Suspend, if you will, your disbelief.. and enter Magic Town, where Nick Lowe the badger, Gene Vincent the cat and Jimmy Pursey the fox must do battle with their unrighteous nemesis, the Angel of the North, who swoops down from Tyneside on her iron wings to terrorise Surrey.
It's amazing no-one has come up with this before, really.
Bizarrely, even from material as self-defeatingly ridiculous as this, outsider rock 'n' roll alchemist Luke Haines has somehow contrived to make an engaging, thought-provoking and very listenable album. Even though at first glance this could easily be a children's record, its saving grace is an undertow of darkness that cuts through the fey whimsy of the central concept. The England of Magic Town is a land of unresolved conflicts and unsettled scores. The miners' strike, the civil war, and public executions all bubble up into the lyrics as if from the nation's collective unconscious. These deep folk memories put a darker spin onto our reading of the Jimmy the fox, Gene the cat and Nick the badger, in the same way that the children's games and animal masks in The Wicker Man combine bucolic innocence with disturbing native pagan magick. Perhaps Haines is saying that rock stars (just like 1970s wrestlers) are the new archetypes onto which we project the same deep fears and desires that formed the fabric of England's ancient, pre-Christian religion?
To be honest, it's anyone's guess what Haines is saying. As usual with our Luke, there are very few fully-baked ideas on offer here. Instead, what you get for your tenner is another doggedly off-kilter half-hour of extremely strange but oddly engaging entertainment.
If there is one thing you can't accuse Luke Haines of, it is resting on his laurels. This man has the prolificacy of an early 1970s Elton John, who (as we all know) back then was making a new album most mornings before breakfast. Following hard on the heels of last year's collaboration with Cathal Coughlan on the witty concept that was The North Sea Scrolls, Haines has produced (yet) another (concise) slice of fantasy with Rock And Roll Animals, making me wonder initially whether the man's creative spark might be at least slightly 'doused'.
Having listened to Rock And Roll Animals perhaps a dozen times, I think there is enough Hainesian wit here to keep me sufficiently amused, via the album's conceptual creation, something akin to a modern day version of the BBC's Tales Of The Riverbank, whereby Walton-on-Thames' finest conjures up a 'magic town', in which legendary producer, and fellow Walton man, Nick Lowe, near-neighbour, the Hersham-born Jimmy Pursey and deceased rocker Gene Vincent (who apparently also stayed in Haines' home town whilst on a tour) take on central roles as (respectively) the town badger (it's the hair, geddit?), fox and cat. Musically, the album is predominantly acoustic (with Haines playing all instruments, other than his wife Sian on recorder), thereby lacking the dynamic variation of the songs on, say, The North Sea Scrolls or 21st Century Man. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course - some of Haines' greatest songs (from The Auteurs' era, admittedly) were restrained gems, like Junk Shop Clothes and Brainchild - and whilst there is nothing quite of that calibre here, the album is (like much of Haines' work) definitely a grower.
Of course, as is often the case with Haines' musical/literary creations (comic-book parodies?) it is always difficult to judge quite the tone (from cynicism to fondness) of his 'tributes', but here, it seems to me there is a degree of homage. For example, amongst the intoxicating folksy harmonies of A Badger Called Nick Lowe, Haines intones, 'Children stop and stare, they stroke my black fur and my fluffy white hair', whilst Vincent, in his catchy, eponymous song is cast as 'a wise old cat' who holds sway over the local dog population. Meanwhile, on 'Pursey's song', From Hersham To Heaven, we have another (now familiar) Haines 'Rocky Horror Show-like' harmony, and comic actor Julia Davis narrates, '"Are we going to heaven?", said Jimmy. The fox's two friends looked at each other and smiled warmly, "No we're going to heaven"'. Elsewhere, the album's title song provides more infectious melody, whilst The Angel Of The North provides a typical Haines take on (one of his perennial obsessions) Englishness, 'God bless the great north south divide' - plus including a nostalgic nod to Ian Hunter.
For me, not one of Haines' strongest collections, but enough fascinating material to keep me (and, I suspect, most aficionados) listening.
S'funny, I'm noticing that English pastoral psych-folk sound more and more, reminiscent of the Wicker Man soundtrack, or Matt Berry's wonderful albums. It's somewhere in The Duckworth Lewis Method (but then so is the entire history of pop music including Jeff Lynne's entire discography) and it's liberally sprinkled throughout the new Luke Haines' album "Rock and Roll Animals".
Luke continues his exploration of that alternate world where he seeks the inspiration for his magical, absurd and distinctly psychedelic take on English late 20th century cultural history. This album follows neatly on from "Nine and a Half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and early '80s" and "The North Sea Scrolls".
This time out the listener is asked to imagine that Jimmy Pursey's dad was Nick Drake (OK I made that last bit up) and they all lived in a psychedelic wood near Hersham with their friends Gene Vincent, the cat, and Nick Lowe, the badger. I mentioned the Drake-Purseys are a family of foxes didn't I?
I'm in so deep with Haines that I barely raise an eyebrow at this premise. I'm also so in thrall to the world of Luke, and every one of his myriad cultural references, including his let's hear if for The South riff, that I feel like he just writes this stuff for me. The fact that others out there love it too gives me enormous hope for humanity. Needless to say, and despite only having played it through three times, I can confidently report this is another triumph for Mr Haines. As I say, more folky this time out, but still with the great pop tunes and mesmeric lyrics.
Give him your money. We need him more than he needs us. Long may he reign over us.
on 6 September 2013
This isn't as viscous as his earlier stuff, but still has that Haines bite. It's a bit of a grower, and hard to get in to at first, but well worth it. Musically some of the tunes have been rehashed from his earlier work, but if you're going to copy, might as well be one of the best.