Perfect Sound Forever

The Fall Extricate

by David Auerbach
(May 1998)

"Well I got a lot to say now, baby, but it doesn't concern me today now, baby."
    -"I'm Frank"

Not words you'd expect from Mark E. Smith, but Extricate is the Fall in a weird mood, plus a couple of disguises. I wasn't converted when I first heard the Fall on Wonderful and Frightening World, but Extricate... well, my musical senses told me that this was something unique. Three years later, having taken in a few dozen other albums by Smith and Co., I go back and think that Extricate is one strange Fall album.

First off, what's with the vocals? Mark spends a lot of the album in such a really low register that my Fall-hating girlfriend wasn't even able to recognize him on some tracks. He mostly avoids shouting and sometimes sounds genuinely melodic, especially on the boppy cover of the Searchers' "Popcorn Double Feature." In other places he's by turns dejected, cynical, and wry-listen to him stifle a laugh on "British People in Hot Weather." Even if his lyrics are turning into language poetry, in the '90's Smith's developed his voice as an instrument, and it started on Extricate.

And Extricate was the first time Mark really attempted to strip down his lyrics. Maybe he felt a little isolated after the total incoherence of The Frenz Experiment. So instead of stories about German athletes, Doctor Faustus, and brick chips, there's some fairly clear sentiments about snotty British people, hard times, and women. Lots of songs about women, most of them nasty. "Hillary": "I thank the lord that you still don't live next to me." "Sing! Harpy" is self-explanatory. I'm told Mark had been through two divorces that year (which conveniently allowed him to tell Brix later that none of the songs were about her), and not even he could survive without a little bleeding. Extricate is Smith coming to terms with his life without, for once, the prolix wordplay and politics. That's why he sings "Popcorn Double Feature":

There's so much confusion
That's built on allusion
That's making the music play.
Extricate wears its heart on its sleeve, and, with one exception ("Edinburgh Man"), Mark hasn't let down his guard since. There have been more than a few vulnerable-sounding Fall songs, from "Frightened" to "Paintwork" to "Ten Houses of Eve," but here it's very nearly Mark's heart on the table.

Then the production- the Fall had done the fancy production thing before, but never this much. Sequencers! Fiddles! Flutes and oboes! Producer Craig Leon (Ramones, Suicide) and Fontana might have pushed Smith a little, but I'm sure Mark's responsible for the screeching fiddles on "Sing! Harpy" and the funky flute on "I'm Frank." The album is clean but not shiny, and whatever guitar power vanished with Brix is replaced by the strangest assortment of organic sounds the Fall ever had. "Chicago, Now!" is my favorite, a slow, creeping number with sickly oboe, amazing guitar-bass interplay, powerful and measured drums, and one of Smith's most seething deliveries: "Do you work hard? You don't." The other classic moment is "Black Monk Theme Part I." Mark wanted a hate song, so he dug up a hell of a number: the Monks' "I Hate You" (which recently appeared in THE BIG LEBOWSKI, so go figure). Smith coats the original with violins and backing vocals, then obliterates the rest of the band with a raging vocal straight from the spleen.

The '90's produced some mediocre Fall work, though after Levitate I'm convinced Smith is still as much an intuitive genius as ever. Part of the decline, I think, was not knowing what to do with all the possibilities Extricate left them with. Sure, "L.A." and "Hit the North" were dance tunes, but Extricate finally opened the Fall up to wide-screen arrangements and heavy production, which they wouldn't fully realize again until The Infotainment Scan, three albums down the road. And hell, it made me like the Fall. They've made a couple of better albums, but without Extricate I would never have heard them.

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