Shriekback: Without Real String or Fish

I’ve been listening to Shriekback for about thirty years now. It’s the only band, of all my favorites, that I still keep up with. If it exists as an mp3, I have it as an mp3. And yet, I have learned something that I was simply not aware of all this time.

I got into the band just before the release of Big Night Music, and by then founding member Carl Marsh had left. I didn’t know much about the backstory or the history of the band — there weren’t too many articles about them and besides, I don’t usually care. Alls I knew was Barry Andrews of the bald head and basso voice, Dave Allen of the Factual bass, and Martyn Barker of the skipping rimshots. There were guitarists, Mike Cozzi and Lu Edmonds and such, but as far as I knew and concerned, that was the band. Later, as members would come and go and Barry Andrews stayed put, as far as I was concerned he was Shriekback.

I didn’t know until fairly recently (when BA started blogging on Tumblr) that the voice I loved on the early records was not his but Carl’s. Who was also responsible for many of the lyrics. Here I was, uberfan supreme, and I had no idea how much Marsh had contributed to the band I knew. I feel kind of dumb but alas, here we are.

And here we are on album #13, Without Real String or Fish, and it’s Barry and Carl and Martyn, and if you’re tempted to do a knee-jerk comparison of this album to those of three decades ago, it starts with “Now Those Days Are Gone” to aid or frustrate you.

Frustrate a little, yes, because while the band’s musical styles have always been all over the map, the one fixed point that tethered it was the smooth bass voice of Andrews or Marsh, always sounding like that character in the movie who’s trying just a little too hard to assure you he’s got your best interests as heart. Even when let loose on “Running on the Rocks” or “Suck” there was still a cool firmness to it. Here, though, on a few of the songs, the vocals are harsher, more jagged, and it’s disconcerting. It sounds like mortality. It’s not on all of the songs, just a few, so it sneaks up on you.

Musically, after the big stompy opening track, things settle down a little. In this current era of the band I’ve come to really like the slow, moody songs, and this album provides several. “Soft Estate” and “Horrors of the Deep” are quite good, but “Ammonia Tree” is absolutely off the charts. For the heavier tunes there’s “Recessive Jean” and the sprawling, anthemic “Beyond Metropolis” (If “parthenogenesis” in a pop song impressed you, you’ll want to bolt your hat on your head for this one.) There’s also the disconcertingly bizarre “Woke Up Wrong” which fascinates as it disturbs.

The final two tracks, “And Everything Like That” and “Bernadette” are the only two that just don’t work for me. In the case of the former, I can’t really put my finger on why, but for the latter the vocals sound a bit like Ringo McCartney can’t quite figure out if he’s serious or not. It’s a lovely song and I think deserves another take.

As with nearly every Shriekback album of the past ten years or so, I’ve had to give it a few listens before I really appreciated it. I was uncertain at first but now I’m well sold on it.

If you’d like a copy, you can order it here.

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