Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Fall - Slates

A Christmas gift that eventually became a permanent member of my car stereo after the player decided to power off every time I attempted to eject the disc.

After a few attempts, I let it be. And for an entire week Slates became a perfect fixture for my commute to and from work. In the mornings - if I got on the road early enough to miss the heavy traffic on the interstate - the mini-l.p. would fill in the entire drive. From driveway to parking lot, start to finish.

I suppose you could do worse rather than having The Fall’s six-song e.p. Slates stuck in your deck forever. Indeed, when I did finally manage to get it out of the player, I thought about putting it back in after a few minutes just to hear “Leave The Capitol” one more time before putting it away.

Originally released as a 10” e.p. in 1981, Slates finds the band not only contemplating change, but nearly defining it. It was the final record needed to complete their contract with Rough Trade, but unlike most bands who view the final contractual obligation as a make it or break it scenario, Mark E. Smith seems to view it as a way to burn as many bridges as possible on the way out. 

The band is still working within their post-punk abrasiveness, so don't expect too much in terms of accessibility. But Slates also hints at the band’s ability to work within the elements of pop, particularly with “Fit And Working Again.” With its acoustic guitar and quick pace, "Fit" is about the closest track here that would resemble anything remotely familiar - a familiarity would be featured more prominently in future offerings. If the rumors that Slates was the first Fall record to get future first wife Brix's attention, then "Fit" would seem to be the most logical track to grab her ear, at least judging by her own work within the group starting a few years later.

But it’s the left-of-center material that really shines, from the with the mouthbreather study of "Middle Mass," the anthemic closer “Leave The Capitol," the Beefheart worship of “Prole Art Threat” and the infectious title track, “Slates, Slags, Eset” that rolls on for a hearty six-and-a-half minutes when I could easily injest six-and-a-half more.

The brevity is undoubtedly part of the appeal of Slates, but the reality is that the spontaneous combustion of how this record was conceived wouldn't mean a thing if the songs themselves didn't burn a hole in your memory.

And these songs catch a fire immediately. The mundane existence of my morning/evening commute was not exacerbated by the fact that I literally could not remove Slates from my car stereo. In fact, it was therapeutic.

In the garage din of The Fall's inadequate musical abilities, Mark E. Smith presents some of the best lines he's ever written, a strong elixir of working class dread, Beat poet musings and an ample diet of coffee and speed.

M.E.S. was there with every turn of my odometer, reminding me of the routine I have nestled into every weekday morning ("The boy is like a tape loop") or explaining to me why I felt a great sense of release each time I headed home for the night ("He learned a word today/The word is misanthropy").

The reissue provides some extras that most Fall fans probably have in other configurations (the Peel sessions were a bit of redundancy for me), but I have to confess that I didn't mind it at all since the e.p. timed up perfectly with my drive and since the six original songs are downright vital, I didn't dwell too much past the original tracks.

Beyond the high quality of these half-dozen titles, Slates also served as the first strong indication that the sum of the The Fall's parts essentially begin and end with Mark E. Smith alone. It was the first record to ever dispel the notion that the band would ever have a true "classic" line-up and the first one to suggest that they really didn't need one.

Don't let the bonus material be the deciding factor - this shit would be a bargain if it was only the original six tracks and came presented in a scuffed up CD-R housed in an old Krokus jewel box. Slates may be one of the greatest e.p.'s ever released, a challenging and confident effort that holds up well, even when it's the only option available in your stereo.

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