One day in 1986 I was in Cymbaline Records in Santa Cruz and decided to check the section for Shriekback, one of my three favorite bands at the time (and maybe now). I didn’t expect to find anything I didn’t already own, so imagine my surprise at finding there a brand-new, long-playing vinyl record album called Big Night Music. It was mine a few minutes later and spinning on my turntable not long after that, bringing me considerable pleasure.
This sort of thing doesn’t happen much anymore; the internet makes it hard to be surprised that way. But a couple of months ago in a moment of boredom I happened to check Shriekback’s web site, and discovered that they had released a new album called Life in the Loading Bay on which original singer and guitarist Carl Marsh had rejoined the band. Several albums have been released under the Shriekback name over the last decade or so, but they were basically solo projects of the only remaining original member, Barry Andrews. The first of these, Naked Apes and Pond Life, was intermittently brilliant, but subsequent releases were increasingly lifeless and hermetic in that way of all too many solo projects.
The exception was Having a Moment, the 2005 mini-album that reunited all the members, including Andrews, Marsh, drummer Martyn Barker, and Mighty Titan of Bass Dave Allen. Together they picked up right where they’d left off 20 years before, and for a minute there it was 1985 again. In case you’ve forgotten, 1985 was a very good year.
So I got pretty excited about Life in the Loading Bay, and while it’s not up there with Shriekback’s best – Allen and Barker are missing, and missed – it’s still a hell of a lot of fun. I’m not sure, though, that I can explain to the uninitiated exactly why. In the biography of Shriekback I wrote for the All-Music Guide back in the late 90s – when they had broken up, apparently for good – I described them this way:
Shriekback is not an easy band to classify. They borrowed heavily from funk but had a very different agenda; their music was more suited for contemplation than for parties. They combined synthesizers and drum machines with throbbing bass lines and unorthodox vocals to evoke a primordial world where the line between human and animal was blurred.
And that pretty well applies to Life in the Loading Bay. Broadly speaking, Shriekback works in two modes: evocatively atmospheric slow songs on the one hand, and on the other aggressive, uptempo tracks that are equally bizarre and catchy. There are more of the latter than the former here, though opener “In The Dreamlife of Dogs” is a lovely showcase for Andrews’ baroque, Mike Garsonesque piano. Life in the Loading Bay is replete with Shriekback’s other specialty, the unlikely anthem; raveups like “Semidelicious,” “Make It Mauve,” and “The Flowers of Angst” recall (and sometimes even reference) previous triumphs like “Sticky Jazz,” “Nemesis,” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”
Of special note is the album closer “Simpler Machines,” a sort of sequel to the much-loved song “Faded Flowers” from 1985’s LP Oil and Gold. The earlier song closed with the lines:
We had some good machines
But they don’t work no more
I loved you once
Don’t love you anymore
Which resonated strongly with some of us. “Simpler Machines” goes to a similar place a quarter-century later, and is worth quoting at length:
I wouldn’t say I was an old fool yet
but a time arrives in the lives of men
when a kindly mist enshrouds the Holy Past
(we wouldn’t make those mistakes again).
The backward glance: always a price to pay
for who has lived that time has not battered?
As we stand at the mercy of the sun-
no longer those whom the daylight flatters.
Sometimes the scent on a drifting breeze
draws us back to when all of our hands were clean
when all the world seemed comprehensible:
what we had with all those simpler machines
(and still we yearn for all those simpler machines…)
Shell-shocked by the speed of life
and nothing broken we know how to mend
bewildered by such perpetual delights:
we want to feel the wheels and architraves again.
And preciously; precariously
-robust as porcelain figurines-
we take a bow and start to say goodnight
comrades for ever with all those simpler machines
locked into history with those simpler machines
The Scrapyard Stars are glittering tonight:
the shards and smithereens
No question: it is a sentimental sight
our toys and tools all of those simpler machines.
they’ll break your heart alright, those simpler machines…
Well said, Mr. Andrews, well said. Now how about a U.S. tour?