Saturday, February 25, 2006

Comedy and Music Do Mix!

The Broken Family Band - Balls

A new album from The Broken Family Band is always cause for rejoicing - all the more so in the case of 'Balls' because it represents a welcome regression from the polite and polished production of 'Welcome Home Loser' back to the raw country-punk sound they have so well defined for themselves. In this era of restrictive record company schedules, this band are thrillingly prolific and, even though they are arguably yet to produce the consistently outstanding album they are so clearly capable of, they've written more great songs in their five year career than most bands manage in double that time.

We might as well get the criticism out of the way first - 'Balls' yet again seems to suffer from the sequencing problems that have muted the impact of previous BFB albums. Recent live shows have promised some raucous and aggressive material for this album and it doesn't disappoint. Yet, the rougher, noisier tracks are all concentrated in the first half of the album, from the brilliantly unhinged 'You're Like A Woman' through to the rampant 'I'm Thirsty'. Only the spectacularly demented take on Leonard Cohen's 'Diamonds In The Mine' and the (perhaps irritatingly) jaunty 'Michelle' break the more melancholy preoccupations of the album's second half. This is not to suggest that the second half of 'Balls' is weak (it actually contains some of the band's most affecting songs), but the album might have made for a more fulfilling listen if the contrast between the two tempos were not so marked.

Still, the band is certainly on top form here, and 'Balls' represents another small but accomplished step towards gathering a wider audience. That it achieves this without the hints at compromise the band made on 'Welcome Home Loser' makes it feel special. This is their best attempt thus far at capturing their live sound on disc.

Despite my earlier comments, it's also one of their more diverse records. There's the fatalistic slow stomp of 'It's All Over', the mournful 'Alone In The Make Out Room' (with a wonderful performance from special guest Piney Gir of the Scha-La-Las, perhaps playing Tammy to Steven Adams' George Jones) and even hints at the more dirgey, mysterious lo-fi sound of Adams' solo project in the elusive 'I See How You Are'. Adams is on dependably barbarous form lyrically, with 'You're Like A Woman' and 'The Booze and The Drugs' particularly good examples of his savage wit.

It's a blistering record - full of rollicking, propulsive rhythms and deceptively vulnerable melodies. It takes an audacious band to give their album such a laughable title and get away with it. Note too that there's no exclamation mark - this is as dry and forthright as humorous songwriting gets.

Are BFB familiar with Sparks perhaps? This most undervalued of bands also released an album called 'Balls' a few years back. They now return with their latest full-length 'Hello Young Lovers' which, suprisingly and pleasingly, seems to have come with a barrage of new industry interest and press fascination. There was even a feature about them on Newsnight a couple of weeks ago! Ron Mael still looks like Hitler more than his intended Charlie Chaplin and, more disturbingly, Russell Mael seems to increasingly resemble Wee Jimmy Krankie (check out the photos on the inlay card - it's true).

'Hello Young Lovers' takes the high-camp, mock-operatic preoccupations of their masterful 'Lil Beethoven' album to new extremes, adding some hilarious heavy metal distorted guitars and even the odd bit of clattering percussion. It's not as austere as it's predecessor - but it shares its characteristically ingenious songwriting. Sometimes they stretch their ideas a little too far and many of the tracks here could have benefited from some more ruthless pruning. Still, there's plenty of richly ironic charm on display here.

The opener 'Dick Around' is brilliant - flitting schizophrenically between styles and tempos and establishing its own distinctively madcap approach. Similarly, the barmy 'As I Sit Down To Play Organ in the Notre Dame Cathedral' and '(Baby Baby) Can I Invade Your Country?' benefit from audacious and peculiar arrangements, like musical theatre without the forced emotion and unconvincing earnestness. The latter is essentially the Sparks corruption of the Star Spangled Banner, creating a thinly veiled satire of American foreign policy through innuendo-laden lyrics. It's marvellous but, inexplicably, some of the hilarious lyrics of a version that appeared on a free CD with Word Magazine seem to have been excised from this version.

They can do simple ideas just as brilliantly though - from the single 'Perfume' which is basically just a list of fragrances, each verse ending with the caveat 'but you don't wear no perfume/That's why I want to spend my life with you'. 'Metaphor' dissects the age old notion that reciting poetry makes for a good seduction techinique. It also sounds like cheerleading ('chicks dig dig D-I-G metaphors!').

Any album this reliant on ornate, florid arrangements and highly unfashionable synth strings should not work - but it does. 'Hello Young Lovers' is everything great pop music should be - infectious, hilarious, shameless and deeply silly.

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