Half Man Half Biscuit

Voyage to the Bottom of the Road

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Voyage to the Bottom of the Road is a pivotal point in the Half Man Half Biscuit catalog, the album where singer/songwriter Nigel Blackwell's interest in American and English folk music starts to take precedence over the straightforward indie pop of their previous albums. The back cover even features photos of personal heroes like A.P. Carter and early hillbilly singer Riley Puckett mixed with historical personages like the great Antarctic explorer Admiral Ernest Shackleton, along with a random quote from the average freak folk fan's favorite movie, The Wicker Man. So naturally, the album kicks off with the single most grinding, noisy tune of the band's career, the thumping, feedback-driven "A Shropshire Lad," which would fit perfectly on any late-era album by the Fall. But following that atypical opener, nearly half the album is taken up with folky, acoustic tunes like the journalist-baiting "Bad Review," the trendy musician-baiting "Deep House Victims Minibus Appeal," and the everyone-baiting "Tonight Matthew, I'm Going to Be with Jesus." Elsewhere, "He Who Would Valium Take" finds Blackwell writing new lyrics for the familiar Anglican hymn "He Who Would Valiant Be," "See That My Bike Is Kept Clean" is equally disrespectful to a familiar blues standard and "Song of Encouragement for the Orme Ascent" is a quirky workout for banjo, harmonica, and jews' harp with a title referencing a Welsh mountain that's a popular spot for suicide jumpers. It all culminates in Half Man Half Biscuit's best-known tune since their original mid-'80s incarnation, the mighty piss-take "Paintball's Coming Home." Based on the exceedingly familiar church camp singalong "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," each verse picks a new target of bland suburban conformity, with extra potshots taken at Annie Lennox, German shepherds, hot-air ballooning and The Joy of Sex; interpolations of bits of "If I Were a Rich Man" and "If I'da Known You Were Comin'" ("I'd have slashed me wrists...") add to the snark. Some fans of Half Man Half Biscuit's early post-punk sound get off the bus here, but Voyage to the Bottom of the Road is a surprising and entertaining mid-career reinvention conceptually similar to the Mekons' mid-'80s turn to country music.

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