Thursday, 28 April 2011

Leatherface - Dog Disco

There’s always been something inaccessible about the majority of the lyrics of Frankie Stubbs, and it’s hard to believe that a fair few of his songs are co-credited with other authors. The man’s mind appears to be seriously warped, and it’s impossible to believe that the minds of others could be similarly skewed. However, as Leatherface advanced and broke up and reformed with newer and older members in a strange cycle, things have gotten progressively scarier. The following lyrics, taken from “Bakelite” on 2004’s Dog Disco, are by no means misrepresentative of the lyrical sanity of the record.

'An overzealous tour guide that has to hide
Every time I hear that ice cream van, it’s pissing down outside
You’re weirder than the afterlife, you need a friend
Your fashion sense is no recompense, pardon my French' 

These lyrics, like many on this album, are cringeworthy at first read, and no better at first, second or third listen, and you wonder how frightening someone would have to be to be considered weird by Frankie Stubbs. However, there is an intangible poetic genius to a lot of his words, and you have to shrug your shoulders and admit that you couldn’t bust rhymes like that if your life depended on it, let alone defy a hoarse gravelly voice to put melody into them and put them into rock songs.

The cover of Dog Disco is even more cringeworthy than the lyrics, even if you don’t think they’re poetic. It’s as bad as the title could possibly suggest, a dog with sunglasses in front of a gaudy disco glitter ball thing. It’s right up there with some Dinosaur Jr and Hüsker Dü cover art in contention for “worst rock album cover of all time” (Without A Sound, Hand It Over, Flip Your Wig and Warehouse: Songs And Stories all spring to mind, but there are more ghastly offerings courtesy of both bands). Of course, this means comparing them with Hüsker Dü, and nobody could possibly have thought of comparing the two bands musically, except for the fact that loads of people have. Rest assured, this author is sticking solely to the eyesore comparison.

Aside from guitar layering to make the trio of Stubbs, long-time drummer/backup vocalist Andrew Laing, and not-as-long-time bassist/backup vocalist Davey Burdon sound like a four piece a fair chunk of the time, there aren’t too many sonic tricks here, and we can easily enough overlook this one because Leatherface has spent the majority of its career before and since Dog Disco as a four-piece. “Hoodlum” opens the account and has an upbeat hook that isn’t unique for the record, but doesn’t really tell the story of the record either. It sounds like it’s trying to be too catchy, but with the exception of a handful of early 90s songs, only a die-hard Leatherface fan would find themselves singing along to a Leatherface song. With the melodies and riffs that Leatherface have churned out, some would find that surprising, but while the best songs were memorable, they weren’t really sing-along anthems, and they sound like they’ve tried too hard here. “Diddly Squat” falls into the same trap, and also suffers from not being quite as upbeat, and Stubbs sounds like he’s trying to fit entire anecdotes into four bars, cramming in too many words. It has a nice breakdown, but it doesn’t save “Diddly Squat” from being a fair measure worse than what was a disappointing first track.

Things start to pick up, though. “Heed The Ball” is dosed out much more cleverly, with some much heavier riffs beefing up a slower song. The verses have a lot of punch, and the chorus breathes. Without doing anything spectacular, the song’s a vast improvement and dispels the doubts that Leatherface had lost their touch. “Small Yellow Chair” appears to touch on the same subject of fatherhood that “Diddly Squat” had, but everything’s reined in, and the whole song’s allowed to breathe freely, giving us a pop gem that the album really needed at this point.

One of the album’s more interesting songs, “Raga” features lead vocals from Laing, who’d previously done so for a track on 2000’s Horsebox and an earlier cover of a Snuff song. Whilst his fairly high-pitched and monotonous voice is usually accepted as a good complement in the backup role, it makes a nice change here. The song features an unusual guitar rhythm, a hint of piano in the background, and a tone-lowering effect. “You” picks up the mood a little, but drops the pace a little. Most of the singing is done with backing, which gives it a nice effect, but you almost feel a little bit let down by the simple vocal patterns and lack of obscure lyrics. There’s a neat little moment with just Stubbs and his guitar, but it doesn’t thrust the song out of relative obscurity. You could be fooled into thinking it’s a highlight though, because it’s followed by the worst song on the album. “Eggbound” contains even more word cramming than “Diddly Squat”, and the basic upbeat riffs make it sound even more ridiculous. At least it has the decency to be short.

A snarling riff launches “Red Diesel”, a very aggressive track that contains many of the best Leatherface lyrics around. The whole track’s a hoot, but it’s easy to pick favourites.

‘Have you seen your dog
It’s a Lhasa Apso
It was on the back seat
Of that Fiat Uno you stole’

‘Someone’s drawn tits on my neighbour’s back door
That always makes me smile
That artist has got some style
I think I’ll sit here for a while’

Never the easiest to make out, but Stubbs has me in stitches with this one. Aside from the lyrics, it’s fair to say that it’s actually a tidy little rocker, and if you’re in an extreme mood that makes you impervious to the lyrical genius, then you can still appreciate the kick in the pants. It’s followed up by “Bakelite”, which recalls “Heed The Ball” in pace and structure, and is exactly as long, eerily. It’s a little less aggressive, which actually makes it a slightly better song.

“Plastic Surgery” is the album’s biggest departure from balls to the wall rock. For the most part, it’s just Stubbs and a sparse, slightly choppy guitar with a whiskey-soaked blues feel to it. A smooth chorus with some gentle drumming and bass break up Stubbs’ geriatric musing. Burdon exercises his lower-middle-ranged drone on lead vocals in the next song, amusingly titled “Rabbit Pie Alibi”. Even more aggressive than “Red Diesel” in the verses and general guitar work, the song is well punctuated by Burdon and Laing harmonising on the chorus, which is strangely uplifting, and it’s probably the only time the two will have done so in the Leatherface canon. The guitar solo’s a little bit too messy, but it’s a good song for Burdon to leave his mark with. “Heart Is Home” has a fair bit of that feedback that you could describe as being wet (but not in a sexual way). The saturated sound of the final track distracts you from the fact that this is a very basic song lyrically, and washes over the listener, reminding them that they’ve been through one of the boat’s roughest musical journeys.

Since being superseded as the most recent record, all Dog Disco is likely to be remembered for is that cover art and the uh, memorable lyrics. The confused looks a friend got after I got him to put “Red Diesel” into a fancy jukebox in a student pub were priceless. Ah, to be young and careless. But when all’s said and done, if you’ve sat through the album and grown accustomed to Stubbs’ voice, you have to hold your hand up and concede that they’d done it again. The album is generally much heavier sonically, and contains some of Leatherface’s most brutal work, and yet the restraint in parts is more evident than ever. The baffling songwriting goes hand in hand with the greatest variety they had thrown into an album, even in spite of not having other instruments in any prominent roles. Clever songcraft isn’t so much about adding textures and layers and instruments, it’s what you do with the tools you have.

Personal picks: Plastic Surgery, Red Diesel, Raga
Picks for others: Small Yellow Chair, Plastic Surgery, Bakelite
Relative weaknesses: Diddly Squat, Eggbound

01 – Hoodlum
02 – Diddly Squat
03 – Heed The Ball
04 – Small Yellow Chair
05 – Raga
06 – You
07 – Eggbound
08 – Red Diesel
09 – Bakelite
10 – Plastic Surgery
11 – Rabbit Pie Alibi
12 – Heart Is Home