If a greatest hits album presents a band or artist as a glossy sales brochure photo, the odds and sods collection is an exploded view. It breaks what appears to be a compact, streamlined concept down into every last part and component to the extent of overwhelming the non-expert. In the liner notes of Dr. Cholmondley Repents, the four-disc, 59-track compendium from English indie legend(s) the Jazz Butcher, chief Butcher Pat Fish is asked where a novice should start making sense of it all. “Somewhere else,” he replies.
Indeed, the Jazz Butcher have already been anthologized in many different ways. When most of their albums proper went out of print, compilations like Draining the Glass and Excellent! kept the flame alive in outstanding fashion. More recently, the Fire label reissued the first eight Butcher albums as two different sets, The Wasted Years (2017) and The Violent Years (2018). Yet, with all due respect to Mr. Fish, who died in 2021, Dr. Cholmondley Presents might just be the best way into the wonderfully wild world of Butcherland. Like some of the best-loved television series, this is a world full of subtle self-references, inside jokes, and coy winks to the audience. So, the more material, the broader the field of knowledge. Why dabble in the kitchen when, as the Butcher himself once put it, you can take a bath of bacon?
In true Butcher fashion, Dr. Cholmondley Repents (the title itself a reference to an old review from the British press) includes a disc’s worth of A-Sides that does not really amount to a best of. It also consists of a disc of B-Sides, a CD of ephemera which Fish labels “C Sides, or Bottom of the Barrel”, and another with a concert-length US radio session.
While the “A-Sides” label is accurate, it does not amount to a best of for several reasons. While “Southern Mark Smith” appears in its original single form, it is sonically inferior to the better-known “Big Return” version from their debut album. And then there is the fact that, while many of the Butcher’s best songs were never issued as singles, some that were, were not exactly their best. So, while “Girl Go” is a charming bit of navel-gazing reverie, it is neither dynamic nor catchy enough to have ever had a chance at being a hit. Conversely, the jangly, ultra-melodic “Rain” and the melancholically jazzy “Partytime” – one of the Jazz Butcher’s best songs ever— can be found on “B-Sides”. However, there is one sequence on “A-Sides” that brilliantly sums up the range and scope of the Butcher’s appetite and appeal. It’s when a shambolic techno piss-take on the Stones’ “We Love You” is immediately followed by the earnest, gorgeously bucolic dream-pop of “Sweetwater”.
Hardcore fans (does the Butcher have any other kind?) will already have many of the songs on Dr. Cholmondley Repents‘ first two CDs. What they won’t have, though, are the “C-Sides” or the radio session, at least not in the official format. The radio session is a 1989 date with the famous KCRW in Los Angeles. It shows that despite the scattershot nature of their music and their fondness for libations (see “D.R.I.N.K.”), the Butcher were by that time a well-honed, professional live act that rocked convincingly. The set goes heavy on their then-recent Creation label material but also makes room for a few evergreens and the Soviet-skewering silliness of “Moscow Drug Club”, “where the Reds fly loose”.
However, the real treasure of this collection is at the “Bottom of the Barrel”. There are some leftfield missives, such as the ode to Hungarian-American actor Peter Lorre. At its heart, though, the disc features some of the Butcher’s most intimate material, often just Fish and his guitar, playing stunning ballads like “Vienna Song”, shimmering proto-shoegaze like “Almost Brooklyn”, café romances like “May I?”, and fine covers of Jonathan Richman, Dylan, and, naturally, Bonnie Tyler.
Dr. Cholmondley Repents is a lot to take in, and it certainly requires more than one sitting to do so. However, unlike most such collections, it also rewards repeated listening and keeps the listener coming back for another helping of whatever unpredictably groovy dish Pat Fish is serving. It’s a deep dive, yes, but there never really was a shallow end with the Jazz Butcher.