Monster Island - The Anchor
Owain Paciuszko 27/07/2009
Some records can win you from the very moment they begin, and this is one such album. From its surreal, swampy gargling, with a curious guitar wandering along whilst drum sticks count in, and the vocals mutter some half-thought sentence, before suddenly exploding into a Pavement meets Sonic Youth bluesy swagger with the refrain 'Don't take it out on the buildings it wasn't their fault' muttered over the top. Lead track The Anchor Age sets out the stall perfectly, somehow both totally dischordant and messy yet oddly anthemic and catchy. It's like those rare moments when The Brian Jonestown Massacre manage to wrangle their chemical imbalances into glorious alchemy, but fronted by John Cooper Clarke.
With an opening track that strong it leaves me hovering over a precipice of worry, hoping that it wasn't some sort of wonderful fluke and that the following nine tracks at least come close to that opening glory.
As soon as the lurching count-in to GB (Trees) starts I can breathe a sigh of relief, and then it takes a side-step into scatty, stream-of-consciousness; 'I'll just sit here and let history be my filter' ponders lead vocalist Stephen. It's a wayward epic that crams in multiple tangents into its rambling runnning time. Followed by the The Bumblebeez-esque dirty pseudo-hip-hop of Push the Bullet In, off-set with a vocal ramble that seems to channel Milton from the cult film Office Space.
The Blues Empire has an air of The Fall but a hazy, woozy sound all of its own, then throwing in the energetic clatter of it start for a strangely poignant monologue played out with cassette-tape filtering the voice down to a bittersweet sigh; 'We tried to forget but scars won't let us'. It distills the track down into strange, macabre and engaging human drama, touching on modern mundanity with a blackly comic edge as if Shane Meadows had made a concept album.
Things are slowed down from the start with the ballad-like Hi-Noise; with its melancholic holler of 'So pull the pulse to your finger and bury your one good ear' the band once again pull on the Stephen Malkmus-style to yank the broken anthem out of the ramshackle. Like a defiant villager taking up torch and pitchfork only to go and tend his vegetable garden. There's a flavour of The Beta Band as well, specifically on Typewriter, that also comes close to sounding like a shed-bound demo for a '70s cop show car chase, lyrically despondent and humourous at once: 'I just returned from reading every book ever written and if the answer exists, well, it chooses to remain hidden'.
These are the kind of counter-mainstream songs that should be filling whatever the direct opposite of a stadium is. These are anthems for the dishevelled, and this is a record miraculously consistent and brilliant. A traveller spouting madness flecked with genius, that hopefully will find a soap box and become heard. A record that may just catch you off guard and worm its way to the top of whatever system you use to chart things you like, or, perhaps, a record you may dismiss only to realise a year later you love it. It's a timeless and timely recording that bottles the day to day like a kid's bug collection.
It's not just about these smart lyrics, glibly delivered: the instrumentation and arrangment across the record is uniformly excellent. Finding the beautiful in the messy, and cobbling together a range of styles, changing tack when necessary and never becoming 'weird' for the sake of it, and wisely holding on to contagious melodies and riffs.
The record draws to a close with the frenetic bluesy Open Collar, which kind of sounds like a pub band with multiple personality disorder covering Beastie Boys' Fight For Your Right and is the first track that almost invites a chorus in with the repetition of 'I sent an S.O.S. to the gutter press'. LL + Brains goes almost twee for its finger-tapping, lightly played introduction and then sinks pleasingly back into the quagmire. 'In the end we had more brains than sense,' mumbles Stephen sleepily before final track Sunflowers... creakily squeaks into life like a badly oiled children's roundabout. Then its angsty strut kicks in like a British Black Rebel Motorcycle Club curated by Supreme Vagabond Craftsman, it's an apocalyptic finale, a war plan recited that manages to stand the hairs on the back of your neck with its defiantly spat lyrics and sense of impending doom and triumph; but ultimately so microscopic, filthy and real.
The Anchor is so unexpectedly marvellous that it kind of demands sneaking up on you, surprising you and charming you. It's beguiling with a sense of all those great underground bands that we now gaze back on longingly and wish we'd 'been there', and for that reason I really wish I could under-hype it! But at the same time this is a truly fantastic, totally accomplished and brilliant album that I feel demands your attention if you're into any of the bands I've name-dropped in this review. With the critics always jumping in the first weeks, nay days, of the year to announce what 'the album of 2009' was going to be, I feel like perhaps this far in it may be a safe time to start making bets. For me there's a strong chance that the title spot has been taken.