It may be a little early in the year for this sort of thing, but I think we already have a winner for the “Song Title of the Year Award, 2021”. If something is released this year with a snappier appellation than “Andrea Dworkin’s Knees”, I will eat my hat, earmuffs, and cummerbund. If this title appeared on an album by Jon Bon Jovi, or Keith Urban or Beyonce, you’d be genuinely concerned that they’d had a psychotic episode, but for Luke Haines, it’s par for the course. Mr. Haines has a tatty old plastic carrier bag, full of the leftist of left field, pop-culture references, which he uses as source material for his work. Fortunately, it’s great work.
If you’re looking for a “25 words or less” review of Setting the Dogs on the Post-Punk Postman, it would be something like “bombproof pop-rock tunes, inspired by the minutiae of the 21st century, written by an eclectic, eccentric British singer-songwriter, possibly on drugs.” In the three words left, you could add “featuring Peter Buck”.
We really shouldn’t be surprised that Haines has ended up like this. After all, the signs were there almost from the start. His first notable band, the Auteurs, started as a fairly typical indie-schmindy band. Still, it didn’t take long before the lyrics got darker (“Unsolved Child Murder”, anyone?), and he finally jumped ship for the charmingly named Baader Meinhof. From then on, things got really interesting. His Wikipedia page would make a great movie. Setting the Dogs on the Post-Punk Postman is a logical progression from that bouillabaisse of weirdness. Like a fairly hefty chunk of Mr. Haines output, it’s excellent.
Haines has a pretty healthy disdain for about 80% of popular music, but he really loves glam rock. When you listen to Setting the Dogs on the Post-Punk Postman, you’re never too far from a crunchy, Sweet-styled power chord progression. Prime examples are “U Boat Baby” (with its opening line “I’m a Kaiser kinda guy”) and “Two Japanese Freaks Talking About Mao and Nixon”. But it’s not all a homage to the 1973 UK singles chart. “When I Owned the Scarecrow” and “Landscape Gardening” could have been written by Syd Barrett if he’d been born on a council estate in Croydon in 1962 and hadn’t had such an appetite for psychedelics.
The title track, however, almost defies description. Imagine 10cc, forced at knifepoint to write a film-noir-inspired song, incorporating UK alternative rock icons Throbbing Gristle and Epic Soundtracks, a handful of phrases used in the worst kind of backstreet pubs, and some whistling. If that sounds appealing to you, you really need this record. And maybe some therapy.
To put Haines in that “loveable lunatic” box is a major mistake. He’s not particularly loveable for a start as his work has none of the whimsy that has people beating a path to the doors of artists like Robyn Hitchcock and Andy Partridge. There’s a darkness to Haines’ work which is probably keeping him off the radio and leaves him prowling the dimly lit alleyways of the bad side of pop. I think he likes it there. Dig beneath the veneer of obscure references and unsettling nastiness. You’ll find some superbly written songs that happen to be about the Eastern Bloc, Ivor Cutler, Shuji Terayama, U-Boats, and suicidal pumpkins. His voice may not be up there with Steve Perry or Whitney Houston, but his low-key snarl adds another layer of disquiet to everything.
If you’re looking for a place to start in Haines’ expansive and intimidating catalog, Setting the Dogs on the Post-Punk Postman would be a great place to begin. You get all the good stuff here; the oblique references, the great tunes, and lyrics which are often laugh-out-loud funny. You’d better be quick, though, as apparently, he already has his eye on another area of the Arts. His next project is his first solo painting exhibition in a local arts center in the north of England, just before Easter. Apparently, exhibits will include new canvases of wrestlers and a Christmas tree decorated with baubles, each one representing a member of British agit-pop supremos, The Fall. What a guy.