Fall Guy: Smiths hired guns aren't nearly sloppy enough. s hired guns arent nearly sloppy enough. t nearly sloppy enough.

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Three tracks into the Fall’s latest, something seems off. Granted, off is probably where the iconoclastic post-punkers should be. But here, a quarter-century removed from what might be the band’s finest piece of work, off is just, well, off. The band sounds singular, as ever—four musicians plugging away at the same rhythmic patterns, using the same chords over and over again. And as always, sputtering frontman Mark E. Smith drives things with his iconic snar-ah-ling far more than any of his hired guns. Just what isn’t right becomes apparent on the fourth track, “Cowboy George,” in which drummer Keiron Melling sends out multiple tight crushstrokes. For any fan of the band, this example of fine musicianship will produce an instant flashback to 1985’s This Nation’s Saving Grace and its blisteringly sloppy “Couldn’t Get Ahead.” That tune, they’ll remember, starts with a loose roll that trips the then-already-veteran outfit over itself and into a quick, wheels-loose ride that is either ahead of or behind the beat but never, ever spot on. Now, some 25 years later, things are tighter. But to call this change growth would be wrong; the brilliance of the Fall of that era always sat with the band’s ability to back Smith with its best version of simple and controlled instrumental eruption. On This Nation, that meant the roaringly off “Bombast,” the punchy-but-off “Barmy,” and, of course, the hummably off “Cruisers Creek.” There, the group’s clock suffered at the hands of what sounded like an overwhelming sense of excitement. Now, no matter how hard a song like “O.F.Y.C. Showcase”—a nearly happy number centered on what almost feels like a totally wrong, clap-along-happy bounce—pounds away rigidly at the familiar Fall sound, it rings hollow. For the Fall, the term off has, unfortunately, fallen on its head.