The Medway Towns, just far enough away from London for it to matter, have sheltered this country’s conscientious contrarians from Charles Dickens to Billy Childish. The Pros and Cons of Eating Out is the third album from the Kent Delta’s current wandering minstrel, Lupen Crook.
I hesitated over that ‘wandering minstrel’, you know, in case the description was fast becoming a cliché (or had, I don’t know, been copyrighted by Frank Turner). If that other frequently pigeonholed troubadour, Patrick Wolf, has reportedly considered changing his name to “please use a thesaurus or a brain to find another word for ‘flamboyant’ Patrick Wolf”, I wonder if, in time, Lupen Crook might end up requiring similar measures to get rid of the wandering minstrel tag.
Not that it’s an inappropriate or unhelpful label – much of Crook’s artistic strength does lie in a picaresque sense of threadbare and ramshackle rootlessness, a commitment to collectivism, a DIY approach to distribution and a palpable desire to entertain.
Anyway, the album. The Pros and Cons… is eclectic in content and form. Crook and co-conspirators Clayton Boothroyd and Bob and Tom Langridge draw on indie, ska, rockabilly, folk and anti-folk, sea shanties, twangs of grungy alt-country and swirls of Gypsy-punk, in songs that inhabit abandoned underpasses, pirate ships and blasted heaths, full of the crooked, the feral, the raw and the hopelessly romantic. They swing from the sharply catchy, gently despairing single ‘Dorothy Deserves’, to the delicacy of ‘World’s End’ and ‘How to Murder Birds’, to the full-tilt indie-rockism of ‘Devil’s Son’ or ‘Scissor Kick’.
As a frontman, Crook seems able to caper from darkly observant court-jester (Ray Davies sketched by Jamie Hewlett) to millenarian social critic (Scroobius Pip with less of the finger-wagging). The Pros and Cons of Eating Out maintains the same dignified distance from the mainstream and the metropolis which granted Crook’s debut a distinction from the post-Libertines litter, and which continues to set him apart from his peers.
Lupen Crook, The Pros and Cons of Eating Out is available here.
Patrick Wolf, ‘The Libertine’ (2005)
Pretentions to militant outsiderdom were ten a penny in the past decade, but few walked the walk like Patrick Wolf. ‘The Libertine’ takes the millenium’s tendency towards no-more-heroes melodrama, fuses it with a sense of self-belief you could bend steel around, and forges it into an unstoppable flight of righteous prickly petulance. Bleak and Yeatsian in outlook and atmosphere, the song opens with delicately poised piano and slowly-unravelling strings that bow under the weight of a thumping backbeat. Its galloping rhythms swoop and loop through outcrops of dark electro, spurred on by lyrics that scatter at swordpoint a slew of romantic and chivalric tropes before Wolf, alone in ‘a drought of truth and invention’, pulls us along through a full-throttle tilt at the darkness of a dried-up dystopia and over the edge into a better world.
The Avalanches, ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ (2001)
Cut-and-paste is a dubious technique, missing more often than it hits, but when it works it’s wondrous. The Avalanches’ debut album provided a seemingly-effortless masterclass in superior sampling, with ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ as a deservedly acclaimed star turn. The dustbin of vinyl and B-movie history gets comprehensively upended in search of quality cast-offs, before these scraps are stitched together into a kaleidoscopic collage underlined with an imperious blast of brass that carries all before it like the flags of a conquering army.
Snow White, ‘Bored, Somewhat Detached’ (2004)
Perhaps the most defiantly runty of the decade’s squalling angular litter, the late and disappointingly little-lamented Snow White were always too good for relegation to a residency at Nathan Barley‘s Nailgun Arms. Their comparative strength lay in a Sonic Youth-derived lo-fi sensibility, song titles like ‘It’s Not Art, It’s Paedophile Porn’ and a preference for sneering over self-aggrandisement. Debut single ‘Bored, Somewhat Detached’ sticks out like a spike through the floorboards, the recording’s muffled and murky quality making the band sound as though they’re being held hostage in a coal shed. Full of densely scribbled white-hot guitar overwriting staticky bass and a buzzsaw vocal drone, rarely has a song done so exactly what it says on the tin with such bloody-minded and furious aplomb.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
In terms of ambition, inventiveness and reinvention, Patrick Wolf stands comparison with popstars of far greater status and longevity. His shapeshifting has taken him from Boweryite Peter Pan to windswept Sleepy Hollow extra to glitterball-eyed scene queen in the space of three albums. His fourth is not only the first instalment of a putative concept double-album, but also, after his parting with Universal Records, financed mostly by selling £10 shares in the album to his ever-loyal fans. However shaky its foundations, though, The Bachelor radiates his usual unassailable assurance and self-belief.
Wolf’s chameleonic drive is facilitated by an astonishingly secure and switched-on sense of self. Many of his lyrics are concerned with triumph over adversity, taking threat, hardship and hostility head-on, and his relishing of a challenge is a thread on which much of this album hangs. Forthcoming single ‘Hard Times’ is a choppy, spirited call to arms and a uniquely ballsy response to current conditions – ‘give me hard times and I’ll work harder’ – stepping up to the Cult of Recession and looking it in the eye rather than revelling in schadenfreude or sagging in defeat. The song’s heart-racing final lines (‘If they only see you with their fear and they only hear you with their pride, then work harder’) could, handled less skilfully, smack of a reactionary shifting of blame from the oppressive society to the misfit individual. It escapes this through a sense of impending triumph for the protagonist and a quiet determination to prove detractors wrong, and raises an elegant two fingers to contemporary culture’s immersion in fatalism and victim-chic.
Exhortations to empowerment and self-actualisation have marked Wolf’s lyrics as far back as his first album’s ‘it’s all in the palm of your hand’. The Bachelor is studded with similar thoughts. ‘Oblivion’ explores the age-old concept of overcoming your fears by facing them. ‘Blackdown’s explosion into joyous cyber-madrigal* at the line ‘Desire: you are not the maker of me’ does more than any self-help mantra to push the idea of self-control over self-indulgence. The title track displays a similar gleeful defiance in resisting external definition, its narrator forsaking domestic necessity to blithely romance ‘all the boys in the valley’, turning the declaration ‘I will never marry’ into a positive and proactive choice rather than a fate to which one is condemned. (*Yes, ‘cyber-madrigal’ is an awful term. I’m trying to avoid the term ‘electro-folk’.)
Wolf’s frustration with the barren popular culture he previously nailed as ‘a drought of truth and invention’ is still apparent, while he also raises his sights to higher problems of state. ‘Hard Times’ laments ‘mediocrity applauded’, wilful ignorance and the drive to war, while ‘Count of Casualty’ dares you to ‘log off, sign out, delete your friends’ and take the fight to the streets. ‘Battle’, the album’s most explicitly political song, weighs in with more certainty of long-awaited victory for Patrick’s lamé army, and finds its mark in targets – ‘conservatives’, ‘homophobes’ and, curiously, anti-Europeans – which might be soft but still need taking down.
On the string-soaked ‘The Sun is Often Out’, Wolf remains a superb chronicler of London as a site of mourning and morbidity – the dark side of Peter Doherty’s moon-faced adulation of urban squalor. On most of the album, however, the twilit city skylines and decaying coastal towns which dotted his earlier work give way to ‘green pastures’, echoing hills and valleys and desolate moorland, with the Sussex downs both directly referenced and indirectly evoked. It’s a setting appropriate to the mythic tropes, fairytale narratives, quests and manifest destinies which crowd this album, stories told in soaring, strident vocals, backed by mass choruses and cleanly slicing strings.
And then there’s ‘Vulture’. Oh, Patrick. Let’s leave aside the way that the line ‘LA big wheels turn’ perfectly encapsulates Hollywood as both industry and entertainment, and focus on this song as exemplary of the way that being a Wolf fan involves something akin to a leap of faith, suspending your disbelief in the pursuit of enjoyment in absurdity. This tale of a smalltown boy’s big-city debauching is a triumph of outrageous cliché, Wolf’s supreme self-confidence displayed as much in his ability to pull off a line like ‘Down in Santa Monica suicide motel / One date with the Devil and seven days in Hell’ as anything else in his past career. If you’re going to dress as a vulture-themed dominatrix and sing about being put in the magic position, you’d better have the courage of your convictions and front like ridicule is nothing to be scared of. ‘Vulture’ does just that, vocals yelped and heavy-breathed over a backdrop evocative of clattering typewriter keys, blades being sharpened, and, if you listen very carefully underneath the throbbing synth, the sound of Erotica-era Madonna and You Are The Quarry-era Moz, as well as every amateur ever to play with the concept of Hollywood or BDSM, quietly expiring of sizzling envy.