Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Black Grape. It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah (Radioactive, 1995)

"You do nothing but socialize/ And become a menace/ Put on your Reeboks, man/ And go play fuckin' tennis."

I heard Black Grape before I ever listened to the Happy Mondays, Shaun Ryder's previous, much celebrated Madchester band. In high school, the whole Madchester scene kinda passed me by since I listened pretty exclusively to good ol' Amurcan indie rock from DC, Chapel Hill, Minneapolis, Seattle, Boston, etc. I didn't much truck with the UK bands at the time, and thought they all sounded pretty fruity (I was dumb, of course: Stone Roses, Blur, Pulp, Teenage Fanclub, and a bunch of other UK groups were making some pretty fantastic records in the early '90s, which I didn't come to appreciate until college).

But even after I'd listened to the Happy Mondays, I wasn't all that impressed. I mean, Pills 'n' Thrills 'n' Bellyaches is ok, with one or two fairly kick-ass tracks ("Step On" rules, for instance), but that's their best record, and today it sounds dated and highly goofy. The songs are heavy-handed and only clever if you're ripped to the tits on ecstasy. Which was kinda the point, I guess, but that doesn't make it any easier to enjoy.

But Reverend Grape's 1995 debut LP, It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah, is an entirely different matter. Far more focused than anything the Happy Mondays ever put out, with virtuoso instrumental performances, cleverly constructed arrangements merging samples and live band tracks, and a brilliant, almost subtle turn from main Monday, lead vocalist, and confirmed madman Shaun Ryder, It's Great is one of the '90's hidden gems, an unfairly overlooked party record with deep grooves and serrated hooks by the yard. Where the Happy Mondays were content to neck the pills and snort the coke and and get on with it already, Black Grape were willing to take some time to plot out their moves, and It's Great bears all the fruit of this (comparatively) steadier approach.

Which isn't to say the album isn't high as a fuggin' kite. It is. Everyone playing on the record sounds like they just raided an all-night chemist's. It's a druggy, exultant jam, man, which somehow manages to ooze inebriation while always staying right on track. It's the controlled bedlam that makes it so great.

And the fact that nearly every song in the collection is a scorcher doesn't hurt, either. Reverend Black Grape opens the record on a hopped up and hectic harmonica riff, with layers of chunky chords and a mercilessly funky backbeat. It's one of the most exciting songs I've ever heard, and when the band crashes into the chorus ("Can I get a witness?!? I said, CAN. I GET. A WITNESS?!?") and the drummer starts to get some for real over a nice acid slide guitar part, the song goes from awesome to AWWWWESOME.

"In the Name of the Father" uses a hallucinatory, swirling sitar riff to nice effect as driving raver beats shove the song out of the speakers and into your head. The dancehall-style toasting at the 2:30 mark, courtesy of some dude named Psycho, is a nice touch, as are the soul-sister backing vocals slathered throughout. Kelly's Heroes boasts the album's best guitar parts, with a glammy main rhythm riff and an uplifting, unfurling solo at 3:28. "Don't talk to me about heroes" sneers Ryder in his Mancunian rasp, "Most of these men seem like serfs."

The nimble, Stones and Beatles-mugging "Submarine" finds Ryder shamelessly, enthusiastically stealing vocal melodies and lyrics from a handful of older songs, stitching them together into a hilariously catchy crazy-quilt of Brit rock references while the rest of the band feverishly pounds away.

Album highlight Shake Your Money begins with a delicately pretty organ refrain before transforming into a dark celebration of the casually and chaotically criminal life of the habitual drug user/dealer. "Everybody wants to get busy/ Counting money makes me fucking dizzy," growls Ryder. "A million years old, and still in trouble/ Puts down his fists and hits you with a shovel." It's an impressive performance, funny and kinda depressing when it's not rocking your face off.

Black Grape suffered a pretty severe sophomore slump with their 1997 follow-up Stupid, Stupid, Stupid. Which was to be expected, frankly. Groups like Black Grape are erratic at best, and can't be counted on to consistently crank out records as stellar as It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah. Plus, Shaun Ryder's myriad drug problems pose a significant obstacle to any kind of longevity. But they made this record, which is better than good enough, believe me.