FELT Stains On A Decade (Cherry Red)
Felt were the brainchild of Birmingham resident Lawrence Hayward, a man with a masterplan that involved releasing ten albums in ten years. Their number at one time or another included future and past members of Primal Scream and Strawberry Switchblade, Lawrence himself going on to form Denim. "Stains On A Decade" is a rather ad hoc singles compilation, drawn from their work for the Cherry Red and Creation labels. It delivers 15 intricately detailed, immaculately constructed Faberge eggs of songs, bejewelled with the kind of loving care that somewhat belies Lawrence's Lou Reed-flattened attempts at singing. Much of this album makes Belle And Sebastian sounded like Black Sabbath, and suggests what The Smiths might have been had they met at art college: if fey, jangly English 80s indie bands are your bag, you need this disc! (It's perhaps more than an alphabetical coincidence that it nestles close to my Field Mice collection on my CD shelves.)
"Trails Of Colour Dissolve" bucks the general trend, its bongo-based fury invoking Tyrannosaurus Rex made over for the raincoat crowd, whilst "Sunlight Bathed The Golden Glow" crackles with a bassline superficially similar to Public Image's eponymous 7" debut - although in Feltworld the withering putdowns include "You're reading from "The Book of the Dead" but you don't know what it's about" and "You're trying much too hard to make your world seem like a dream".
"Primitive Painters" is, on this evidence, Felt's greatest contribution to the happiness of humanity, a staggering 6-minute life-affirming, adrenalising masterpiece. "Ballad Of The Band" pulls in not far behind, a possibly autobiographical account of the trials of keeping a group together in the face of apathy, poverty and organised religion, getting playfully self-referential with the lines "I love those songs like "Crystal Ball"/"Dismantled King", I love them all", the latter being a reference to "Dismantled King Is Off The Throne", which also features on this compilation. "I Will Die With My Head In Flames" and "Sandman's On The Rise Again" are frenetic, pell-mell punkish in energy if not execution, pushing along with a ferocity and velocity that pulls the rug from under their precious coral reef titles. "Be Still" restores normal service, a calm, John Leckie-produced place that reminds of Lindsay Cooper & Charles Gray's "Pia Mater".
I have no reason to doubt that this compilation represents the cream of Felt's single output, but it all adds up to a somewhat underwhelming experience that undercuts the band's legend. Nevertheless, a comprehensive Felt reissue programme is apparently in the throes of execution, which, like this disc, should be never less than interesting.
FELT Me And A Monkey On The Moon (l)
The concluding chapter in Lawrence's ten-albums-in-ten-years masterplan, "Me And A Monkey On The Moon", perhaps ironically, flies closer to convention than anything else in the Felt canon. From a band that once created elaborate songs around titles such as "Sempiternal Darkness" and "Trails Of Colour Dissolve" this is an endearingly, almost alarmingly direct work.
"I Can't Make Love To You Anymore" is what country rock would have sounded like had Gram Parsons been a Black Country aesthete with the early life warmly remembered on the romping "Mobile Shack" - "I was born in my mother's bed/In a downstairs room/12 Melville Road/In Birmingham Coming up behind me/Like a high speed train/Was the New York City new wave/Verlaine Hell" - replete with grinningly cheesy squidgy synth.
The majestic AOR piano intro of "Free" would, from any band signed to a label with some kind of promotional budget (i.e. not this one), demand an accompanying video swamped by dry ice and torrential movie rain. It's anchored in the real world by Lawrence's lyrics, which veer sharply from nostalgia to savagery, and slightly askew singing voice, almost like a flattened Mark Knopfler. There's something a little icky about "Budgie Jacket", though, which skirts ambiguously around the outskirts of a victim's view of child abuse, rather like Television Personalities' "Arthur The Gardener", if without its fairytale naivety.
The album's pinnacle is undoubtedly the six-and-a-half minutes of "New Day Dawning", on which Lawrence sounds as if he's striving, practically straining, to create a rock classic, the blueprint including a mid-song breakdown that's pure "Bold As Love" and a lengthy "Layla"-esque instrumental coda that seemingly winds ornate layers of guitar work onto a chord progression lifted from Pachelbel's "Canon". "Follow me into the nineties", he invites in the face of his band's imminent, preordained dissolution.
Nothing on "Me And A Monkey On The Moon" glistens as gloriously as their Cocteaus-assisted single "Primitive Painters", and there are occasional moments that suggest Lawrence and his band (which includes future members of Primal Scream and a former Weather Prophet) feel uncomfortable within the ill-fitting constraints of (relatively) commercial rock music. The last words he utters on the album, and as a member of Felt, are "Get out of my mirror so I can see", and it's tempting to suggest that he found some relief in the completion of the concept.