The Fall are the preeminent post-punk survivors. This much is accepted. This too is true: their catalog is a minefield to the uninitiated. It's not just that some of the 29-or-so official studio albums are sometimes lackluster or spotty--but their are countless compilations of seemingly arbitrary selections, reissues with shitty sound remastered from vinyl copies, a mountain of shoddy live albums of suspicious origin... the list goes on. But get this: for the last 30 years, they have consistently released high-water-mark albums every 5 years, like clockwork. Read on and see if you don't agree.
1980 GROTESQUE (AFTER THE GRAMME)
Arguably the first classic Fall record. From beginning to end, this is Mark & Co. firing on all cylinders. Grotesque also marks the end of the first phase of the Fall: by the next album, Mark's new wife, Brix would join the band and begin steering their absurdist rewiring of punk towards a more streamlined, poppier sound. Filled with chugging rhythms with no interest in taking-it-to-the-bridge, kazoo solos, left turns and right hooks--everything they do from raves ups to roiling abstract, 10 minute jams works on Grotesque. Smith at this point was discovering the peak of his powers. He gives his literate, confounding lyrics an abstract sense of rhythm that can only be rivalled by Captain Beefheart. He also has quite the range for someone who rants more than sings, punctuating his lines with pinched yelps and hilarious asides.
1985 THIS NATION'S SAVING GRACE
I barely need to defend this album. This Nation's Saving Grace is often shortlisted as the single best Fall LP. Now well into the the Fall mkII--they had gone deep into keyboard driven pop on the last outing, and from the start of this record the guitars are making their presence felt again. The Fall are once again menacing; not like a monster from a horror flick, but like the cooler kids at lunch that have too much fun at your expense and just might have been up to something truly unseemly before school. From Bombast to Cruiser's Creek, they are leaner band with more now at their disposal, and on Saving Grace, they deploy it all.
Extricate is a hissing, mean record. It is the first album the Fall cut after Mark and Brix called it quits, and kicking off with a track like Sing, Harpy; it shows. This album languished, ignored, in their discography for years. In part it had been poorly served by following a couple of passable filler releases and followed itself by a pair of weaker but questing LPs. Even though there is plenty to recommend this record, Chicago, Now puts it in the history books; another churning Fall epic--but this one murkier and more subtle than they had ever achieved before.
1995 CEREBRAL CAUSTIC
Inexplicably in the mid-90s, Brix came back into the fold for a few records. In fact she is one of the only (countless) ex-Fall band members to ever return. Her presence raises the bar on what was the first of many late-period rebirths for the Fall; the group has more August comeback-records than any one band deserves. The snarling interplay between her and Mark on Don't Call Me Darling, or the buzzing punk take on boy-girl pop that is Feeling Numb put this record on the Fall-keepers pile. Add to that the truly bizarro Bonkers in Phoenix and aptly titled Life Just Bounces and... well, you get the picture.
2000 THE UNUTTERABLE
Coming hot on the heels of what was two of their most unhinged records, fresh with (yet another) new lineup, The Unutterable should have been the shmabling mess the subsequent Are You a Missing Winner was. Grant Showbiz, a frequent Fall collaborator produced this record, and his hand was unerring in bringing some of their best work to life. Mark's voice is close-mic'd throughout, bringing all the character of his distinctive bite to the forefront, competing with a punishing rhythmm section while electronic flourishes and guitar-work vie for some light. An indisputable Fall must-have.
2005 FALL HEADS ROLL
It is telling what a dry spell the early 2000s were for the Fall that even their biggest booster abandoned them: after doing more John Peel sessions by this date than any other band by a mile, he had not asked them back in over 5 years. The session they cut in 2004 ended up being a clarion call. Rooted by the mammoth track, Blindness--a stomping dirge built around bass-work that sounds like the strings are as thick as power cables. That track is reprised here and easily serves as the centerpiece of Fall Heads Roll. The album is filled out with rollicking material that flies in the face that the group had been active endeavor at this point for 27+ years.
2010 YOUR FUTURE OUR CLUTTER
With recent good marks, the Fall was now in danger of becoming the one thing they had never, ever been: boring. Reformation was a lackluster outing and Imperial Wax Solvent was earning them the feint praise of "best album since ___________" that's the bain of so many elder statesmen. YFOC ranks as far more than that. Mark shows a wit here that lets him escape the grumpy old man the snarling teenager he used to be turned into. More than that, the album signs off with Weather Report 2, the most moving moment on a Fall record to date. Over a rather lovely guitar figure, Smith mumbles about what sounds like redemption within a relationship (sort of), but half way through the music devolves into a single rolling, overdriven bass pulsation as Smith spits the same words he just sang. That description completely overlooks that the song also name-checks Murder She Wrote, so go figure that one out.
Obviously with a band as storied and legendary as the Fall, any handful albums does not give the whole picture. Then again, seven records are nothing to shake a stick at. The Fall are somehow constant yet constantly in flux. These albums serve as benchmarks, quality dispatches charting the developments and changing methods and priorities of the band. I look forward to what 2015 brings.