The Church Of Me
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, February 21, 2003

Bullies are all talk, of course. We all know that. And we know the vulnerability and essential helplessness which lie beneath the bluster. What I’m saying is, with Ego War, the debut album by the SW London duo Audio Bullys – the originators of what is only semi-helpfully called “hooligan house” – do not expect a raved-up Oasis. Expect mumblings in the corner, drawbacks, shows of confidence. Do not expect a 21st century Bentley Rhythm Ace. If it’s an “ego war,” it’s a war between ego and selflessness.

Everyone’s going to do it, so why don’t I go first - Ego War is going to be deemed this year’s Original Pirate Material, the high-rise, low-budget word from the, er, streets. But Tom Dinsdale and Simon Franks do not float like Mike Skinner does – nor is that anywhere near their agenda, which is set out fairly unambiguously in the opening “The Snake.” In fact, if anything, Franks’ vocals recall no one so much as the Stereo MCs, forcibly abducted into the future. “Got this feeling in my head/It won’t go away, no” he muses while the music makes like early Prodigy behind him, with a Hallowe’en-type high synth line to remove any residue of comfort, and the relationship of which he sings is on the point of collapse. The rap is staccato, monotone, businesslike, neither friendly nor unfriendly – the determined stride of trainers against pavement to disguise the instability.

A sax sample is twisted crazily, backwards and forwards, to take us into “100 Million,” the most obviously Streets-like track, though only obvious in the veneer (“One two” replaces “that’s it” – the blissful expiration of the word “stoned” at 0:14). But there’s none of Skinner’s doubt or fragility; this is an ode to being on the make. They’re going to be rich and get out of the grey streets – then again, consider the ghost of Ian Dury behind the generous chorus of “if I had 100 million, then I’d probably give half to you” over a confident groove, before Franks turns into triple-mode rapping, just ahead of the beat. The wordplay is non-existent; it’s functional rather than creative, but seems to fit here, as it doesn’t overwhelm the music you’re dancing to.

“Way Too Long” is an exceptionally bleak and pitiless recitation of someone fleeing from former “buddies” (i.e. dealers) because he “took too long to pay.” None of the black comedy of “All Got Our Runnin’s” here – instead, the track is propelled by a brilliant sample of Elvis Costello’s guitar riff from “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea” constantly stabbing at the song like Stanley knives into the back of the debtor’s neck. “Let’s-get-paid” Franks intones matter-of-fact; abrupt cutoff at 2:13.

Frequently on this album we get the sensation that the Audio Bullys have been sent back to the other, non-shiny, side of 1981. “Real Life” could easily pass for Depeche Mode had they gone over the dark side earlier, with its ominous synth riff echoing against a mutated “Just Can’t Get Enough” rhythm. “We live our lives more than worlds apart” Franks declaims again and again over a Tannoy, through a megaphone, shielded from life, locked in the symbolic bedroom.

It’s heartening that a pop record as busted (yes) as “We Don’t Care” can still make the Top 20, as this song recently did as a single. It may well be the year’s most ominous introduction: Franks’ voice singing “There’s things I haven’t told you/I go out late at night/And if I was to tell you/You’d see my different side” before being swamped by brutal, bass-heavy electronics, like Suggs sings Gary Numan, before that itself is overwhelmed by the determinedly punk thump of the chorus (“Wot da FAACK!!?”). It’s like Madness drowning in madness.

Their use of samples is so ingenious in its unexpected obviousness – hear what they do to/with Joe Cocker’s ’68 psychedelic chest-beater “Marjorine” on “Face In A Cloud” (as the samples here remind us, a direct descendent of “Say You Don’t Mind”). It’s a memory that the Audio Bullys never had, but by God for me it’s a memory trawled from the farthest, most distant recesses of my life – “Each time I go to town, I see your face in a cloud/And when I come back home, I call your name out aloud” intones Cocker over a grievous lament of a middle-eight whose bleakness is made bleaker by the relentless rhythm which the Bullys add to it. They have magnified the essential emptiness at the heart of the song – is it obsession, is it bereavement? It could be both (as with so much on Cocker’s debut album, With A Little Help From My Friends, a still unacknowledged masterpiece – could his demonic vocal on the title track, which approaches Pharaoh Sanders in its diatonic screams, be the most extreme vocal performance on a number one single?). Whatever, this is brilliant.

As is the ineffably sad “The Things” where Franks now admits to vulnerability, made all the more poignant when set against a jaunty ‘60s orchestral pop/’70s cop show theme sample – “I want to change the things that I do.” The multi-echoed rage in the brief middle-eight where he’s “walking the streets.” The fragility continues to make itself evident on “Veteran” – “For you my love, I will try to be a better man.” Is this evidence of a bully? Well, the track quickly explodes into a duality between the yearning of the chorus and the quick-march “mayday mayday” rap, all underscored by Jerry Dammers-style organ (of course – it’s a vulnerability vocally inherited from Terry Hall! The absolute same deadpan vulnerability).

But can they be happy too? You might think so if you listen to the fantastic “The Snow” (is it an ode to cocaine?) which shows that they can out-Jaxx Basement Jaxx with its irresistible carnival groove. But hear that oddly desolate voice again at its centre: “All of the people that I know/Seem to be caught up in the snow.” A fast-paced, danceable requiem to hide grief, just like Kim Appleby’s “Don’t Worry”? Hear the divide between the languid, drawn-out “You don’t know me” and the abrupt, low rasp of “but I know you,” speedily followed by Franks pleading “It could be ever so good.”

“I Go To Your House” again conjures up the spectre of the Stereo MCs, though this time locked inside Primal Scream’s “Slip Inside This House” – a good-humoured but unsentimental examination of a relationship about to assume the shape of a pear. And it’s danceable again; in contrast to the Arctic wastes of the early part of the album, the party now seems to be warming up, at least superficially. The sentiments are balanced out by those of the following song “Hit The Ceiling” - “I’m in love and I just can’t commit myself,” with Franks here sounding bizarrely like Jaz Coleman, before a post-House beat locks itself into a loop, a coaching house halfway between Marshall Jefferson and Daft Punk, as the urge to “hit the ceiling” becomes ever more pressing, as if willing the Dancing Queen to fracture their skull by flying too high.

The title track is kicked off by a very familiar-sounding ‘80s drum sample (“Let’s Hear It For The Boy”) though a sinister string sample hovers in the middleground like a swarm of bees before Franks launches into a more realistic take on “Parklife” - “Heaven, hell and drugs to sell/You get pushed off the back of the bus/It’s a suburban ego war…” Here he sounds like Suggs again, but wait for the highly sarcastic tribute/rejoinder: “I want to stay here for the rest of my days/And as long as I stay here/I want/to get PAID!” Not for love, that’s for sure. The track stops dead to let in a glissando keyboard sample every so often, as if they’re pausing to think about what they really want out of life. Perhaps all they want is to get paid…but the song remains insanely catchy, and a probable number one if released as a single; in truth, the best single Madness never made.

There’s one track left: an extra, hidden, nameless track, which may well be the eeriest thing on here, perhaps the album’s “Ghost Town” – a forlorn synth cries over a reluctant mid-tempo gallop. Winter is palpable in the air, as Franks solemnly recites “And as the years pass by and the birds fly/And the world keeps asking why…” The word “always” is sobbed out. There are some “RIPs” to whom tribute is paid. “This is music, and we’re gonna keep doing this forever andeveraneveraneveranever - ‘cos we’ve got to…makes things better, not worse.” Never has “doing” music sounded so much like a gruelling treadmill. “We just keep rolling, building, to get to a better place” – but the spectre of Sisyphus isn’t far away. Are they getting anywhere? “All you pricks…go fuck yourselves – you know who you are,” Franks growls. But you can’t hide your neediness, can’t run from yourself. “Sometimes there’s no release…but that’s the nature of the game.” The voice stumbles and fumbles. He’s thinking. He’s dreaming. Stop treating it as a game? Or start playing the game? “It’s summertime for too long” he echoes at the song’s close. “I had that dream.”

And like Gerontius, he awakens in the middle of a war.

Somebody’s crying somewhere.

It’s not too far away from the Durutti Column when you think about it, is it?

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .

. . .