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I hate you and I want to kill you. Or I hate myself and I want to die. Both stances can attract attention to a loud, brash young band, but they also tend to limit careers. Though it seems there’s always a new audience for such ferocious proclamations—especially when they’re backed up by equally ferocious music—the performers tend to get jaded quickly. And you can’t claim to be TNT for long without detonating, so the only credible career paths for the musically explosive are breaking up, going insane, or dying—or becoming a producer.
But for those who want to make an imperfect sound forever, there is an alternative to being a musical suicide bomber. Call it irony or absurdism or postmodernism, but it’s the quality that allows the Fall to continue ranting as the group approaches its 30th anniversary, still angry and inscrutable. It could have done the same for Mclusky, the Welsh trio that ventured its own blend of chopped-salad postpunk and non-sequitur lyrics for a few years in the early to mid-’00s, save for another sad fact of musical life: Compel three or four people to cross any sizable country in a smelly van more than once, and at least one of them is going to end up hating the others. (See, again, the Fall, which has chewed up dozens of members.)
And so it was, reportedly, for Mclusky guitarist Andrew Falkous and bassist Jon Chapple. Accounts of the band’s last few gigs suggest a near-violent schism between the two, although they worked together to destroy a heckler at the London gig partially documented on a new posthumous compilation, Mcluskyism. Perhaps the breakdown in relations between Falkous and Chapple would have energized such convulsive early-catalog numbers as “Alan Is a Cowboy Killer” and “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues”—but it’s not as if they needed it.
One of the most galvanizing of postmillennial postpunk outfits, Mclusky had an onstage dynamic that might have presaged its demise. Falkous, most likely the principal architect of the band’s collectively credited songs, was the deadpan provocateur, although not averse to the occasional screamed passage. Chapple was the transgressive jester, interjecting contrapuntal vocals as if they’d just occurred to him that second and doing his best to cross the musician-audience divide. It’s probably just as well that the group never got popular enough to play sizable venues. Boxed in by tight quarters and low ceilings, Chapple was in his element.
Mclusky was based in Cardiff, but Falkous and original drummer Mat Harding hail from Blackwood, (sort of) fabled hometown of Manic Street Preachers. Musically, however, Mclusky wasn’t aligned with any of the better-known Welsh bands of the past 15 years. Indeed, much of its style, if not its attitude, is of American origin. The central verse of the minutelong “Rice Is Nice,” one of the two tracks Mcluskyism culls from the band’s 2000 debut, My Pain and Sadness Is More Sad and Painful Than Yours, could be by Minor Threat. And the group traveled to Chicago to record its second and third albums with Rust Belt brutalist Steve Albini. But “Rice Is Nice”’s rant yields to a pop chorus and, come to think of it, much of Albini’s signature sound derives from U.K. postpunk. If Mclusky craved a ferocity more often associated with stateside rock, it didn’t come at the cost of the British taste for hooks and japes.
Mcluskyism is available in two versions, a one-disc best-of that’s a bit too discriminating—it includes only 12 songs and runs a mere 30 minutes—and a limited-edition three-disc box that adds 132 minutes of “B-sides and C-sides.” The one-CD grabs a few songs each from 2002’s sophomore triumph, Mclusky Do Dallas, and 2004’s mild letdown, The Difference Between Me and You Is That I’m Not on Fire. The digest version is a reasonable introduction, but for newcomers, Mclusky Do Dallas would be a wiser one-shot purchase, and anyone who has copies of the last two albums can assemble a more satisfying overview—one that wouldn’t exclude such highlights as, say, The Difference’s “Forget About Him I’m Mint,” on which the band’s customary attack begins to flirt with jauntiness and whimsy.
The other two discs are, by definition and design, motley. Aside from the nine live tracks that end No. 3, the CDs collect singles, alternate versions, and demos. Some of these tunes probably became also-rans because they boogie too straightforwardly (the thumping, sample-augmented “Provincial Song”) or their humor is too obvious (“Bipolar Bears Take Seattle,” which includes the rhyme “Yeah, it’s a cruel world/You should try Sea World”). But then there’s “Dave, Stop Killing Prostitutes,” which reveals much of the band’s songwriting strategy: amplifying everyday pop-culture activities—in this case, playing video games—into savage metaphors. “To prophecize his own death, he puts people in boxes,” Falkous and Chapple intone together. “Head first, then the legs, then something else.”
Even such insouciant numbers as “Random Celebrity Insult Generator” are quite funny, and aside from a few acoustic-guitar sketches, most of the 44 selections are exhilarating pileups of controlled-chaos guitar, a dubbed-up rhythm section, and vocals that range from coolly tossed-off to larynx-shredding. The combination suits Mclusky’s worldview, which is at once serenely amused and horrified. Perhaps the perfect example is “Whoyouknow,” in which a venerable synecdoche for the human spirit meets a global consumer brand: “Your heart’s gone the color of Coca-Cola,” Falkous and Chapple sing, defiantly out of sync as they pound through a positively primordial riff.
It’s a defining moment. For all the metaphorical death and musical destruction, what Mclusky captured wasn’t exactly the terror of existence. It was the experience of a world in which that terror is continually trumped by banality.
Since Mclusky broke up last year, Falkous has formed a new band, Future of the Left. It includes Jack Egglestone, Mclusky’s second drummer, as well as bassist Kelson Louis Tregurtha Mathias, late of din-rock outfit Jarcrew—a lineup that’s moved much more slowly than Chapple, whose Shooting at Unarmed Men recently released its second album, Yes! Tinnitus!
The disc shows that Chapple was pretty happy with Mclusky’s format, if not with the band itself. With Simon Alexander and Steve Morgan joining Chapple, Shooting has the exact same musical arsenal as Mclusky: drums, lead bass, guitar noise, and a dialogue between sung main vocals and blurted secondary ones.Though Morgan is touted as a pianist who’d never drummed before, that’s not obvious from his robust playing.
There are a handful of new influences, most of them from the same general vicinity as Mclusky’s. “Pathos at Bathos,” for example, shows an affinity for rockabilly-era twang that wasn’t evident in Falkous’ style. But the call-and-response refrain of “I Am United Nations” suggests Devo, there’s plenty of Gang of Four in “Get on Out and Come Right In,” and the “She drank the whole bottle down” chorus of “In-Flight Instructions Are a Joke, Say I” resembles the Mekons just before Sally Timms became a full-timer. All suggest that Chapple has a rightful claim to the invention of Mclusky Do Dallas sound, yet do little more.
Even Yes! Tinnitus!’s highlights could be Mclusky B- or C-sides. The most direct song, “All Hail Sergio,” is a swaggering romp that’s only slightly impaired by the obviousness of its Hollywood- and spaghetti-Western references. The sole knockout is the mostly midtempo “Girls Music,” which calmly delivers the vaguely threatening line “I hope you like listening to music for girls” before gradually, inexorably cranking things up. Like a great Mclusky number, the song is captivatingly eerie and bracingly hostile.
Overall, though, the album is solid but expected. If Mclusky was Chapple’s Sex Pistols, Shooting at Unarmed Men stops short of being his Public Image Ltd.—something he must have realized. Chapple put his latest band on hiatus a month before the release of Yes! Tinnitus!, then proceeded to demonstrate that there’s yet another face-saving option for the punk whose fuse hasn’t burned all the way down: He moved to Australia.CP