Written by: Dave Cantrell
A couple weeks ago Stereo Embers published its best-of-2014-so-far list, thirty-five albums representing the top five of seven SE writers and staff. Among them you’ll find this curious obscurity, one of my picks and I’m finally here to (hopefully) illuminate the reasons for its inclusion and (just as hopefully) underscore and celebrate the ‘curious’ half of that description while helping remedy the ‘obscurity’ part. Whether and to what extent I succeed won’t, in the end, matter all that much and here’s why: if, as has been my experience, the level of delight in writing a review correlates to the skill and resilience and sheer bloody-minded inventiveness contained in the piece of work under consideration, then both you and I are in for a particularly happy ride. Many are the sources of joy on Ashley Reaks’ latest record Compassion Fatigue (1-8), released in March and available here, from cheeky clever lyrics that often find a way to pack an emotional wallop despite themselves to shifty yet easy-to-follow song structures that treat the rock template like so many Chinese puzzle knots to the confidence with which the fun-filled scathe of these eight pieces is executed, Reaks and his assembled band coming across like a cross between a rogue-ish carnival huckster and a peak-striding artist in full Picasso strut. But let’s begin with the most foundational reason to revel with utter unrestraint in this record: the concept, the basic conceit, at the heart of it.
Wouldn’t it be neat, thought Reaks, to create a record “where the first song would be 1 minute long and in the key of A, the second song 2 minutes long and in the key of B, etc…,” as the back of the CD explains. Now, most of us have probably had such neat ideas (‘Think I’ll have a dinner party and serve each person a dish that corresponds to their initials,’ say) only to soon recognize the massively over-ambitious folly of it all (‘I am not going to cook a single serving of chicken cacciatore for Charles Coleman. What am I, nuts?’). Applying such a zany notion to a work of art can only further up the ante, the stakes – one’s creative reputation, for starters – as crazy high as the potential pitfalls would be self-evident and any sane performer or artist would talk themselves wisely out of it, fearing, at the very least, the perception of the work being nothing but a gimmick for the sake of it. Ashley Reaks, it would seem, had no such internal conversation. Ashley Reaks, one guesses, simply smiled in the face of this certainly inadvisable challenge and poured himself forward into it. For this the world rejoices, even if it doesn’t know it yet. Compassion Fatigue (1-8) is a superbly assured piece of work that makes the inspiration exuding from it feel casual and almost tossed-off, the way all great records do.
I’m going to bang on about them in order since a project of this nature leaves little choice. Here’s what you need to know. The opening title track introduces us to both Norwegian co-singer Maria Jardardottir and the (for want of a better phrase) expansive compression that Reaks is able to pack into one short London minute. After Jardardottir’s concise, two-bar, title-citing brace of self-harmony the band bursts in like precisely rambunctious gatecrashers, punched drums (Mark Law on this track), Dave Kemp’s recorder-mimicking accordion, Reaks’ commanding bass and economic electric chording. Into this Reaks’ vocals, the voice a sort of knowing sneer to match the tight churn rolling over us, the lyrics those of a servant – or spouse or partner – finally speaking up and you suspect immediately it’s about more than merely “being the Emperor’s whore” and there we have as masterful a fully-realized 60-second song as we’ve heard since the Minutemen, though here we also get the paralleling prog drive of a guitar line as a bonus. Barely into the thing and already in wowed awe of the authority over material on display.
“The World The Dead Have Made For Us” conjoins two articulate, corrugated guitars with a bassline worthy of Graham Lewis, chips in Davies-esque – if a bit edgier – lyrics we haven’t heard even from Ray for a very long time (aimed, one assumes, at the stiff upper-lipped shadow of the ‘sun that never sets’ that Reaks can still see fading behind him) then has the disarming gall to hit us with a lovely pop-songy chorus brought in by Jardardottir that nearly takes the breath away. Damn. “Cold Body Pussycat” keeps the bass but gets a bit almost mystic on us with tabla-like percussion, a rolling chime of guitar that rather drifts into drone territory and Maria singing the progression like some angel in the machine. It also presents the first real opportunity to get a bead on Reaks’ superior wordplay and its penchant for the playfully risque, the archly macabre, opening with the lines “He held her vulva over his face/touched himself up with death-blue paint.” Reminding of Moonshake at their inventive best, it’s all a bit avant-pop like Roxy mixed with Family but could just as easily have emerged out of the foment that was Leeds in 1979.
And that happens, well, everywhere on CF (1-8). Whatever era’s echoes you might hear sneaking into these exuberant, heady pieces will be said era’s finest distillations and it’s all alchemized into an organic, canny whole ensuring a result that’s timeless and therefore forever modern. Already, the 4-minute track ahead of us, we’re whispering ‘masterpiece.’
“Wrong ‘Un” tracks in like a children’s Swiss fairy tale going off-kilter, clockwork keyboards slightly nightmarish for over a minute and a half before a deep PIL bass intrudes and the tale unspools in quatrained splendor of the man Peter Righton born in the wrong time, his sexual proclivities consigning him to deviant status in a far less tolerant era, the xylophone-ish lightness underneath it only emphasizing the poor chap’s plight all the more. “Cot Death Grandmother,” meanwhile, aside from being a title that would make Mark E Smith ache with envy, is five minutes of persistently relentless Freudian nihilist pop that excoriates the anti-everythingness often found in the Queen Mummed emotional wastelands of Englanders still longing for Empire and also sports the cool swing of a fine jazzed-up R&B sax solo to help usher us out of the death chamber, the lady’s lips rigor mortised in prim regret. Then there’s “Street Cleaning,” honking all Lol Coxhill before descending into Reaks’ most decadent trawl yet, the images and their gloriously inglorious ugliness living just down Beasley Street from John Cooper Clarke, even while the tune itself (again with the wonderful PIL-ed bass as its floor, by the way) is a rather sprightly proposition, what with its shooby-dooby-doo-wops and bop-bop-shoo-wops and wordplay indeed worthy of the Bard of Salford (“Mum was quite the catch in her Buddy Holly specs/bringing back strangers for anonymous sex“). And while the salaciousness truly is unrelenting, it’s also a sparkling, visceral prog-pop gem, overwhelmingly good.
The last two tracks, “Joyless Joy” and “Disconnected,” if anything, outdo what’s come before, the former with Two-Tone overtones stretched to their soulful max, the seven minutes going by in half the time, the writing muscular, meticulous, razor-sharp and well within the trenchant traditions of the forebears it evokes; the latter a dubby excursion to the deepest deep-down of private alienation, featuring splashes of Tex-Mex horns, a bluebeat-y solo, moments of Jardardottir in Monsoon-gone-manic mode and Reaks evincing painful ironies via sublime lyrical negations (“I’m the Superman running out of steam/the idealist without a dream to dream“) along with all manner of other accents and musical excerpts that bring thrills to repeated listenings, which I assure you you will pursue.
Yeah, it was a gamble, but the fact is, Compassion Fatigue (1-8) is tour de force after tour de force, constantly doubling down and winning every hand. By virtue of its audacity, the authorial overdrive, the daring seeming trivial and vice versa, the work of Ashley Reaks here deserves to be heard as being in the same league with other adroit British and US wordsmith musicians of a certain stripe – Creme and Godley, Blegvad and Partridge, Martin Newhouse, Robyn Hitchcock, Elvis Costello, Robert Wyatt, Daevid Allen. And so I beg of you, digest that string of names, click that “Street Cleaning” link up there, and allow yourself to be intrigued. The album is that good.
And, should you still harbor any doubt – impossible! – here’s “Cold Body Pussycat”: