’s hard to tell if that’s the effect they’re aiming for in a sprawling, impenetrable, ironic critique of the ideas of truth, sensation, reportage and Englishness...and if it is, then surely this project is a success? Phil says it’s the sound of someone having a mental breakdown. Kim says there’s a fine line between genius and insanity. The plot is unfocused and keeps going off on bizarre tangents, and with the spoken word parts in between the songs as well it’s lyrically so dense, and packed with obtuse cultural references, that it’s going to take me a good couple of weeks to really figure out for myself if it’s a masterpiece or just the interminable ramblings of madmen convinced of their own genius. I think the truth probably lies somewhere in between, but there’s certainly plenty to chew on here.
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