Half Man Half Biscuit

Cammell Laird Social Club

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Given that Half Man Half Biscuit legendarily broke up in 1986 at the peak of their U.K. indie scene stardom -- supposedly because singer/songwriter Nigel Blackwell was finding it increasingly difficult to fit his TV watching and football fandom into the band's growing demands on his time -- it's surprising how comfortingly regular their release schedule has been since their early-'90s re-formation: every couple of years, there's a new album of Blackwell's inimitable sketches of modern British life. The most defiantly British songwriter in pop music history -- he makes Village Green Preservation Society-era Ray Davies look positively mid-Atlantic -- Blackwell returns with another sterling batch of hilarious and oddly touching tunes on Cammell Laird Social Club, originally released in 2003 but reissued in 2006. The title (referencing a famous ironworks and shipyard in the band's native Birkenhead), naturally, is Blackwell's play on Buena Vista Social Club, which he also name-checks in the first verse of the rattling opener "The Light at the End of the Tunnel (Is the Light of an Oncoming Train)." That song, like many of Blackwell's later tunes, makes plain his interest in vintage country music and traditional English ballads: remove the fuzztone guitars and references to cocaine and the now-posh London neighborhood of Notting Hill, and it's a standard lost love song from the country boy a city girl left behind, the sort of thing one would expect from Jim Reeves or Ernest Tubb. It's tempting to spend the rest of the review marveling at the dense pop culture allusions and brilliantly snarky lines in the lyrics, but that would leave little room for admiring the way the band incorporates Blackwell's folk and country influences into an otherwise standard-issue brand of C-86 indie guitar pop. It's as if Fairport Convention formed about two decades later than they actually did. While complete newcomers would probably still be best served with the classic 1985 debut Back in the DHSS, Cammell Laird Social Club is proof that for all their supposed indolence, Half Man Half Biscuit remain one of the sharpest and most satisfying bands in the U.K. indie scene.

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