Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Gang Of Four - Shrinkwrapped

If you got this far, you've probably heard of Gang Of Four. They're big enough to have played festivals fairly regularly without having to write anything new (Content was finally wheeled out a couple of months after time of writing). Nothing more than a couple of genuinely new songs surfaced for over a decade since their last record. More or less living off the fat of the critically acclaimed and highly influential debut album Entertainment!, the Gang's initial run lasted only a few years after this release in 1979, disbanding after descending from a tense and jarring rock that stemmed from punk and funk to dancefloor mediocrity, the only common thread being the politically charged leftist lyrics. The creative protagonists, lead singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill, resurfaced twice in the 90s with guest musicians, punching out an album called Mall that leaned heavily towards their dancefloor days but with a bit more rock involved and a harder funk. Then they did some work for an independent film (the three or four digit numbers at the box office sort of independent) and fashioned it into 1995's Shrinkwrapped. Shrinkwrapped has been accused of trying to emulate Entertainment!, which is a load of tosh. It is true that Gill and King made a significant shift from rock-tinged dance music back to rock music, so of course Shrinkwrapped would sound more like a rock album they crafted than disco material put out in the early 80s and early 90s. Oh, and there are some words on the cover, just as there were on the blood red cover of the debut. This doesn't really mean anything, the Gang have always been political and social commentators, and there was writing on the Mall cover too, and that sounds as much Entertainment! as Snoopy The Dog, 50 Percent, and all that gangster speakmusic shizzle. Maybe a little more, but you get the idea.

The difficult second paragraph, where I attempt to transition between what this album isn't and what you can actually find on it. Andy Gill's famous guitar work is back in the saddle at last, having been running alongside for over a decade (at least when Gang Of Four were running). It has changed from the 70's, but this is no bad thing. The heavy staccato that gave space for Dave Allen's funky basslines in the old days is gone, perhaps due to the band not having a dedicated bassist at this time. You do get a feeling of sparseness on the record, but it's not that blatant anymore, as Gill uses the guitar to fill more gaps. Of course, this is Andy Gill, so he did this with harmonics and feedback. His forays up the frets are still there, but they don't always sound quite so random, and are more often in feedback format rather than panicked picking. The rhythm section is a subdued affair and, while occasionally rearing its head, is relatively low in the mix. The rock may be back, but the punk and funk that fuelled Entertainment! and Solid Gold are as good as gone. The lyrical content's main beef is consumerism, and it makes viewing this album at this time all the more appropriate, and I wonder whether the band are privy to the clip of "Natural's Not In It" that's being used on a television advertisement for that XBox Kinect toy.

"Tattoo" takes us from the platform in style. Piercing feedback soon slides underneath Jon King's vocals, which are pinned as reliably as ever to the mid range for the most part. King scribbles out the persona of a creepy stalker type in the verses. The chorus, though, is crooned gently, and the guitar croons with it. A bright, catchy pop chorus, albeit a disturbing one, in a Gang Of Four song? They were rarely completely devoid of tune, but that's unheard of, so savour it. Some creepy vocals embedded in the outro fuzz take us to "Sleepwalker". No sarcastic cheer here, the guitar buzzes above and the rhythm ticks quietly below, leaving King's voice vast space to echo in the middle. the chorus is sung similarly, but it's a sulky line set to moody harmonics. "I Parade Myself" sees Gill work the guitar down low for the core riff, and King singing softly in the guise of an unjustifiably bold and proud so and so in characteristic Gang Of Four sarcasm.

"Unburden" is like most tracks that Gill lends his vocals too. With the exception of the classic "Armalite Rifle" and the comedy affairs on 1983's attempted bumshaker Hard, "Is It Love?" and "Woman Town", the songs tend to suit Gill's extremely monotonous delivery and are downbeat and gloomy. "Paralysed" will likely remain Gang Of Four's best Gill song, and "Unburden" is nothing spectacular. It has the edge on several Gill songs in that King isn't taking a break from smashing up microwaves and doing those weird routines that I should probably assume are stage dancing. That obscenely annoying eardrum-sandpapering harmonica melodica thing that ruined some great Gang Of Four classics like "Ether" is not present here, or at all on the album. Hurrah! Instead, we get a phone conversation of sorts. Gill talks to himself like a dejected old geezer who's lost the plot (intentionally) in studio voice, while the phone sex girl on the other end speaks through the wire, being predictable and paying no attention to the decrepit rambling. Musically it's fairly unsatisfying, but it works well enough as a mood piece to bring us down yet another notch, and as a vehicle for another of Gill's tales that assume the position of a man beaten down by society.

Surprise! After sending us spiralling down a case of increasing depression with the heartbeat ebbing away, we're now given a swift kick in the nuts. Loud rhythm guitar and urgent drumming usher in a return of the sort of shouty King that we're all familiar with. "Better Him Than Me" is not a great track, but it gives you enough of an adrenaline rush to sit up and pay attention. Next up Gill gets all middle-eastern on us on "Something 99". I was strongly reminded of about five minutes into "Pay The Man" by The Offspring, which came a few years later than this, where it kicks into life. King stays loud. If it wasn't for the unusual guitar hook, I'd say "Something 99" was too similar musically to "Better Him Than Me", which is a bit of a letdown on the otherwise varied and dynamic experience. This doesn't happen again, fortunately.

We're taken back down with some slow drums and an easygoing guitar. "Showtime Valentine" soon darkens to an interesting song, and King assumes the role of another loser, and goes out on a limb with both low and high notes. There's a bit of old funk coming through here too. The song gets up and starts, and ends with the fall of a wall of noise. "Unburden Unbound" is a disjointing affair. As the title hints at, it's not really a musical number. King and Gill discuss the characters briefly from "Unburden", a bass plods at times, and a guitar jangles sadly at times. That's it. Like the song it discusses, "Unburden Unbound" is followed by an assault to the privates. "The Dark Ride" is a little more exciting than the last wakeup call. Gill makes the guitar screech and squelch, and King eschews yelping some, and croons out another tuneful but haunting chorus. It doesn't soar like "Tattoo", but it works well.

Got us again! Gang Of Four get acoustic on yo ass, and yes, it sounds as soft and sappy as any rock band that's so used to pummelling our ears relentlessly with feedback and electricity that decided to get all sensitive on us. These chaps are sarcastic and biting enough that there's presumably some sort of message buried in there condemning society, making the gentle setting all the more contradictory, and I'm not sharp enough to catch onto it. Regardless, it's perfectly listenable, quite nice in fact, and if you've been riding the album with its ups and downs, it's easy enough to take in your stride. Even if you're a disappointed consumer looking for something more coherent, a) it's an easier pill to swallow than "Unburden Unbound" and b) well done for sticking with it this far.

"Shrinkwrapped" seals the deal. It's a pity that it couldn't be used to cleave the too similar "Better Him Than Me" and "Something 99", although I should be grateful that the Gang decided to avoid the hackneyed acoustic goodbye and gave us a strong end to the album. Drums lead the way, and a miserable King muses on how he's been swallowed up by consumerism. The backing "ahh" during the chorus and middle of the song is quite memorable. Perhaps it's because it's very unlike them, or perhaps it's because it goes down a treat with King's empty delivery, which is among his best performances here. Gill reins his instrument in, which allows the vocals in the mix to shine.

Not all fans of Gang Of Four's influential early work will like this album. They may have come three quarters of the way to full circle, but the circle has widened. It's too sensible at times, and lacks the consistent venom and groove. Those who appreciate Gill's style but also slightly more conventional rock sense will like it. How much those people like it will of course be hit and miss, as this isn't an album that you can easily put your finger on. If you listen to the record a few times, you do start to catch on to the groove. If you let it, Shrinkwrapped could easily grow into your second favourite Gang Of Four record. No prizes for guessing what record will be forever rooted as everyone's favourite.

Personal picks: Tattoo, Shrinkwrapped, Sleepwalker
Picks for others: Shrinkwrapped, Tattoo, The Dark Ride
Relative weaknesses: Better Him Than Me, Unburden Unbound

01 - Tattoo
02 - Sleepwalker
03 - I Parade Myself
04 - Unburden
05 - Better Him Than Me
06 - Something 99
07 - Showtime Valentine
08 - Unburden Unbound
09 - The Dark Ride
10 - I Absolve You
11 - Shrinkwrapped