Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Stranglers - Black & White

I will force my body to be my weapon and my statement

Black and White (1978) *****

Having exhausted the well of songs left over from the pub days, the Stranglers entered the studio in 1978 for a set of all-new material.  The results are a few strides forward in musical sophistication while not abandoning the well-established formula of the first two albums:  it's definitely of a piece with the early Stranglers sound, but the arrangements and (especially) the words have grown a mite more complex.  Only two songs dabble in interpersonal relationships, with the rest advancing to more arrestingly novel fare, sometimes explicitly political, sometimes more esoteric.  It's a more decidedly uncommercial, weirder and more difficult album than Rattus or Heroes, and only produced one major hit, "Nice 'N Sleazy," which almost brought court action from Sinatra's lawyers for the insult.  The title may define the aesthetic of the early Stanglers attitude, though the verses strike out for more arcane shores, recounting sagas of Viking plunder with vaguely Old Testament aplomb.  Musically, it's a terrific slow thud of a groove, punky reggae done right, more skillfully and imaginatively than the Clash or Slits ever accomplished: JJ Burnel's bass lays down the convoluted, grunting hook while Hugh Cornwell's guitar slashes away in short jagged chops, and Dave Greenfield splashes bizarre, Pere Ubu-esque synth splatterings all over the place.

When I first heard this album, I wasn't sure what to make of it; it sounded like equal parts brilliance and crap.  Unlike the straightforward pop-punky thrustings of Heroes, the Stranglers here are in an experimental mood and nearly every song is a small to significant alteration with formula.  Some of which works thrillingly, some of which doesn't, which is another way of saying that this album must be taken as a whole greater than its individual parts.  It's perhaps best to view this album as not divided between a black and a white side, but between A-sides and B-sides.  The top-notch tunes are their finest work, and while the weaker tracks aren't up to that high standard, are at the very least interesting changes of pace, exploring stylistic avenues beyond the Stranglers' usual ken, and only one of those do I consider truly grating.  "Enough Time," not so coincidentally is Cornwell's least favorite track on the album, and it closes out the album on a low note with a harsh metallic grind, Hugh tunelessly shouting a chicken-little warning about impending environmental catastrophe; the music is as ugly and unappealing as its subject matter of industrial skies collapsing into black, which may or may not have been intentional.

The album gets off an a breakneck start, as the schoolboy military fantasy "Tank," is almost certainly the fastest song the Stranglers ever put to vinyl, with Jet Black's frenetic drumming in overdrive and Greenfield's fingers fluctuating at lightning capacity.  One good thing about the Stranglers is that they knew how to pace an album, as once you've caught your breath they ease into the groove of "Nice 'N Sleazy," and then the even slower, softly carnivalesque "Outside Tokyo".  Not much to say about that third track, a meditation about Japanese timepieces that circles around to nowhere, but it's a fair if insubstantial way to wind down before the watch winds back up for "Hey! (Rise of the Robots)".  Inspired by Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, it's a frenetic almost No-Wavish jam driven by atonal sax wailing courtesy of Lora Logic of X-Ray Spex.   So, out of the first four tracks, that's two A-sides, and two weird B-sides.  Next comes another A-side, "Sweden (All Quiet on the Eastern Front)" based on Cornwell's experience during his residency at Swedish university as a biochemist.  It certainly gained the Stranglers some noteriety in that country, as the Swedes did not take kindly to the portrait of their homeland as a deadly dull "hypochondriac tombstone" where there's "too much time to think, too little to do."  The first side of the album (can't tell if it's the black or white side, since I have this on CD) closes with another six-minute prog epic, "Toiler on the Sea," - more Vikings, and it gave Flock of Seagulls a band name.  It's sobloodyfuckingfantastic!   Perhaps my favorite Stranglers track, it boasts a brilliant dynamical arrangement that shows off every instrument - drums, bass, guitar, keyboards - as lead.  This is how a band should sound as a band.    

Flip it over and we must shelter inside for "Curfew," a paranoid Cold War fantasy scenario of a Germany overrun by Russian invaders because "she had gone soft from the American dream," leading to England being overrun as well, with the British army holding off in Scotland.  Greenfield's keyboards are mixed way up to almost Genesis levels here, while Burnel barks militantly.  OK, I've figured it out, this is the Black side, as nearly all the songs invoke the night.  "Threatened," conjures the grim atmosphere of a dark, poorly lit urban night, as Burnel muses philosophically about how he doesn't believe that "things can be pretty or ugly," though he almost ruins the mood by melodramatically interjecting the silly, "Bring me a piece of my Mummy / She was quite close to me," as the big statement.  "In the Shadows," which actually was the B-side of a previous single, aims for a similar effect but is considerably less successful, though the music is creepy enough to match the lyrics about walking along a deserted street at night and being spooked by any bit of sound disturbing the eerie quiet.

The next two songs are stitched together with no fadeout separation between them.  While the album's lone piece of misogyny, the uber-creepy "Do You Wanna," (one of Greenfield's last vocal spotlights on a Stranglers record) isn't much of a tune, it does have a twisted, bizarrely funky fractured groove, and comes out just this side of working due to its flat-out weirdness.  The way that track flows directly into "Death and Night and Blood (Yukio)," is stunning, one of the best uses of non-separation of tracks ever.  It's about Yukio Mishima, the Japanese novelist and rabid nationalist who committed ritual seppuku in 1970 after a failed military coup.  Just don't scare your neighbors by chanting the insanely catchy chorus too loudly.

There are several bonus tracks, only one of which is worth your time.  "Mean to Me," is a throwaway rockabilly numbers probably written and performed in five minutes; "Tits," is pisstake that seems to parodize their reputation for sexism; "Sverige" is "Sweden" in Swedish; and "Old Codger," is just that, some smelly old fart talking in Cockney rhyme over a perfunctory Stranglers track.   That leaves their cover of  the Bacharach/David chestnut, "Walk on By," and it's a doozy:  they take the pop oldie and stretch it out for six minutes, stalking into deep Stranglers-fied psychedelic territory, with lengthy, fluid soloing from Cornwell and Greenfield.  Brilliant!  It's difficult to say whether this or Rattus is the quintessential Stranglers LP.  If it's great tunes you're after, then the debut is the place to start; but if you're interested in a somewhat more challenging but more musically advanced listening experience, then Black and White is your noose of choice.  Auto-erotically asphixiate yourself to both! 

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