Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Fall - Levitate

Levitate (1997) **1/2

Fan reviews on are all over the place on this, and I can sympathize with both those who rave about this as one of the Fall's best-ever and those one-star reviews that revolt at this as the worst-ever disaster the Fall have ever spat out of the studio.  One thing is for certain, that both the five and one star reviewers can all agree on:  this is one WEIRD album.  The musical backing for most of the album revolves around heavily mixed WAY up-front drum patterns with Mark's filtered vocals weaving in and out of the mix, sometimes at forefront and sometimes barely intelligible behind the beats, and at seemingly random intervals:  this is one of the most bizarrely mixed records I've ever heard, with constantly alternating shifts that make no linear sense - the dramatic shifts in volume control within songs are extremely disconcerting, in a thrilling "test the speakers" way.  Take "Hurricane Edward," for example - for the first three minutes, it's a (relatively) straightforward minimalistic number in which Mark declaims over a repetitive marching drum pattern, until suddenly the entire track breaks down as Mark seemingly abandons the studio, walks across the street, and records the rest of the track from inside a phone booth (for those of you listening to the CD version, your CD is fine - the skipping at the 4:00-4:15 mark is intentionally built into the track).

Why are the songs so sonically all over the place?  The answer is simple.  The credits clearly state, "Produced by Mark E. Smith".  And being Mark E. Smith, apparently he was drunk as a lord and higher than Lemmy during the entire recording process, with no outside produce to edit out his insanity or every half-baked idea.  What wound up on the table is the most sonically interesting Fall album, ever....but let's not kid ourselves, a lot of the experimentation is flaky and half-baked.  Which wouldn't be such a problem is most of the songs were up to snuff.  This would scratch up to a better rating if I hadn't concluded that there was simply too much throwaway filler to make this an acceptable Fall release.  It's not just the goofy covers - "I'm a Mummy," and "Jungle Rock, this time - fans of late-period Fall simply have to grin and bear those.  The whole album has a lazy, tossed-off feel, as if Mark just said to hell with it and went berzerk in the studio, indulging in all his personal whims with the gee-gaws of studio equipment, having his whimsical fun without bothering to put in the work necessary to cohere these musical whims into actual songs to please music listeners.  How else can you explain (or excuse) a track like "Tragic Days," one minute and 29 seconds of lo-fi violin and industrial sawing noises (someone knocks on the door, rustles some piece of paper, and zips a zipper - track ends).  Self-indulgent?  Um, yes.  Oh, I forgot - there are three covers, technically perhaps four, since the Hiroshima eulogy, "I Come and Stand at Your Door," is repeated twice, once with poetry reading, and once as a pretty piano instrumental with the gratuitously racist title, "Jap Kid".

If only all the songs (or even half of them) were as fully developed as "4 1/2 Inch," which sounds like it originated as some simply, bouncy rockabilly tune before Mark E. wrung it through his gleeful kaleidescope.  Go listen to that one, now!  I have helpfully provided the youtube below.  This one track effectively summarizes this album gone right.  Right?  I meant gloriously, messily all gone wrong.

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