Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Josef K - The Only Fun In Town

The Only Fun in Town (1981) ***

A noble failure:  noble because it is an earnest effort with interesting ideas and an intelligent, novel sound; a failure because it is lacking in truly memorable songs.  Drawing inspiration from the jittery rhythms, affectedly dry-throat vocals, burbling bass lines, and skinnily angular guitar hooks of the early Talking Heads (primarily) as well as Joy Division, first trio of albums era XTC, and the little johnny jewels of Television, Josef K (whose nerd-brain credentials are apparent in their horn-rimmed glasses name, and if you don't get the reference, you missed out on the literary classics the rest of us angsty teenagers were reading in high school), this Edinburgh quartet comes across most of all as a Scottish Feelies:  the emphasis is on the sound, groove, and texture of the skittery guitar ragas, with songcraft hooks and affectless vocals seemingly an apparent afterthought.  The formula is not merely right next door to another 1981 post-punk artifact several continents away - the Go-Betweens' Send Me a Lullaby - it sounds eerily almost exactly the same, from the literary pretensions, the dry-dusty vocals, the recorded in hallway closet production values, the raggedly white-boy skinny-funk of the guitar/bass/drums interplay.  The noticable differences are that Josef K aim as much for the dancefloor as the head, and lack any true traces of jangly folk-rock, though they are jangly:  which means that this foreshadows fellow Scotsmen Franz Ferdinand (who were no doubt aware of and influenced by Josef K - upon a few listens, the comparison is bludgeoningly obvious) and to a lesser extent NYC hipsters Interpol, by a good two decades. The interplay is engrossing in its highly accomplished amateurism, but - well, you know the standard complaint about so many early post-punk albums?  Yes, it really does all sound the same, which easily grows taxing even at a mere ten songs that rush by in little over half an hour (most of the songs hover around the 2 1/2 minute range, with only one tune barely over four minutes).  Which means that even upon the third or fourth close listen, it's difficult to tell most of these songs apart.  Eventual work reveals each song as a discrete entitity, but damned if it isn't work.  Which means that if you're expecting a track by track breakdown, or even a quick highlights/lowlights run-through - ha ha ha, you ain't getting one.  As close as I'm going to pay attention on the fifth or seventh listen, even with this album playing in the background as I type out this review, I'm stumped as to what to say about any individual track.  Uh, lessee, this one starts off with a moody bassline and has a snakey guitar hook -- wait, that's every single one.  The lack of memorable vocal hooks doesn't help.  Nevertheless, the album works as one tall, gangly rush of tumultous sound-groove, so if you're willing to be satisfied at that level and expect/demand no further, then dig in.  Not an accessible listen by any means (the band themselves considered it a failure to represent their sound, and parted ways immediately after the only album release on the legendary Postcard label), but not without its historical and artistic merits, though in hindsight (so many indie bands copped this sound in the '00s) the historical significance takes on a greater dimension.

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