Beatnik Filmstars: Shenaniganism (Tape Hiss and Other Imperfections
The shadow of the Fall still looms largely over the Filmstars.
Since ending their eight-year hiatus with 2006's excellent album In Great Shape, English quintet Beatnik Filmstars have made up for lost time with a deluge of releases -- two albums, two EPs and a rarities collection so far -- that can quickly overwhelm even the most staunch supporters. Between the band’s lack of American distribution and the lousy dollar to pound exchange rate, it's easy for the American fan to fall behind on the band's discography. As of this writing, Shenaniganism has only been out for half a year or so, and they’ve ALREADY released another album. This may partially explain why Filmstars front man Anders complains on his MySpace blog about having more MySpace friends than album sales. If they keep releasing albums as good as Shenaniganism, though, I’ll keep pinching pennies to keep up with them.
Shenaniganism’s liner notes emphatically state that “this LP was written and recorded in two weeks", with “no studios” and “no computers”. The album also has the parenthetical title “Tape Hiss and Other Imperfections". Despite all of this, the album is anything but slapdash. It boasts arguably their cleanest production ever, the performances are strong, and the hit-to-miss ratio is just as high as it is on the Filmstars’ better albums. However, the band dirties its music up here much more so than on In Great Shape. The effects, noises and stylistic detours that pop up all over these songs hark back to pre-hiatus classics like 1996’s Phase 3 and 1998’s appropriately named Boss Disque. Best of all, the band’s knack for catchy choruses remains intact: at least half the songs on Shenaniganism rank with the band’s all-time best.
The shadow of the Fall still looms largely over the Filmstars: a few songs employ the Sprechstimme and sordid character sketches that Mark E. Smith perfected decades ago. However, “Are You Doggin’ I Up?", “Johnnie Burnette: Style Icon” and “Inside the Mind of Sam (The Breakfast Serial Killer)” stand head and shoulders above almost everything on the last two Fall albums. Most of Shenaniganism, though, pits consonance against dissonance in ways that only the Filmstars can manage nowadays.
On “Still Climbing Mountains", a sequel to Phase 3’s “Climbing Mountains", Anders’ falsetto is run through abrasive distortion and set against flatulent, out-of-tune keyboards. On “Life Model", his voice is ported through enough tremelo to render the lyrics intelligible and the song eventually dissolves into a two-minute collage of backwards drumming and whining slide guitars. The verses of “Madmen and English Dogs” and “Air Stewardess Jackie Harrison” (another sequel to an earlier Filmstars song) are broken up by long stretches of test tones and white noise. The band still knows when to keep things simple, though: there are many power-pop gems (“Seeing Stars,” “The Oldest Profession in England”) and gentle ballads (“A Man with a Purpose", “You Call It Fate, I Call It Life”) that escape the band’s artier impulses.
The album’s quick gestation does produce a few moments of lyrical banality (“Awake,” “Little Lost Soul”) and downright nonsense (“Blackpool”). Still, a 19-song album with an 85% batting average is no small feat, especially if said album only took two weeks to make. Shenaniganism fits snugly into the top tier of Beatnik Filmstars albums, further cementing the band’s status as one of the most criminally overlooked of the last 15 years.