Bands that are known for sparking off scenes, as Fat White Family have done by inspiring a succession of Brixton artists from Phobophobes to Goat Girl, Shame and Black Midi, not to mention those with a well deserved reputation for hell raising and hedonistic abandon, are not usually around for the long haul. They tend to shine brightly and then burnt out just as quickly as they arrive.
Many would have thought it unimaginable, for instance, that Fat White Family would have made it to their third album, which Serfs Up is. The sound of the ten track selection here is quite drastically different to the punky vibe of their first two albums, the sound of a band spreading their wings musically and indeed grasping at something a little more enduring than their thrilling but not necessarily deep origins. It’s not surprising to discover that the band had relocated to the Attercliffe area of Sheffield to record Serfs Up, because if not quite a world away from 2016’s ‘Songs For Our Mothers‘, it inhabits a very different end of the same musical universe.
Opening track ‘Feet‘ actually brings a previous generation of Brixton musical heritage, its coasting groove, gutter gospel and stoned deadpan vocals evoking their South London predecessors Alabama 3 soundtracking The Sopranos. From then on in, there’s a sonic obsession with ancient pop genres. ‘Tastes Good With The Money‘ rumbles along with a glam menace so sleazy it practically puts itself on the Operation Yewtree wanted list by implication. Then the always wonderful Baxter Dury adds a layer of his beguiling street poetry to the middle of the track and sheer perfection is pretty close to being achieved.
‘Fringe Runner‘, meanwhile, sounds like it could have been made by Grandmaster Flash and his mates sometime around 1979, with its monster of a funk bassline. At least, that is, until the Art of Noise-style Fairlight stabs give it an electro shock. Awesome is not the word, but it’s probably as close as language can come to describing it.
The even older art of dub reggae informs several of the tracks, with ‘I Believe In Something Better‘ seeing the mixing desk sending sounds flying around the mix, while there is a hopeful, or perhaps that should be hopelessly optimistic, narrative of a better day for us all approaching. For a track to plumb the depths of despair and then emerge, phoenix-like from the ashes on a wave of spiritual hope like this can only bring the mighty Spiritualized to mind, and there are other subtle echoes of Jason Pierce’s band across the board here, especially on the stirring classical strings that herald the beginning of ‘Oh Sebastian‘.
Things come to a close with the spooky, slow jam ‘Bobby’s Friend‘, like an even more sedated cousin of Happy Mondays‘ ‘Country Song‘.. “Bobby’s boyfriend is a prostitute” becomes the closing mantra, as rattling percussion, honking brass and a building wall of a feedback finally bring it crashing down on their heads.
The title Serfs Up is a clear nod to the Beach Boys‘ 1971 long player ‘Surf’s Up‘. We can only hope, given the apparently fragile state of his mind, that Brian Wilson never gets to hear it, because this is the kind of thing that could easily tip him right over the edge. For anyone else, of course, it’s an absolutely essential listen.
Serfs Up is out now on Domino.