As the fuzzy malaise of the 1970s slipped into the sharp, cruel hope of the ’80s, the burgeoning post-punk movement faced a choice: continue to engage the world in a confrontational way, or adopt a more vague, poetic mode of address. Is it better to turn your band’s entire body of work into one extended Marxist metaphor, like Gang of Four, or to embody a post-capitalist ideal of pop without openly acknowledging the injustice of the here-and-now, like Scritti Politti? The Pop Group wanted it both ways—and for a brief time, they had it. The British band’s two studio albums, 1979’s Y and 1980’s For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, upped the agit-funk panic while dipping into the slithery, ambiguous depths of dub nebulosity. Frontman Mark Stewart penned leftist screeds, then he babbled and screeched them so hideously that they ripped themselves to pieces. It was up to the listener to reassemble the shreds and try to make sense of them, even as the brunt of their meaning was as clear as any Crass anthem.
The Pop Group released a third and final full-length before breaking up in 1981, but it wasn’t a studio album per se. We Are Time came out in 1980, and it’s being reissued sans bonus tracks or anything else by way of bells and whistles. That is, unless you count Cabinet of Curiosities, a brand new collection of odds-and-ends that might as well be We Are Time: Part II. In the same way We Are Time does, Cabinet of Curiosities gathers random studio cuts, live versions, and Peel Sessions recordings; the official studio versions of those songs originally appear on singles, Y, or For How Much Longer, while others are exhumed legitimately for the first time via Cabinet of Curiosities. In that sense, both collections are important: a few gaps are filled, some hard-to-find tracks are unearthed, and a tragically abbreviated discography is fleshed out. That said, neither album substantively buttresses Y or For How Much Longer, let alone threatens to knock them over.
We Are Time has always felt like an admittedly big footnote to the Pop Group’s catalog, and while that hasn’t changed with this bare-minimum reissue, the album’s bursts of brilliance still sear. “Colour Blind” is one of 4 songs that were recorded as a demo not long after the band formed in 1978, and it’s an astounding statement; this is the closest the sarcastically named Pop Group every came to playing actual pop, and the song’s loping, cavity-riddled rhythm is smoothed over by Stewart’s gluey melody and a sweet-verse-acidic-chorus dynamic. It’s astounding how, almost 40 years later, it not only sounds more sophisticated than most post-punk circa ’78, but also eerily contemporary.
That can’t be said of the entirety of We Are Time. Another demo recording, “Trap”, is piercing, punky, and smeared with schoolboy conceits (“Burn all my books, page by page/ Cut my flesh with a paper edge”), but it’s also pitched down the middle of the post-punk plate. For all its anxious stiffness, it’s incredibly impassioned and perversely double-jointed; Minutemen cited the Pop Group as a major influence, and “Trap” is solid proof of that. The live tracks are serviceable, and show off the band’s formidable improv chops, but the savage version of “Thief of Fire” misses the cooling counterbalance and atmospheric flourishes of Dennis Bovell’s dub production on Y, which also presaged Stewart’s post-Pop Group direction in New Age Steppers, as a solo artist, and collaborating with everyone from Adrian Sherwood to Daddy G to Factory Floor.
Cabinet of Curiosities is the brand-new bookend to the decades-old We Are Time, but seeing as how it draws from the same well of peripheral material, it comes up shorter. That gulf is exemplified by the inclusion of an alternate studio version of the Pop Group’s most famous song, “She Is Beyond Good and Evil”. It’s billed here as the “Original Version Previously Unreleased,” and it differs only slightly from the single/album version that’s become one of post-punk’s most durable manifestos (St. Vincent’s bracing, faithful cover performed on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” in 2011 demonstrates just how prescient the Pop Group’s vision was). The Cabinet version, though, has lower highs and higher lows; Stewart doesn’t whoop or whisper as much, and the cavernous aura that places the song in the same realm as Liquid Liquid and a Certain Ratio is nowhere near as huge.
On the other hand, it’s great to hear “Where There’s a Will”, the band’s half of a 1980 split with the Slits (with whom the Pop Group shared a drummer); its sculptural disco, free-jazz sax, and pious debt to Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” hit harder than ever. The live tracks and Peel Sessions of songs that first appeared on proper albums and singles are again inessential, although that’s offset by in-concert recordings of two Pop Group songs that are previously unreleased in any form: “Abstract Heart” and “Karen’s Car”. The former lunges along on throbbing bass and a fractured jazziness, even if its swagger is hamstrung by all the jarring shifts, noodling fusion solos, and an atypically lackluster set of lyrics from Stewart. The latter is a bit better, at least compositionally; there are some intriguing ideas sticking out at odd angles from the feverish jam. Unfortunately it’s the one live track on either Cabinet or We Are Time that suffers from a muddy, unforgiving recording.
If the Pop Group can be faulted for anything, it’s that Stewart’s precocious ambition was always a half step ahead of the band itself. That’s most dramatically heard on We Are Time’s “Amnesty Report II” and Cabinet of Curiosities’ “Amnesty Report III”. Both are variations on “Amnesty International Report on British Army Torture of Irish Prisoners”, the B-side of the band’s second single, 1979’s “We Are All Prostitutes”. The original version is a noise-collage scramble of static, voices, and the rubble of riffs; despite its challenging sound (and sidelong glance at Throbbing Gristle in regard to both sound and title), it’s the most artlessly preachy song the Pop Group ever made. “II” is more coherent than the single version, but it still feels likes a sketch; “III” is simply a different mix, and one that doesn’t fulfill any purpose other than fill out Cabinet’s already skimpy, nine-track span.
The most disappointing thing about Cabinet is that it’s being released as a standalone album, when really it warrants little more than being bonus tracks on the We Are Time reissue. That doesn’t detract from the undimmed impact of these recordings after all this time. The Pop Group were unique among the major post-punk bands, able and willing to clench up and cut loose with equal force—and to thread polemic into dream-logic poetry. The reissue of We Are Time and the release of Cabinet of Curiosities don’t diminish that fact, but they don’t amplify it much either.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1x32VGL