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The Pop Group – Cabinet Of Curiosities

Freaks R Us

The Pop Group - Cabinet Of CuriositiesSee, I managed to miss The Pop Group, though this is kind of forgiveable given that I would have been like eight years old or something at the time. Slightly less forgiveable is the fact that I managed to continue missing them for the next thirty years. Which is weird, because not only was I a big fan of bands who had been influenced by them (in particular The Birthday Party, one of the greatest bands ever) but I was also a big fan of Mark Stewart‘s solo output, particularly his stuff in the ’90s with the On-U Sound System, and even more particularly with his 1990 album Metatron.

And then last year I saw them at All Tomorrow’s Parties, and the weirdest thing happened. Despite never, to the best of my knowledge, having actually heard them, I’d seen them name-checked by other bands so much that somehow my brain had managed to reverse-engineer their sound by cross-referencing all the other acts and isolating the similarities and differences, and as a result they sounded exactly how I’d always thought they’d sound. Only far, far better.

For me, the thing that made the post-punk era so fascinating and exciting was that it seemed to fulfil a lot of the promise punk came with but often failed to deliver on. Much as I love traditional punk rock, it’s always seemed a shame that for the most part there’s one very similar sound throughout. From a movement which seemed to promise such change and originality has, inevitably, grown a relatively homogeneous (albeit awesome) genre. It was the turn of the ’80s when the next generation of punks decided to branch out more, taking cues from The Clash‘s musical experimentation as well as the huge variety of incredible music by black artists at the time. Much as Talking Heads had introduced funk to the wiry New Wave template before, or New Model Army would very soon after bring folk and Northern Soul to the table, The Pop Group drew in dub, Beefheart-esque jazz lunacy and, especially, funk, to build the soundtrack to a revolution Emma Goldman could very definitely have danced to.

Cabinet Of Curiosities pretty much does what it says on the tin. It’s a collection (or a “cabinet”, if you will) of alternate mixes, live stuff and Peel Sessions (or “curiosities”, if you will again). It’s not quite as essential as previous compilation We Are Time, but it’s a great starting point for anyone else who somehow managed to managed to miss out.

The opener here is the single version of “Where There’s A Will,” which does its very best to sound like an angry Parliament in pain, or a fucked-off Funkadelic, and is every bit as good as that makes it sound. It’s followed by “She Is Beyond Good And Evil,” which is a wonderful song, but this original version suffers a little by comparison with its previous release, and lacks some of the depth and space of that track’s production. It’s still a magnificent piece of music, though, Stewart’s tortured howls carving through that awesome bass. Then we’ve got a live take on “Colour Blind,” followed by a version of “Words Disobey Me” recorded for the late, great John Peel, and produced by the equally late and almost as great Tony Wilson, all disconnected funk stutters and chiming guitar. We also get the Wilson-produced “We Are Time,” in which its infectious rhythm section comes off here far more like Joy Division getting down and funky than the album version ever did.

The plaintive “Don’t Sell Your Dreams” is also here in live form, as well as two previously unreleased songs, “Abstract Heart” and “Karen’s Car.” The former of these is is a relatively low-tempo jazz affair, all suspension and resolution, while the latter is a chilling account of the death of nuclear whistleblower Karen Silkwood. Always wearing their politics on their sleeves, The Pop Group never seem to have bought into the cynicism of a lot of their contemporaries, never more effective than when screaming in rage at the manifold injustices of the world. On which note we are also given an alternate (and to my mind better) version of “Amnesty Report,” its dub-jazz backing in combination with almost Throbbing Gristle-esque slabs of guitar noise providing the perfect environment for Stewart to recite methods of torture over. Given all that’s been in the news these last couple of weeks about the CIA, it’s arguably more relevant than ever, which is the case for the band as a whole.

For a band who claimed We Are Time, they didn’t half make some timeless music. Still vital, still impossible not to get angry about, or not to dance to. Music to build a new world by. A kinder world. A fairer world. And most of all, a FUNKIER world.

-Justin Farrington-

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