Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

While you can’t help but admire the punk aesthetics that were the driving force behind the band's sound, a lot of this is basically unlistenable now, the discordant guitars and yelping vocals (like the sound a Jack Russell would make if you stood on its paw) just aren’t palatable at all.

All in all, this is one for fans if you’re a completist, otherwise i’m pretty sure you can find more intelligent punk music from the period, trust me it isn’t hard.

I don't think anyone bothering to read these words needs to be told that this review, from "Kev" over at the UK site The Beat Surrender, is someone's assessment of a group that's a special favorite of mine.

I imagine the giveaway is probably the words "discordant" and "yelping."

One of the great pleasures of the post-punk years was the brief 18-month career of Scotland's Fire Engines. Though frequently lumped into the same scene that produced such bands as Orange Juice, Josef K, and Aztec Camera, Fire Engines didn't really resemble any of them. Instead, they produced a frantic, angular noise that owed more to Captain Beefheart's Magic Band than the pop artistry then appearing on the Postcard label.

It's no coincidence that lead singer/guitarist Davey Henderson, when asked what his favorite album was by Uncut recently, chose Trout Mask Replica. The small catalogue of work the band produced (collected on CD in 1992 as the now long-out-of-print Fond on Rev-Ola) features guitars that know no boundaries, ricocheting madly off the walls as Henderson wails about camouflage and candyskin.

Now, 25 years after their first record and 13 after the CD comp, Domino Records has released Codex Teenage Premonition, a collection of live tracks, Peel sessions, and early studio takes. Much of it, coming as it does from audience-recorded live shows, etc., is decidedly lo-fi, but after a few minutes you don't even notice. If any band could turn lack of sound quality into a virtue, this is it.

The first 5 tracks consist of those aforementioned studio tracks from 1980 and suffer the most from audio shortcomings but the music still shines through, especially if you're not familiar with their previously released counterparts. The next 6 date from an early 1981 show and sound much better, as do the 3 tracks from their very first gig in 1980. There's also a short clip in which Henderson, presumably, tells someone about how they're playing with this band U2 that he hasn't heard much from yet. In a perfect world, of course, it's the Fire Engines who would be doing iPod commercials now while Bono and the boys would just be getting around to their second CD.

But I digress.

Oddly, it's the US fans who get the extra tracks this time around, and they're worth the purchase price alone for die-hard fans. There's two Peel session tracks (including Candyskin without a string section!), plus their version of Franz Ferdinand's Jacqueline from the split 7-inch they released in which each band covered one of the other's songs. This is the jewel for me as I've been outbid every time I've tried to score a copy on Ebay (it was a limited giveaway at recent FF shows opened by the reunited Engines).

Though I still wouldn't mind hearing what the Ferdinands made out of Get Up And Use Me.

What's so strange about Jacqueline is how much these four guys still sound like The Fire Engines. Although Henderson has gone on to bands like Win and Nectarine No. 9 (a band I love just as much as FE), you wouldn't think a day had passed, let alone 25 years.

Chances are this is the Engines' last hurrah as they have no permanent plans to reunite, although I've seen a rumor regarding a possible appearance at the next South By Southwest. That might be enough to get me to hop on a plane.

Fans of the band will run out and knock people out of their way to buy this, but if you've never heard them before and don't have access to a copy of Fond or any of the original vinyl, this is a worthwhile investment until someone sees fit to reissue those recordings.

It remains some of the most exciting music to come out of the ferment of the Scottish scene in the early 80's, or any scene at any time, as many of today's better known and more successful bands will tell you.

In this case, you can believe them.


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