The Lead Review: Lee Arizuno On Fat White Family's Songs For Our Mothers
, January 15th, 2016 10:34
"There's a lot to be said for saying the wrong thing." With today's release of Songs For Our Mothers, the awaited follow up to Fat White Family's 2013 debut Champagne Holocaust, Lee Arizuno takes his tolerance to the limit
No-one invited the Fat White Family.
When 'Cream Of The Young' rose back in 2013 they made a baffling prospect, raw and endearingly daft but naggingly, unavoidably onto a good thing. They looked and sounded like they were doing what we'd begun to think was impossible: living on nothing in the inner city, at the heart of a truly independent music scene hardly anyone had noticed, performing vile acts without a second thought for the witnesses. Stranger still, they soon reached a decent-sized audience, some of it shared with the bland, second-guessing, stylist-rescued swots and squares who dominate British quasi-indie guitar music. Politically active, friends with freaks of all ages, dressed up but anti-fashion, and festering in north Brixton (not Hackney with the rest of the industry), they've been the ghost at the pop-up shipping container artisanal feast ever since. Our guys in these years of vicious recession and merciless gentrification, flagrant political doublespeak and tail-chasing comment culture, desperation and cowardice in the face of diminishing life prospects.
If they have a muse, it's the point at which disgust and pleasure meet. Those videos filled with dead meat and live flesh, unusual faces shot from jarring angles, only make visible what the records are doing: your head in. Strong melodies with jagged contours, brain-wronging phrases chanted in lieu of choruses, forgotten garage rock licks mixed with artful post-punk aesthetics. They conjure the thrill of scrambled signals when you're off your rocker on booze and drugs, project an uncensored phantasmagoria. Each single since Champagne Holocaust has taken their quest further but somehow sounded more like a hit, from the punchily perverse 'Touch The Leather' to the brain-burrowing incantation, 'Wet Hot Beef'. Those drawn in have been able to sustain themselves on stronger meat still while waiting for their long-trailed second album to appear, served up by their idiot cousins Warmduscher and Demian Skogr's demented videos (content warning: bestiality, animal cruelty, noise and confusion).
And Songs For Our Mothers is worth that stay in their red room. First of all, it sounds incredible. If you've heard 'The Whitest Boy On The Beach' you've had a taste of their new Kraut-pop style, but 'Tinfoil Deathstar' takes it supernova. Imagine a wilder version of Broadcast's 'Pendulum', echoed crashes and guitar skree like meteors imperilling and sharpening your high. Its ingenious conceit sets the tone for the album's often hair-raising lyrics: heroin use is taking off as the government culls its citizens through benefit sanctions, a grim vision we all recognise. Two verses of desperate escapism, then this:
Is that David Clapson
Wincing through the glass?
A deck of death-white sanctions
Firmly in his grasp.
A decent recording budget seems to have done justice to Saul Adamczewski's gift for arrangements. Another unique Fat White Family genre piece, the cavernous ode to a dictator debuted in 'I Am Joseph Stalin', is developed further here. It's Mussolini's turn on 'Duce', and its heavy, folk-tinged altered state captures something like what the Stooges called the 'O-mind', a vivid taste of amoral oblivion. It sounds gargantuan and you'd be hard-pressed to make out the lyrics, so here's a taste:
There's a nice clean gene pool
For you to jump in
Hanging from a meat hook.
Now, aside from Scott Walker I can't think of a pop artist who's wrestled with Mussolini. One obvious difference is that Fat White Family's song titles tend to work as punchlines or one-liners; their humour has always been jet-black and integral to the kick. To an outsider, a quick scan of the tracklist on Songs For Our Mothers - see also 'Lebensraum' and 'Goodbye Goebbels' - could suggest that they'd made a concept album celebrating fascism. And that's the gag: we know they epitomise degenerate art, that their logo includes a hammer and sickle and that they've been keen protesters for the left. And, lets face it, fascist dictators are pretty comical characters to us from this safe distance – preposterous, discredited authority figures – even though we're well aware of the horrors they wrought. I love the idea of a budding neo-Nazi stumbling across the video for 'Whitest Boy On The Beach' only to watch their fantasies of racial superiority being soiled and queered by its bizarro celebration of physical inferiority.
Comment fans who've yet to get an opinion-boner should stick around, because it does get worse. What's this dreamy waltz you could play to your nan? Wait, 'When Shipman Decides'? Yep, we're floating through the world of the notorious Hyde doctor, Demerol enthusiast and Sigmund Freud lookalike credited with administering fatal overdoses of diamorphine to hundreds of elderly women and men, but mostly women, and stashing their jewellery in his garage. I'm not going to pretend I didn't laugh like a drain when the chorus tripped me up. It's a sick joke, and a neat callback to the unchecked cruelty, injustice and opioids in 'Tinfoil Deathstar'. Could a family member of one of Shipman's many victims see the song title and feel angry? Quite possibly. But the idea that anyone would write a song celebrating this guy is so absurd that it takes us back to where we started: that's the point, whether you approve or not. He's only here because he shouldn't be. There's a lot to be said for saying the wrong thing, and for irony being a consolation to anyone who feels a bit powerless or disconnected for whatever reason.
Dictators and serial killers are all well and grotesque, but another spectre taps softly on the window of Songs For Our Mothers: the archetypal all-male rock band. Lias Saoudi has always played the priapic shaman impeccably, objectifying himself for the benefit of the audience and taking the worst pratfalls in their videos' surreal erotic scenarios. Any incipient group boorishness has been diverted into comedy and colourful weirdness. Has life on the road and living in close quarters for so long changed them at all? As celebrations of receiving a blowjob go, 'Satisfied' – a rockabillied relative of Iggy Pop's 'Nightclubbing' – is not uncomplicated and certainly stays on the right side of cliché. It's one thing to go there in a song; it's another to compare a lucky lady with Primo Levi sucking the marrow from a bone, presumably while starving in Auschwitz – a time of trauma he spent the rest of his life writing to come to terms with before possibly committing suicide. A bold image, you'll agree, but isn't this closer to Smell The Glove than (the non-gendered ) 'Touch The Leather' in spirit? I'd say "it's such a fine line" to be cute, but to be honest I can't tell what on earth the lyrics are actually trying to do.
And that goes for much of Fat White Family's music: they usually sing in falsetto, harmonies and screams, all swathed in glorious, overwhelming sheets of sound. It's unlikely you'd take in much beyond the headline phrase without the aid of a lyric sheet; as always in pop, the performance tells the story, not the text. 'Hits Hits Hits' is in some ways the neatest show here. It's apparently a character piece about Ike and Tina Turner's abusive personal and professional relationship, conceived as a parallel with Saoudi and Adamczewski's. There seem to be three kinds of hits: the pop kind (it's as catchy as a sharpened up 'Oh! Sweet Nuthin'' by the Velvet Underground); the opioid kind (not only the VU vibe, but also the tremoloed guitar favoured by enthusiasts from Jason Pierce to Steven Drozd); and the violent kind (the industrial smashes punctuating the chorus, and of course the Turners' tale). You knew a 'but' was coming. In principle, an all-male band could dramatise the story of Ike and Tina Turner from either party's point of view. But Fat White Family are not that band. It wouldn't be fair to let the tail wag the dog here – you can enjoy the song as a sweet nothing easily enough – but these lyrics don't add up to a story. They do, however, include the lines "Sister Tina don't be shy, patience is starting to bruise / Better spread that nutbush wide", the first material that's made me shout, "enough of your shit!" at Fat White Family. I don't know what's gone down between band members, but I'd hope such a famously abusive heterosexual relationship would put it in (too much) perspective.
Speaking of which, a brief postscript on the comment-industrial complex. The band have said that being branded Stalinists online and fascists has already rendered them immune to criticism - so bear in mind that you will always get a Fat White Family, no matter what you say. More broadly, pull at any comment thread and it will always lead you back, or forward, to a newspaper opinion piece written for spare change and designed only to keep an issue framed in a way that encourages further comment.
At the hour of writing, we're supposed to be having opinions about a Charlie Hebdo cartoon. No French people, let alone French Muslims, feature in the top tweets or scores of opinion pieces published in recent hours, but your instructions are clear. The gist is that you may choose option 'A' ("I put #jesuischarlie in my thing a year ago so I believe in freedom of speech but don't understand what racism is") or option 'B' ("I think cartoons that depict Muslims are bad because that is what racists also do"). There is no option 'C', let alone the most widely favoured option, '0' ("I have no opinion, I am neither French nor a Muslim, nor a subscriber to Charlie Hebdo nor anything else; bugger off"). And certainly no option '?' ("Has anyone got anything interesting or informative to say about this cartoon?"). You must belong. And so this pyramid scheme of mutually assured disingenuousness will continue to pimp our instincts, hijack campaigning and protest, and ruin our posture. One thing's for sure: its players will always have a tin ear for the the ambiguous, non-textual, irreducible experiences culture provides, which only get in the way of having your say.
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