Stalwarts of the British independent scene, Blackpool’s Membranes have essayed numerous styles with countless lineups. They began as a quirky, not-too-loud quartet, playing simple tunes with offbeat lyrics and melodica for unexpected coloration. Back Catalogue, issued on the band’s own Vinyl Drip label, reprises fifteen early efforts, including a rare 1980 flexi-disc, the contents of two four-song EPs (the 12-inch Muscles, Pin Stripe Hype) and three re-recordings of the same material. The six-song Crack House, done as a bass/guitar/drums trio, finds the Membranes nearing their creative peak, shooting out jagged, tense jazz-tinged punk — ugly, abrasive, ambitious and gripping — as well as more accessible droney rock.
Death to Trad Rock builds the guitar chaos to an unnerving plateau on four lengthy songs that also feature bassist John Robb’s manic vocals and, on “Myths and Legends,” a guest violinist. With Robb switching over to guitar, however, The Gift of Life sails right over the edge in a tumult of screaming, banging and incoherent music. The goofy “I Am Fisheye” chant offers a briefly amusing alternative, but this seemingly tossed-off album deserves tossing. Jon (Three Johns/Mekons) Langford adds guitar on the title track; a saxophonist only adds to the din. Giant is a compilation.
Produced by Langford, the Everything’s Brilliant 12-inch (two versions plus three B-sides) returns the Membranes to the realm of responsible musicmaking, moving a clear, gothic drum sound and give-a-shit sloppy vocals to the fore and relegating guitars to a subsidiary role at non-distorto volume levels. Songs of Love and Fury, with another new bassist and Nick Brown (a guest contributor soon to become a permanent member) adding guitar and violin, takes a further step backwards, almost eliminating electric guitars entirely. Not that far in sound from the band’s earliest work, songs like “Kennedy ’63,” “Day My Universe Changed” and “Phoney T.V. Repairman” mix a flat, trippy ’60s approach with the lyrical attitude of Mark E. Smith. A little hard to fathom at first, Love and Fury — the band’s first US release — reveals itself gradually to be one of the Membranes’ best records.
Time-Warp is entirely different, a highly produced and carefully performed collection of six folk-rock originals that sound like something the Animals might have done after “Sky Pilot.” Synthesizers, drum programs and sound effects add to the bewildering fray. Robb’s vocals are reverbed and mixed into a semblance of melodiousness; while not a great record, it certainly is an unexpected one. Incidentally, artist Simon Clegg deserves kudos for his unfailingly brilliant artwork on all of the Membranes’ covers and sleeves.
Steve Albini co-produced Kiss Ass Godhead with the Membranes; songs like “Bulbous Love Child,” “Long Live the Hooligan!” and “Cheap Male Aggression” are as chaotically loud and abrasive as one could reasonably expect from such a dangerous combination.
Sticking to the loose and rugged, the Membranes made To Slay the Rock Pig with producer Steve Mack, pouring typically grouchy and unselfconsciously outrageous (and remorselessly misspelled) lyrics like “A Missive from Couch Potatoe Command,” “Tuff Veggie Agro” and “Life, Death and the Scarey Bits Inbetween” into a poorly mixed cauldron of guitar, bass and drums. Not a good place to first meet the Membranes, but a conducive enough environment to maintain an ongoing relationship.