Sunday, 9 January 2011

China Drum – Simple / Great Fire / Barrier / Fall Into Place / Pictures / Can’t Stop These Things / Last Chance / Goosefair

The Japanese get more than everyone else. I don't know why, they're just better than you. Or maybe are trying to cut out imports. Hardly seems fair though, does it? Smug online music stores are even doing it these days. If it's about importing, they just shouldn't charge so much in the first place. Not only are we the non-Japanese short on material time and time again, but Muggins here has so many bonus tracks from the previous releases to refer to in this case that I might as well just discuss them all. There isn't all that much in the way of releases before that, and because songs from nearly every prior release manage to find their way onto the full length record's main content as well as the bonus tracks, I might as well just discuss everything. So much for just reviewing Goosefair, thanks a bunch.

Now, to take a little respite from hacking away at bonus tracks, obi strips and consistently recycled material, the music. It's only pop-punk, really. If you think Descendents belongs in the pop-punk category and noticed that emo was something different to today's tripe back in the 80s and didn't always suck quite so badly, then China Drum can be defined rather easily as pop-punk. If Blink Hundred And Eighty Two, Green Day and The Fallout Boys are your 'ard as nails system-defying punk rock heroes, then they can rather easily be defined as too good for you, and you're either here by some sort of freak accident, or are perhaps doing some research into finding a better way. Here's to hoping.

China Drum formed back in 1989 out in the sticks somewhere near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and few people know what happened in the first few years. I'm not one of them, quite conveniently. Appearing on the radar circa 1992 with a few demos recorded with nearby Sunderland legend Frankie Stubbs in his bunker, it wasn't until 1993's Simple was punched out and promptly snapped up by some of the jockeys on BBC Radio 1, who would support the band for a number of years (although the public never caught on), that they broke through. The eponymous track doesn't sound that spectacular at first. Lead singer Adam Lee's drums sound a bit laboured, and his stout, chunky vocals don't quite have the power here, and the backing vocals provided by the McQueen brothers are present throughout almost all of the three songs provided. At this point I should mention that retrospect taints my opinion because a re-recording of the song a few years later proved superior sonically. The melodies present are decent, but not particularly special, and it's a relatively seething track that could have benefited (and eventually did) from a more venomous Adam Lee. Still, nobody said being a lead singer and drummer was easy. "Simple" will grow on you, but it’s superseded by "On My Way", a slightly slacker version of which was present on the demo recorded in Stubbs' bunker. It's not lyrically much happier, and still contains hints of aggression, but it's much brighter on the whole, and the pop melodies that set the band apart from just any other band are in force here. A tuneful vocal refrain in front of a brief bass section and then a solo style guitar see out the end of the song. The final song on this release gives us the first of many incarnations of "Meaning". It's perhaps the least exciting, but not the least interesting, mainly thanks to the bluesy guitar strokes in the chorus. Lyrically more interesting than the other two, and lacking percussion, at least this form of "Meaning" stands out as different from the others. Stubbs liked it so much that he recorded a more standard electric guitar and drums version with Leatherface, which was released on their Little White God single, complete with the same Lost Boys quote, albeit half-sung by someone else. I don’t really like these tape quote things, it’s like having someone interrupt every single time you listen, and causing you further grief when strangers give you even stranger looks for telling these fictional characters off for interrupting. “On My Way” is the strongest track, but “Meaning” highlights a more creative band.

The next year, we were presented with Great Fire. A shining example of the band’s knack of producing a brand of music that was rather uplifting but with a veiled anger, “Great Fire” also sees Lee’s voice break out from the backing vocals a bit more as they improved. Clocking in at over four minutes, it’s much longer than anything on Simple. The opening salvo gives some big guitar and some big drums. The verses are standard fare, but the chorus has a more interesting melody to it. Some chugging guitars and complete instrumental breaks break up the song well. The last minute or so is more of an extended outro, and although some of the lyrics are repeated, the delivery isn’t, and the musical changes prevent it from actually dragging on. Following on from the subtleties of “Meaning” on the last release is a full-blown acoustic, replete with extra strings. “Biscuit Barrel” is sullen, but quite excellent. The lyrics are fairly bland, as they frequently were with the band, but this is the first time Lee really shows off his vocal power. His voice is chunky, but it finally really stands out in the choruses, and not just because of the lack of instrumentation and supporting vocals behind it. A nice outro is spoilt by a Western-style quote. Stop interrupting, Hoss!. “Meaning” returns in a more standard power-pop formula, and compared to the original it definitely packs a punch, if being a lot less crafty in doing so. It won’t go down as the best version for many, as the Leatherface cover version is much more interesting, although the song doesn’t really suit Stubbs’ vocal style. Still, the chugga-chugga in the post-chorus gives this one something different. The single is rounded off with a live, early version of “Down By The River” that didn’t see a studio recording until the band’s stylistically shifted Self Made Maniac. Just a guitar and some harmonised singing to start with, the rest joins in after a minute. As live recordings go, the quality isn’t too bad, and the effect-laden solo gives the song a bit of distinction, but it’s not breathtaking. The right tracks are definitely on the A-side here.

The first and arguably best of the singles that the Drum released in 1995 was Barrier. A powerful opening salvo gives way to a light, simple verse, but the blistering pre-chorus brings the energy right back into the fold, and the chorus keeps it up. After the second wave, the song begins to evolve, and some great vocals kick in at a higher level that hadn’t been sustained on the band’s previous singles with the exception of “Biscuit Barrel”, and it’s great to hear a little dexterity used to enhance a standard China Drum song. The song clatters out with more energy than it started with after four exhausting minutes. “Brain” is a little more laid back, but follows a similar pattern for the most part. It does get a bit moody once or twice, though, and after one last charge, the song ends on a bit of a downer, with the bass actually getting a little audio space from the massive guitar. Another fine track, if not quite as fantastic as the title track. As with “Great Fire”, both “Barrier” and “Brain” appear to be longer by extension rather than by design, but again, neither of them sound as protracted as they are thanks to some smart crafting. That goes out the window for the second half. An amusing little voice-over introduces us to “One Way Down”, half the length of the previous songs, less memorable perhaps, but it’s simple, catchy, and puts a smile on your face, which is exactly what a good power-pop B-side should do. If this live version of “Sleazeball” (another one not to appear in studio format until it became a B-side in the Self Made Maniac era) were included on an album, it’d be classed as a horrendous letdown, but because it’s a single, it’s merely a disappointing inclusion. The verse is sulky, but not entirely dull. It’s the lack of anything to hook onto vocally or musically in the chorus, which tries to be powerful but just comes off as noisy and petulant. The last three minutes of it consist of dull noise that seems to completely lack cohesion. Other than this, Barrier was a top release.

The second of the year, Fall Into Place, saw the end of the four minute (genre-relative) marathons that shone on previous singles, as well as the first real signs of recycled material. “Fall Into Place” is a good song, but it’s very by-numbers. Palm-muting in the verses, harmonising in the chorus, reining it in for the middle eight, you’ve heard it a million times. An impassioned vocal delivery and unusually deep vocals in that middle eight are the only things that set it apart, suggesting that it perhaps wasn’t singleworthy. “Simple” appears, and it’s the exact same version that was taken from the Simple single, as was “On My Way”. The live version of “Barrier” is decent, but doesn’t match the studio version. Fall Into Place threw up different second-half tracks on the vinyl and compact disc releases, and I’m not sure what the live version of “Great Fire” on the vinyl sounds like, but it can’t be that bad given that “Barrier” was decent enough. “Cloud 9”, the other vinyl-specific track, was originally released on a compilation before Great Fire came out, and was produced by that man Frankie Stubbs. It features a different intro to the version made for Goosefair, which distinguishes it, but otherwise it suffers from the same flatness that “Simple” did. Around this time a few compilation EPs were released, one called Rolling Hills And Soaking Gills (after a “Meaning” lyric) with seven of the supposedly best previously released tracks (“On My Way” and “Brain” were inexcusably omitted) and “Fall Into Place” as the focus track, sharing the same cover art. The other was confusingly also called Barrier, and this extended play omitted “Fall Into Place” and had different cover art and "Barrier" moved to the front of the tracklist, but was otherwise the same, and released in America instead of Europe.

Pictures had all new content, but didn’t have very much content compared to previous singles. Manic laughter brings us “Pictures”, which is a hostile track driven by bass guitar, piss and vinegar. The band haven’t gone heavy metal here, or down the atonal route of “Sleazeball”, the element of pop-punk is still clear and present, but “Simple” was knocked off its pedestal as the most spiteful track in the canon with a vicious hostility that lacks any respite. In complete contrast, a small slice of acoustic pop called “Last Chance” follows. The vocal delivery is meant to be relaxed, but sounds lethargic. The guitars are charming enough, but the most annoying thing about this version of “Last Chance” is that it’s so short. Barely longer than a minute, and with the way it ends, it just comes across as lazy. A work in progress, it’s a space to watch.

The turn of another year saw the release of Can’t Stop These Things. Like Pictures, it has deceptively innocent cover art concealing an abrasive title track. It’s not quite as venomous, and the vocals in the chorus fly higher than anything on “Pictures”. The pounding drums are a stronger feature here, and the longer restrained section allows more tension to build, making “Can’t Stop These Things” a stronger song overall. The infamous cover of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” is here. I didn’t think the song was that great, although having listened to the original song, I learned what all the fuss was about. They steamrollered over the original, making the song heavier with the addition of guitars and such, and yet making it much more upbeat. After this almost pranksterish cover, “Drown It” is much more grown up, and therefore only available to people who bought the CD. The music almost stops entirely at times, and even the palm muting part sounds more adult thanks to a sullen tone throughout that deceives the listener into believing the song has a slower tempo than it actually does.

Last Chance was the final relevant single release, done more or less concurrently with Goosefair. A space worth watching indeed, “Last Chance” is back, with electric guitars, a better vocal performance, and an infectiously bouncy nature. Power-pop at its very best. There is a small hint of aggression, they haven’t gotten too carried away with daisies and sugar lumps, and the same applies to “Walk”. Not as ear-grabbing as the title track, but just as packed with melody, it’s a far cry from “Pictures” and “Can’t Stop These Things”. “Cut Them Out” is a bit more attacking due to the drum track and the increased tempo, and a little variety makes it a stronger track than “Walk”. “Careful With That Chieftain Adam” is a strange instrumental, combining some tribal drumming with some almost latin acoustic guitar work and some cheery whistling. Of course, this fun, almost childish cut is unsuitable for the vinyl record purchaser, and was omitted from the 7” along with “Cut Them Out”.

And finally, the one record that I wanted to review, and I’ve already reviewed about two thirds of it. It’s a favourite, but given how frequently I’ll need to refer back begrudgingly to previous releases, you wouldn’t believe me. “Goosefair” isn’t exactly a new album, but there is enough new material for it not to be a greatest hits type compilation, and it’s arranged rather well. The production here is great, everything sounds crisp and clear. “Can’t Stop These Things” is a fitting way to open Goosefair, and it’s the exact cut taken from the single. “Cloud 9” is reworked, and while the introductory guitar is a bit simpler, the slicker production suits it to a tee, and the power of the song is realised. “Fall Into Place” is taken direct from the single version.

Next up is “Situation”, a new song! Nope, wrong again, one thing we can’t control is how the band aren’t bothered about adding up the songs taken from somewhere else, meaning that the loser is originality. Having said that, this version of “Situation” is almost completely reworked musically from the version that was recorded in Frankie Stubbs’ bunker four years earlier, and it’s a jaunty song with a strong drum track, memorable back-end refrain, and the unusual distinction of the verses outgunning the chorus. “Simple” is given similar treatment to “Cloud 9”, with a faster tempo and better vocal delivery. “Biscuit Barrel FMR” has gained electric guitars, and three mysterious letters. I’m not a huge fan of either, because although the song comes off quite well in this format, the acoustic version just suits the song better. Also because I don’t know what those damned letters stand for and it makes me feel like I’m being left out of a secret message or internal joke. How excluding. At least there’s no weird voice-over in this version.

“God Bets” is actually new, and is, funnily enough, one of the weaker cuts present. The guitar stays more in the highs than the middle, leaving space for the bass guitar, but neither does anything brilliant, and the song treads a space between sulky and annoyed and comes off as not enough of either. It’s not a bad song, but it just falls relatively flat on the record. “Pictures” flexes its muscles and shows its predecessor who the boss is in this re-recorded format that nevertheless sounds very similar to the original, although the extra slick helps marginally. “Find The Time” is also new, and threatens to go down the same path as “God Bets”, but some catchy melodies and a neat pre-chorus pull it a few notches above.

“(Had A Good Idea On) Monday” almost veers towards a ska vibe at first, but that soon passes, and we’re left with a catchy new song. Hooks galore, and a more upbeat nature much needed at this point. “Last Chance” takes the jovial road even further, and is taken directly from the single. “Take It Back” is the spiritual closer to Goosefair, and is a great song. A quiet guitar soon gives way to a more standard formation. The verses are a little bland, but the rest of the song is great, especially the bit in the first chorus where it slows right down for a few lines. After fifteen seconds of feedback, what feels like an acoustic bonus track is upon us. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s “Meaning” again, and finally at its best. Percussion-free, a fuller acoustic guitar, and decent vocals make a good song great. “Better Than Me” brings back the electrics in a slow, gloomy fashion that doesn’t really befit Goosefair. It’s not a bad track if not a great one, and just about gets away with it by being in a sort of half bonus part of the album. Nothing short of twenty-seven minutes of silence is part of the track, before the appearance of the hidden bonus, “Wuthering Heights”, from the Can’t Stop These Things release. There is, of course, a slew of Japan-only bonus tracks that I’ve already discussed and don’t care to mention again.

Of course, the greater amount of writing that the circumstances surrounding this album have caused me warrants another diatribe. No lyrics in the packaging? What’s that about? We’ve all come to expect it, at least in full lengths, but no, sometimes you just don’t get any. It’s not clever, and it’s not helpful. Lee’s vocals are quite clear, but that’s not the point. This album goes one step beyond the regular threshold of annoyance though, and scattered around the colourful pictures of the actual goose fair are random lyrics. Most of them aren’t even from the album! There’s one from “Can’t Stop These Things”, but most of them seem to be taken from “Great Fire”, one of the few songs I thought they’d managed to leave alone and keep out of Goosefair, but no, those canny fiends found a way. All I can say is, get over the annoying way in which the songs kept being put out, and enjoy some top notch pop punk that went under the radar thanks to all that Britpop nonsense that was being churned out at the time.

Personal picks – Barrier, On My Way, Last Chance (electric), Meaning (acoustic), Drown It, (Had A Good Idea On) Monday, Biscuit Barrel (acoustic), Pictures (new), Great Fire, Brain
Picks for others – Last Chance (electric), Can’t Stop These Things, Take It Back, Simple (new), Cloud 9 (new), One Way Down, Situation (new), Meaning (acoustic), Walk, Wuthering Heights (Kate Bush cover)
Relative Weaknesses – Sleazeball, God Bets


01 – Simple (old)
02 – On My Way
03 – Meaning (half-electric)

Great Fire
01 – Great Fire
02 – Biscuit Barrel (acoustic)
03 – Meaning (electric)
04 – Down By The River [Live]

01 – Barrier
02 – Brain
03 –

One Way
04 – Sleazeball [Live]

Fall Into Place
01 – Fall Into Place
02 – Simple (old)
03 – On My Way (Cloud 9 (old) on vinyl)
04 – Barrier [Live] (Great Fire [Live] on vinyl)

01 – Pictures (old)
02 – Last Chance (acoustic)

Can’t Stop These Things
01 – Can’t Stop These Things
02 – Wuthering Heights (Kate Bush cover)
03 – Drown It (CD only)

Last Chance
01 – Last Chance (electric)
02 – Walk
03 – Cut Them Out (CD only)
04 – Careful With That Chieftain Adam (CD only)

01 – Can’t Stop These Things
02 – Cloud 9 (new)
03 – Fall Into Place
04 – Situation (new)
05 – Simple (new)
06 – Biscuit Barrel FMR (electric)
07 – God Bets
08 – Pictures (new)
09 – Find The Time
10 – (Had A Good Idea On) Monday
11 – Last Chance (electric)
12 – Take It Back
13 – Meaning (acoustic)
14 – Better Than Me…Wuthering Heights (the latter a hidden track internationally)
Japanese bonus tracks
15 – Cut Them Out
16 – Walk
17 – Careful With That Chieftain Adam
18 – Drown It
19 – Last Chance (acoustic)
20 – On My Way
21 – Wuthering Heights

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