Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dust It Off: Fire Engines - Hungry Beat

Hungry Beat
Album: Hungry Beat
Acute, 2007
Recording date: 1980-1981

This record probably doesn't need to be dusted off because it was released less than two years ago, but the songs it contains are much older, dating from the first years of the post-punk pop revival in Scotland. Around the time of the group's formation in 1980, Scotland was the epicenter of a post-punk movement that sought to use punk's "indie" ideals but not its aggression. (It was this movement, along with the Smiths, that laid the groundwork for indie pop and its later offspring C-86 and "twee.")

However, unlike their fellow Scottish post-punkers like Orange Juice and Josef K, Fire Engines turned this idea inside out. Their music is full of pop hooks, but it's also confrontational and at times, deliberately unpleasant. Moreover, Fire Engines meshed their pseudo-pop with sonic experimentalism to a far greater extent than their peers. With one snarling lead guitar over a funk-influenced bass and drums, Fire Engines sound quite a bit like Gang of Four. They also have a lot in common with New York's "no wave" bands and with arty bands like the Fall and Wire, which were making big waves in the UK punk scene in the late 70's.

But Fire Engines come off as more down to earth than any of these bands. Their attitude is well indicated by their song titles - the album starts off with "Candyskin" and "Meat Whiplash" and ends up on "Lubricate Your Living Room." Like the music, the titles show a seamless merging of pop sensibility with a desire to challenge the audience. The songs themselves are fun and catchy, as long as you can get past the unlovely delivery.

Hungry Beat is a good introduction to the group, whose releases were rather scattered and never included a proper LP. The first half of the album features the "hits" - singles that, in fact, placed as high as #7 on the UK indie charts.

The second half is largely instrumental and is a more difficult listen, but still worthwhile. There are still plenty of hooks and funky beats to hold on to, and at times, it predicts the sound of bands like Sonic Youth. Meanwhile, "Lubricate Your Living Room Part I" sounds like the beginning of a Velvet Underground guitar jam, tinny and sloppy but not yet in total chaos. "Part II" is pleasantly concise, carried by a rollicking bass line.

The Fire Engines aren't nearly as well known as they ought to be, especially considering that bands like the Jesus & Mary Chain, Primal Scream and Franz Ferdinand have named them as a major influence. And that's a strong recommendation - so give 'em a try!

Fire Engines on MySpace

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