The Fall

The Complete Peel Sessions 1978-2004

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Work was well underway on The Complete Peel Sessions when the legendary John Peel passed away, so there's some comfort in the thought that the Fall's greatest cheerleader probably got to see and hear some kind of prototype of this incredible box set. He often referred to the band as "the mighty Fall": this box set is the evidence. Collecting all 24 sessions that the edgy, unclassifiable group did for Peel's radio program, this six-CD set is overwhelming and probably too much to digest for newcomers. Listeners who have already absorbed the excellent overview 50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong, picked up an album or two, and are up for a challenge should put this set near the top of their list because these sessions usually ran four songs long, forcing the often-wandering and sprawling Fall to cut to the chase if they wanted to make an impact. Despite Mark E. Smith's flippant attitude toward practically everything, the 24 sessions here all display a need to make that impact with an urgency and drive that's woefully absent from all but the band's best albums. Highlights are too numerous to list, and this puts the set next to 50,000 Fall Fans and This Nation's Saving Grace in the Fall "Hall of Fame." Adding to the box set's desirability -- and making it much easier to digest in small bites -- is the distinct, separative feeling these short sessions have. The late-1983 session finds the formerly angular, cerebral, and unapproachably snide band in love with its new sound -- one that's rocky, incredibly catchy, approachably snide, and heavily influenced by Smith's then-wife Brix. June 1996 is standoffish, icy, and cold, perhaps a result of the caustic chemistry between Smith and Brix, who had divorced by then. Brix is just one of the many musicians thrust in and flung out of the band, but if there's one Smith quip this set validates, it's "if it's me and your granny on bongos, it's a Fall gig." Peel put it another way, "always different, always the same," referring to the way Smith could take any group of musicians, any genre of pop, and wring the Fall out of it. Aggressive British punk is where it all begins, but to varying degrees, rockabilly, drum'n'bass, big beat, and garage rock all figure into the picture with Smith's snarling vocals and his drunken literature-nerd style of writing being the fascinating glue holding it all together. After listening to the whole collection, his revolving door for bandmembers makes more sense than ever, as lineup after lineup burst out of the gate with vigor, reached their zenith, sounded a bit comfortable, then had the carpet yanked out from underneath them. The reckless 1998 sets are the most destructive, and while they were rather unsettling and miserable for fans at the time of their airing, they're put in context here, demanding reassessment. Smith's "destroy and rebuild" strategy offers a more visceral and hungry Fall every four years or so, meaning The Complete Peel Sessions is a compelling roller coaster ride of a story from beginning to end. These raw performances often surpass their officially released counterparts and the sound is amazingly crisp. Some oddball covers and Christmas tunes provide the needed levity, and knowing that the last session Peel heard was top-notch Fall adds an unexpected bittersweet spin to the set. It's hard not to get caught up in the exciting mix of massiveness and sentimentality that surrounds the release, but the collection does stop short of becoming the be all and end all for two reasons: first, not every important or great Fall song got its day on Peel Sessions, and second, the gap from 1998 until 2003 here is hard to ignore since it was the time of an especially turbulent rebirth and the great Unutterable album. Of course, this is a cut-and-dried, stick to the rules, chronological collection, and the reason it's compelling at all has little to do with the compilers and everything to do with the original parties involved. The Fall balanced the unpredictable with the purposeful in a way few bands have ever managed to pull off, while Peel championed them, stuck with them, stayed out of their way, and as a gift to us all, documented them.

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