Whether drawing on some aspect of his Irish heritage or the feistiness identified with his adopted hometown, Newcastle, Cathal Coughlan usually sounds like a churl — or one on his best behavior — and that is part of his uniqueness: the Cork native is at the top of his form when he’s the kind of utterly loutish rebel you love to hate, or wish you were, or both. The effect is especially striking — even stunning — when it belies the style or sentiment of a song, as with “The Door-to-Door Inspector” (from Viva Dead Ponies), a pretty ballad about a pitiless yet pitiful enforcer of Big Brotherism. However, Coughlan’s in-your-face intensity can degenerate into mere gall or, through gross overstatement, turn trivial, as it does with his jokey side group, Bubonique. The struggle to find a balance was the story of Coughlan’s ’80s band, Microdisney, and it continues to be a mission for Fatima Mansions.
In his past life, Coughlan never seemed to get comfortable enough with himself or Microdisney to evolve steadily, and Fatima Mansions threatens to duplicate that flow chart. The rage that (at least on record) was somewhat balanced by Sean O’Hagan (now of High Llamas) is here complemented by a shifting cast of bandmates. (Only guitarist Andrías O’Gruama and drummer Nick Allum lasted from Against Nature to Lost in the Former West.) They give great color and scope to his visions, but provide less of a counterbalance than O’Hagan did; aside from covers, Coughlan writes all the material himself.
The eight-song Against Nature mini-album mainly features intriguing, keyboard-dominated ballads like “The Day I Lost Everything” and “You Won’t Get Me Home,” forerunners of “The Door-to-Door Inspector” with attractive melodies carrying despairing, almost nightmarish lyrics. Two notable exceptions are “Valley of the Dead Cars” and the potent “Only Losers Take the Bus,” both propelled by high-speed staccato beats. (In three different mixes, the latter appears repeatedly throughout Fatima’s international catalogue.)
In stark contrast, the band’s next move was to cut the ass-kicking six-minute Stranglers-like single (and subsequent EP title track), “Blues for Ceaucescu,” a suitably vicious farewell to the Romanian dictator. With the release of Viva Dead Ponies, it became apparent that Coughlan and company had found a dynamic way of conveying passionate sentiments that was as engaging as it was (often) harsh. The lead-off “Angel’s Delight” alternates between soft ballad and heavy rock modes to portray hard-hearted urban violence (and call for the murder of cops, a deliberate provocation that failed to get Coughlan in as much trouble as Ice-T). Brief, evocative organ/synth links interlacing songs like the crunchy first- person thuggery of “Look What I Stole for Us, Darling” and “A Pack of Lies” (a beaten woman ascends to heaven where “Holy God is there to greet her and batter her into her place”). In the title track, a sour Jesus is alive and working as an acerbic shopkeeper. The album’s US version is even better, losing little of consequence and integrating “Only Losers Take the Bus” and “Blues for Ceaucescu.” (Curiously, those two songs were made B-sides of the UK You’re a Rose EP, built on the album’s most accessible yet least credible number.)
Besides the title cut, the high-energy Hive EP contains a version of Ministry’s “Stigmata” that lives, breathes and rocks better than the original, the sneering “Holy Mugger” and the punky class warfare of “Chemical Cosh.” Minus that last song, Hive appears on Come Back My Children, a compilation that also includes all of Against Nature, “Blues for Ceaucescu,” a couple of B-sides (“What?” and “On Suicide Bridge”) and an otherwise unreleased hip-hop/disco interpretation of the Velvet Underground’s “Lady Godiva’s Operation.”
Bertie’s Brochures, another eight songs, is a mixed bag of stuff that evidently didn’t fit elsewhere; its tone is low-key, sad and rueful. R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” becomes a snide hip-hop diatribe against the British government (“go g-go g-go go fuck yourself”), but the condemnation of career terrorism in “Smiling” is anything but frantic, leaving room for a little grief to breathe amid the bile. The title song is a touching little number about a curiously misguided life. Plus, it’s all sandwiched between three simple, strong, straightforward songs about the vagaries of (gasp) romance: Coughlan’s own “Behind the Moon,” Scott Walker’s “Long About Now” and Richard Thompson’s “The Great Valerio.” While not a representative record, Bertie’s Brochures is Fatima Mansions’ most broadly appealing work.
The American-only Tíma Mansió Dumps the Dead catch-up collection contains “Shiny Happy People,” “Behind the Moon,” “Bertie’s Brochures,” two mixes of “Only Losers Take the Bus,” “Hive,” “Chemical Cosh” and “Stigmata” and two others.
In the liner notes to Valhalla Avenue, Coughlan reflects on a rugged year and thanks those whose help “kept me on the planet…long enough to see this record completed.” He then proceeds to stroll listeners down a sordid street, itemizing his own, and the world’s, wretched stories. The catchy verse and the middle eight of the opening “Evil Man” belie its declaration of denial, hypocrisy and alienation. Save for the jarring riff after the chorus, “Something Bad” rocks jauntily despite its thorough sense of disgust, somehow linking a loathsome sexual encounter with the persistence of needless militarism. The syncopated keyboard-laden rhythm of the title tune takes a light-handed approach directly counter to the song’s subjects (“You put the world on hold and let despair tear you apart”). “1000%” sports a jolly, almost singalong chorus and escalates into a hard-rocking affirmation of desolation. The rest of the music isn’t as memorable as those first four tracks — save the rocking “Go Home Bible Mike” (which includes yet another appalling carnal skirmish) and the more pensive anti-war “Perfumes of Paradise” — but lyrically Coughlan doesn’t let up, barely pausing to sneer. The album fittingly ends with a faux dance-rock ditty urging “Be Dead.” (“Evil Man” was issued as a 12-inch and as two variant CDs, both with “Evil Man 2” and remixes of previously released items. “1000%” also came out on two different EPs, one with a remix of the song and the non-LP “Paper Thin Hotel,” the other with live versions of “Evil Man,” “Behind the Moon” and Viva Dead Ponies‘ “White Knuckle Express.”)
Lyrically, Lost in the Former West picks up where Valhalla Avenue ends: “Belong Nowhere” opens the proceedings with cheery declarations like “You’re dirt, dirt / Always know your worth / As you roam the mirthless earth.” In a bid for accessibility, Coughlan gave the production reins to Gil Norton for two tracks and Jerry Harrison the rest. The net effect is to tone down the keyboards and beef up the guitars, the better to coat the brutal words in well-played, forceful but fairly conventional hard rock. Oddly, that makes it even more difficult to come to grips with; even at its catchiest — as in the Zep-like gallop of “Popemobile to Paraguay” — the music seems divorced from the issues and the deep passions. Even after repeated listens, when all the tracks have kicked in (which they eventually do), the record’s appeal is intellectual, not visceral. As the previous album was not issued in the US, two of the best “rock” tracks from Valhalla Avenue (“Something Bad” and “Go Home Bible Mike”) are included here.
One exception to that gulf on Lost in the Former West is the oddly calm recrimination of “Walk Yr Way,” the lovely chorus chords of which contribute to its emotional complexity. Another is the commercial-sounding rock version of “Nite Flights,” the tunefully doomy title tune of one of the Walker Brothers’ ’70s reunion records, wherein Coughlan harmonizes with himself on the choruses. That track spearheads an EP, which also features Coughlan’s bleakly compelling “As I Washed the Blood Off,” a version of Suicide’s “Diamonds, Fur Coat, Champagne” and “It’s So Cold….I Think,” which puts a phrase from “Nite Flights” into a new context. For some reason, the album’s nearly tuneless “The Loyaliser” was chosen as the lead track on an EP with the catchy if indecipherable “Gary Numan’s Porsche” and “Arnie’s 5,” the CD and 12-inch of which also contain a greatly extended (and sped-up) dance mix of “The Loyaliser.” The Popemobile EP includes “Popemobile to Paraguay,” “Evil Man,” “Gary Numan’s Porsche” and two otherwise unreleased items: “Sleep of the Just” and a needless six-minute swipe at Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You.”
A similar lack of restraint and judgment is the problem with Bubonique. Hiding behind silly pseudonyms, Coughlan and friends (including comedian Sean Hughes) have made two albums of self-indulgent bilge that boggles the mind for all the wrong reasons. None of it is radical or shocking, just unfunny and overlong. To call this work masturbatory would be wrong, since the bandmembers never seem to achieve the seconds of pleasure such activity is meant to achieve — jacking off shouldn’t be this lacking in relief. The debut, 20 Golden Showers, is unbearably torturous, since the 23 listed tracks actually comprise one 56-minute number. Trance Arse is a bit more listenable, but not a lot funnier. Amid potshots at Lynyrd Skynyrd and George Michael, the most noteworthy number accuses Q magazine of causing Kurt Cobain’s death (and of being satanic, or something). Droll is not the word for it. Once you’ve heard the name of the band, you’ve heard the best of Bubonique.