THE THE/L KAGE Newport Centre 19/12/93
Another identity-crisis support band incident: L Kage deal with the confusion, and the one bloke at the front it an Auteurs t-shirt, by growling "We're not the !£$%ing Auteurs", despite looking and sounding rather a lot like them. As the arrogance level dropped they got better, being quite chatty for a support act, but they may have had ulterior motives..."We've got a CD for sale outside" - bet it's not got The Auteurs on it.
After an agonizing delay, and an equally agonizing selection of soul tunes, the alienation, angst and despair that is "Lung Shadows" filled the venue, and on slouched The The. They played a near-identical set to the one I saw at Reading, very professionally, and Matt too was talkative, fielding questions from the front rows. Everything you could reasonably expect to hear turned up at some point: "August & September", "The Beat(en) Generation" taken at a lethargic pace, much of "Dusk", "Heartland", the keyboard/drum machine/harmonica version of "This Is The Day", "Uncertain Smile" with the piano part ably tackled, despite the absence of both Jools Holland and a proper piano...no "Lonely Planet", "True Happiness This Way Lies" or "Gravitate To Me", all of which I seem to remember from Reading, though. And if they weren't as impressive as before, it was the end of the tour, and the smallish venue seemed to be muddying the sound a bit. Another good night out, though, and well worth it, especially if we have to wait another four years for them to tour again.
THE THE NakedSelf (Nothing)
In which Matt Johnson, now officially a native New Yorker, blesses us with his first new material since 1995's Hank Williams tribute album "Hanky Panky". Working from the packaging inwards, "Naked Self" is never more than inches away from toppling over into self-parody, offences including the name of his new record company (Nothing Records), the exclusive use of two-worded track titles (for example "VoidyNumbness", "SoulCatcher", "DieselBreeze", "SwineFever" and apparently proper punctuation is for wimps these days, as well), sepia photographs of naked lightbulbs and skyscrapers, a wholesale rejection of all forms of instrumentation that aren't guitars, basses and drums, the disclaimer "Due to the age and nature of the equipment used in this recording minor distortions & discrepancies may be detectable" is it me, or is it getting heavy in here?
The back to basics approach has been the last refuge of tired talent from "Let It Be" to "Tin Machine", and in that grand tradition "NakedSelf" is similarly not quite spectacular. There's certainly a denseness here, a sense of gloom, despondency and undiluted importance, but before now Matt's always had some kind of convincing hook to hang his attitude from, be it the scattershot raging at a diseased world that powered "Infected" and "Mind Bomb" or the sickly sweet sense of impending personal tragedy behind "Soul Mining" and "Dusk", great albums all. Here, there's some vital element missing that prevents the 12 tracks being anything more than competently executed, toe-tapping examples of mid-New-York-life angst, as if they're the work of a punk "Stardust Memories"-era Woody Allen. There's nothing slippery and addictive in these workmanlike melodies, nothing affecting in the lyrics, although the lines "My life is halfway through/And I still haven't done/What I'm here to do" in "SoulCatcher" usually raise a smile. The most surprising thing about "NakedSelf" is that Lloyd Cole contributes backing vocals on one track, and, let's face it, that just can't be a good sign.
THE THE 45 RPM (Epic)
As with the Orbital compilation discussed above, this substantial collection of Matt Johnson's more radio-friendly output is great for the collector, bristling with alternate single versions as well as containing an additional disc of 12" remixes on the more well-appointed, limited edition version, but not necessarily the best jumping-on point for the general buyer. Several of these songs appear in far finer form elsewhere: the Palitoy original version of "Uncertain Smile", for example, misses Jools Holland's magnificent, rolling piano outro. And the absence of "Slow Train To Dawn" and "Jealous Of Youth" is doubly disconcerting considering there's almost 20 minutes of spare space on the first CD.
It might not have sounded it at the time, but the material from 1986's "Infected" album seems to have been sucked into the vortex of snare-smashing excess then prevalent. Despite the downbeat lyrical themes (AIDS, war, England's dreaming) songs such as "Sweet Bird Of Truth" and "Infected" snake perilously close to Robert Palmer circa "Riptide" and Frankie Goes To Hollywood circa any time at all. And again, these single versions seem to ladle on the gloss even more than the album versions. The raging stream of bile that flows through "Heartland" still makes for great socialist cinema, though, Johnson apparently singing as if through clenched teeth.
The selections from the far superior follow-up, "Mind Bomb", are possibly even more overblown, but an increased sense of space and grace around Johnson's rantings makes them more palatable. In fact, there's even the first stirrings of a sense of humour, or even self-parody, on "Armageddon Days (Are Here Again)" with its "Are you ready, Jesus?" intro. "The Beat(en) Generation" is "Heartland" recast as post-apocalyptic skiffle, every bit as fabulous as that might suggest.
The next The The album, "Dusk", coincided with something of a purple patch. Johnson was concentrating on the personal rather than the political again, and allied his musings with some of the most focussed music of his career - "Slow Emotion Replay" and "Love Is Stronger Than Death" especially - with Johnny Marr's full-blooded harmonica never far away. The The would never sound this powerful again, as the remainder of the album demonstrates. A stripped-down, 'Disinfected' version of "This Is The Day" would become the collective's biggest hit, but said more about Johnson's state of creative bankruptcy than the innate greatness of the song. The cover of Hank Williams' "I Saw The Light" which followed it found Johnson affecting some kind of rock star-cum-preacher pose, a bit like a cowpunk Bono, and, like the album "Hanky Panky", it wasn't a great success. An alternate version of "December Sunlight (Cried Out)" rescues something worthwhile from the anticlimactic "Naked Self" album, and there are the two obligatory new tracks tagged on at the end. They're pleasant but far from earth-shattering, struck by a similar malaise to whatever hampered "Naked Self".
The extra disc of 12" versions is more fun than might be expected. The originals stretch lazily out here, a rare instance of more without bigger or brasher. It helps greatly that the lyrics are substantially retained, and there's the odd point of interest (what sounds like a chant of "Hussein! Hussein!" during "Sweet Bird Of Truth", and the reappearance of that song's brass stabs on "Dogs Of Lust") along the way.
"45 RPM" might not be as luxuriant as the packaging's bejewelled logos, and there may be superior versions of these songs elsewhere, but nevertheless it delivers as much shock, pathos and excitement as any reasonably complete collection of The The A-sides could be expected to, and on those terms it's a small, good thing.