It's tough to explain, if you're reading this with ears unbruised: there's no satisfactory American equivalent to Mark E. Smith and his unkillable band the Fall, the same way there's no British Velvet Underground or D.B. Cooper or Texas. But you can sort of mess around it. You could call the Fall the punk band all the old men like. Or describe someone as "that crazy alcoholic in high school who always listened to the Fall, you know?"—as true and deep a summation of personality as someone saying "prom queen." Or you could be a certain librarian in Cleveland who had entire conduits of nerve fiber rewired by a 1981 Fall EP, who was once told the Fall was overrated and asked, "How can you say that? When I heard the Fall, it was as if I was hearing music for the first time."
Or you could say the Fall are whatever singer Mark E. Smith wants them to be—he's the one constant after 27 years, perversely stable in his notorious volatility. His utterly distinctive flatline drawl is the Fall, no matter what's snail-trailing underneath it. Weeks ago in Philly, he did an unseen encore via an extra-long mic cable from a backstage green room, the band onstage chundering around under a sallow ghost rattle from the PA. This latest record is called The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click), but in a lot of ways, it's the same old Fall without the pretense left to dress it up: a couple of slightly cracked foot soldiers shouldering the heavy artillery for That Voice.
The last few Fall releases were vintage singles retrospectives: consistently good, but as a basis for a 21st century touring band, less mathematically legitimate than the reconstituted Doors, Stooges and Sex Pistols put together. But the trick is that this real new Fall LP sounds like the old Fall everyone agrees to like—Hex Enduction Hour, This Nation's Saving Grace, the heavier, focused vitriol the band settled into after the first few years. It could touch something in many an uninitiated high school alcoholic.
See, Smith puts his viper misanthropy so singularly into his band that translating his music demands more psychology than a record collection. He was once a dock worker, he liked Can (and Black Sabbath, too?), and he talked with the affectless deadpan of a medium midtrance or a drunk mid-mickey. And he considered himself a poet. About rightly, it would turn out, in an Ambrose Bierce sort of way.
But he's still not the kind of guy you can just present to someone. Greil Marcus hates him. His whole band quit once in New York after Smith (allegedly?) hit then-girlfriend-and-band-mate Julia Nagle and was subsequently arrested; he simply . . . replaced them. And in dubious local bio-pic 24 Hour Party People, Smith—the officially voted greatest Mancunian of all time—appears for maybe six seconds, rolling back a few craggy teeth at the fake Tony Wilson and leaving one million stony Joy Division fans (and their stoned Happy Mondays counterparts) to wonder briefly: What was that scary old man doing? Well, he was smiling and looking pretty for the cameras, neither of which were ever something the Fall could pull off.
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The Fall performs with the Urinals at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.galaxytheatre.com. Tues., 8 p.m. $15. All Ages.