Happy Mondays and Black Grape
Manchester's Happy Mondays are a good example of a band that was really in the right place at the right time. While the ecstacy-infused dance club scene of the late 80's and early 90's was certainly spread all over Europe, Manchester was the "ground zero" of acid house. They signed with the now-infamous Factory Records and along with New Order and The Stone Roses became representatives of this new psychedelic/dance rock movement (sometimes called Madchester, baggy, or a dozen other stupid names). The Mondays had the least amount of talent, but they embodied the dark, exciting side of this genre better than anyone else. The tales of lead singer/songwriter Shaun Ryder's drug abuse are numerous, and the band's thuggish reputation didn't have to be exaggerated (it was anyway). Despite this, the group survived for about seven years, thanks to a fresh sound that appealed to clubbers along with a sense of "anything goes". They did not sample directly, but were known to "quote" more famous songs, and their most famous tune was basically a cover ("Step On"). They were more than willing to allow a producer to take the reins and determine the sound of their albums, which may explain why each of their albums sounds so different (a neat side effect of pissing off most of them). And they were ugly; not necessarily physically, but rather through their album covers, Shaun's unique "slurr-singing" (which is only really comparable to Mark E. Smith), and sloppy aesthetics. They were plenty danceable, but they also had a certain sense of grit, and their (well-deserved) reputation of being junkies and criminals bolstered their appeal, perhaps because much of the population of Manchester then were junkies themselves.
You know how the saying goes..."what comes up must come down", especially when you're talking about guys who are blowing out their brains on a daily basis. Well, the Mondays did hit the ground pretty hard, as the group was not able to overcome Ryder's heroin addiction, and they essentially bankrupted Factory Records just two years after their commercial peak. By 1991, grunge had taken over, and the Mondays did not seem to try very hard to keep up. Surprisingly, Ryder did rebound with a new group called Black Grape which will also be covered on this page; he also reformed as the Mondays several times (once to pay a tax bill) and sporadically releases new music.
As for the lineup: besides Ryder, the most popular figure was a dancer named Bez, who became friends with Shaun after jumping on stage during a performance. I guess this kind of tells you everything you need to know about their instrumental skill. His mesmeric dancing and legendary tolerance for hallucinogens became something of a trademark for the group. As far as I can tell he doesn't do anything on the actual recordings, but he did write quite an entertaining book on the group after they dissolved. As for the rest, there was Shaun's brother Paul (bass), Gaz Whelan (drums), Paul Davis (keyboards), and Mark Day (guitar). From what I've heard, Day was the only one who could actually play his instrument when the group formed. This is not exactly a tight or very synchronized band, but for the most part that actually worked in their favor as they have sort of a Trout Mask Beefheart vibe to them at times. Also, I suppose audiences found it easy to identify with them.
For whatever reason, the Mondays are often compared against the Stone Roses, as though you have to take a side. Let me just say that if you are a fan of the Roses' biggest single "Fool's Gold", the Mondays should be right up your alley, as they used a lot of hip-hop style drumming and definitely knew how to ride a groove. I'm not going to claim that they ever made an album as great as the Stone Roses' debut, but on the whole I find the Mondays' body of work more impressive. If you're unsure, you really can't go wrong by checking out a few of their singles, particularly "Wrote For Luck" which is the Mondays in a nutshell. Or, check out this handy guide:
Forty Five EP (1985)
The Mondays' debut release was a 3-song, 10-minute EP that's rough around the edges but actually maps out their sound pretty well. They have a dark and echoed sound similar to Joy Division, but their music is much faster and busier. Basically it's just Ryder rambling over half-baked funk guitar scribbles and an enthusiastic rhythm section. There is also a few simple synth lines in the background, which are really the only steady parts of the album. These are not really songs proper, but they turn out to be quite entertaining. The original producer (Vini Reilly) wound up quitting on the band after two hours, so the sound is lo-fi and sloppy. The real gem is "Oasis", which would be re-recorded for their debut album - just a great, thrashing groove with some catchy vocal lines. The other two tracks are exclusive to this release.
Freaky Dancin' (1986)
Another 3-track single. Their sound hasn't really changed, but they've added bongos this time around. This song was a tribute to Bez, who had just joined at this point. You can hear him playing maracas in the background on the live version, off-beat the entire time. But it's a good song, placing the main melody (which sounds like steel drum) somewhere in the back and just laying funk guitar over it. The title track appears twice (once live and once in studio) but since the latter sounds like it was done live in the studio there's not much difference between the two. Most of the instruments fall out of time with each other various points in the song, but the effect is mesmerizing. The other track is kind of a throwaway B-side ("The Egg").
Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out) (1987)
On paper, you would think a guy like John Cale would be a good fit to produce the Mondays' debut album. But this is the 1987, forty-something John Cale, who Bez described as a man trying to claw himself out of the world that the Mondays were so happily plunging into. I don't think he really understood what the group was trying to do or what they were supposed to sound like. Every song on here is a mid-tempo mess of jangled guitars and funk bass with Ryder's slurred and incomprehensible vocals plastered over the top, as though they were trying to imitate The Fall or something. It's similar to New Order's Movement album in that it's apparent that the band hasn't really figured themselves out yet. There are less rough edges than there were on the Forty Five EP, but the music itself isn't as exciting. Cale opts to focus the mix on Ryder's cracked rambling and Mark Day's ugly guitar picking, which doesn't quite work by itself. When Paul Davis joins in on keyboards, the results are usually pretty good ("Little Matchstick Owen", "'Enery"), though he's underused, as the keyboards do a lot to hold the songs together. The problem is that the songs are a tad too slow and the rhythms are a tad too stiff, when the Mondays are supposed to have a more vibrant and danceable sound. But it's worth certainly worth sticking around; they slotted the one hit from this album (and not coincidentally, the only real up-tempo song on it) towards the end ("24 Hour Party People", which only got included after another song was thrown out due to its similarity to a Beatles tune), a blasting party anthem with a catchy synth line and a memorable chorus. There's also a re-recording of "Oasis", which does not thrash like the original, but still shows the kind of offbeat and addictive grooves the band could find themselves in, and the result is one of the best songs the Mondays ever recorded. It's worth checking out for those two songs alone, as they're the only ones that would foreshadow the direction the Mondays would take on their next couple of albums. As for the rest; you'll definitely find moments you like, but with so little to separate one song from the next you'll have to put in a few listens before you can remember how most of the tunes go.
The job of a record producer in most cases is to play to the band's strengths and to attempt to minimize their flaws. This is rather difficult when dealing with a group like Happy Mondays since they don't really have any strengths. You could focus on Ryder, but his voice is fairly grating in large doses and he can't really sing, and as such his delivery doesn't really change. Instrumentally, this group only grazed the line that separates the "barely competent", with an interesting but sloppy guitar player and a rhythm section that frequently falls out of sync. While Cale attempted to clean up the group's sound, new producer Martin Hannett (who famously produced Joy Division's stark Unknown Pleasures) lets everything hang out and piles on the reverb. The result is a confusing, dissonant mess, but it's an entertaining one. Just like the cover, nearly everything on the album is blurred textures, twisted to the point that it only follows its own internal logic. On one of the songs, Ryder quips "I don't read, I just guess", and that sentiment spills over onto the music. Sometimes you wonder if the band members could even hear each other or just played their parts in isolation, as they sound an awful lot like Legion of Rock Stars in places. But Hannett plays up the disturbance factor - the opening "Country Song" is a two-step drawl that makes it feel as though you're on some kind of downer, with echoing piano fills, out of place slide guitar riffs, and sarcastic, slurred lyrics. If you put everything together and removed the reverb, it would be a fine song on its own, but it would be nowhere near as intriguing. As it is, it's unnerving, yet addictive, like the substances the Mondays were cheerfully pumping into their bodies at the time. And it gets rougher...the second track, "Moving in With", is a demented nursery rhyme with a buzzing, incessant hook, while the following "Mad Cyril" has a loose, nearly nonexistent structure, punctuated with piercing synth blasts.
It's hard to explain what, exactly, is so appealing about an album like this, but there's a level of sonic density and adventure that's fascinating, particularly in the frequent use of cascading and layered guitar riffs. When they stumble upon a good hook, the songs seem like they could go on forever - "Wrote for Luck" shows the band firing on all cylinders, getting into an addictive and hazy groove that sounds like a bizarro-world Can. "Do it Better" is also a total success, with Shaun's raving, incoherent shouting and a catchy guitar hook. The concluding track, "Lazyitis", is maybe the best of the lot, with an exotic, Eastern-sounding groove, and one of Shaun's best vocal performances (though the song itself is a Beatles half-cover). It's also the closest thing this album has to an actual song, and should be enjoyable even if you don't dig the rest of the album.
Let me just say this is an album that takes a few listens to really digest, as it's not exactly clear what's happening on most of the tracks. Sometimes the songwriting is not all there. This is an album that transcends first impressions and gets by on a strong slate of material and a sense of deconstruction that separates it from practically everything else. The songs sound like they are always about to fall apart or run off the rails, but they never do. Like all the best dance music, the groove is king, and there's a twisted sense of keen focus that runs throughout the album. But it is fairly polarizing stuff that may never click with some, so take the rating with a grain of salt. Also, be aware that there is a double disc version that collects a ton of remixes, B-sides, and EP-only tracks, including the excellent "One Armed Boxer" mix of "Lazyitis", a twisted duet between Ryder and Karl Denver (really!). It's not really good to listen to all at once - there are six mixes of "Wrote For Luck" (counting the album version), and five of "Hallelujah", but much of this stuff is worthwhile and some of it very hard to find elsewhere.
Although Bummed was not an immediate success, their follow-up EP Madchester - Rave On was, vaulting all the way to #1 on the UK charts. This is an American-only, stopgap release that takes that EP and adds a few remixes. Basically it's a combination of the hazy sound of their last album and the more focused dance beats that would make up their next one. "Hallelujah" appears twice; the short, original mix is a fast-paced flurry of drums and vocals, while the "Club Mix" was one of the original acid house classics, blending a big, looping piano hook and hip-hop infused beats. The other tracks focus more on danceable rhythms, but with the same disorienting production values as Bummed ("Clap Your Hands", "Holy Ghost"). "Rave On" is the only track with any sort of space in the mix, focusing more on Shaun's mechanically distorted rambling. If you enjoyed the sound of the last album, this is a good companion, especially as it includes the "Wrote For Luck (Think About the Future)" mix, a crisp, hook-filled remix that defines the dirty dance vibes of the "Madchester" sound and paves the way for Primal Scream's classic Screamadelica album. But besides that track, this doesn't quite reach the heights of its surrounding albums, which is why it doesn't rank as high, despite really being the band's turning point into brief superstardom. Also, it's worth mentioning that all these tracks appear on the Bummed deluxe edition.
Pills n' Thrills n' Bellyaches (1990)
The Madchester scene was at it's peak in 1990, and with the Mondays peaking as well, it's no surprise that this album became a commercial smash (and the only one non-fans may be familiar with). All of the sudden, they started to sound like an actual band, as not only was Mark Day starting to sound like a professional guitarist, but they had a producer at the helm who was actually interested in figuring out the group's sound. The producer in question was Paul Oakenfold, who hadn't really made a name for himself yet. He pretty much slaves over this album; there are effects on every instrument (including Shaun's voice) and a number of new tricks that make the music sound fresh. This mostly fits in with the whole early 90's acid house scene, but without relying too much on synthesizers or drum machines. Other than the vocals, Day's guitar leads are the focus instrumentally, and his slide guitar riffs are the album's backbone. But above anything, Oakenfold just tries to keep everything fluid and danceable, as you'd expect from a DJ producing a rock band - "Loose Fit" indeed. It's music for the E generation - good vibes, dirty beats, and twisted lyrics, regardless of how they come up with them. They don't mind letting a DJ control their sound; nor do they have any qualms with stealing hooks from popular tunes like "Sunshine Superman" or "Lady Marmalade". Hell, the biggest hit off the album, "Step On", is a John Kongos cover! But it's massively reworked - the guitar riff and anti-oppression lyrics take on a new meaning when paired against a rave-up piano hook and catchy beat, and the result is one the best things the Mondays ever did.
As for the rest, this is an album that's anchored by a few big hits - not only "Step On" but also the bright acoustic vamp "Kinky Afro" and the slinky "Loose Fit". But contrary to the reputation this album sometimes gets, there are more than just a handful of great tracks - the big hooks and slide guitar in "God's Cop" will make you wonder how it ever avoided being a single, and the driving, psychedelic dance-pop of "Dennis and Lois" is pure bliss. Those are the great songs, but most of the rest is generally enjoyable ("Donovan", "Holiday", "Harmony"), so there aren't really any low points on the album. Also notable are the lyrics; Ryder tends to make more sense than he did in the past, but he still embodies the dark side of everything. The first line: "Son, I'm 30/I only went with your mother cuz she's dirty/And I don't have a decent bone in me/What you get is just what you see, yeah". Most of the songs are about drugs (surprise!) - "I'm here to harass you/I want your pills and your grass you/You don't look first class you/Let me look up your ass you/I smell dope". Or, if you prefer, sex; "What do you need me to say when we're making love/I can take you from behind and then I'll forgive". The fact that these lines are not only memorable but classic says something about how sharp the band could be when they managed to focus a little. And maybe also why you feel you need a shower after hearing them. Start here and work your way back.
When it comes to the Mondays live, all I can say is that you had to be there. In their early concerts, they used to give out narcotics to the fans before they performed. But the live album doesn't come with any, so you're out of luck. This 1991 release was put out mostly to dissuade bootleggers, though it's basically a bootleg itself. Look, nobody doubts how important producers were to the Happy Mondays albums. Once again you get the feeling that nobody was really able to hear each other, so some elements seem out of sync with the rest of the song, and there are some pretty noticable mistakes all throughout this album. Then there's Shaun, who is very blatantly blitzed out of his mind, ad libbing a few lines (usually just saying "fuck" a lot), randomly dropping out of the mix, whistling like a lunatic, and not even attempting to do any of his "difficult" vocal parts (anything that requires talking moderately fast). Suffice to say, what you get is kind of like what the raw takes for Pills n' Thrills and Rave On - Madchester might have sounded like. There are a couple of songs from Bummed as well - "E", which is "Do it Better", and "Wrote For Luck", plus another John Kongos cover ("Tokoloshe Man"). Altogether, there really isn't a bad tune on here, which is what saves this from getting a worse rating. While there are a few new sounds and effects, none of them really seem to change the music much ("Loose Fit"). The one exception is the relentless, pounding 12-minute version of "Wrote For Luck", which puts a rapid-fire rhythm right up front. Alas, it was too loud and wound up overloading the recording equipment, which makes the recording sound like your speakers are blown. Luckily, the rest of the songs are (mostly) spared, though "Wrote For Luck" is the only one that really warrants repeated listening. Given the circumstances surrounding this album's release, I wouldn't be surprised if there was a much better live recording out there.
Judge Fudge (1991)
Although the Mondays' popularity was at a peak, this single's low sales figures signaled the beginning of the end. It's not necessarily a bad one, just forgettable - the tense, buzzing strings that begin the song does remind a bit of the Rocky theme, but otherwise it's little more than "God's Cop" without the big chorus. The other two songs that appear on the various releases are covers, "Tokoloshe Man" and "Stayin' Alive", I kid you not. I actually prefer both of these over the single. I'm surprised that they were able to transfer their loopy, drugged out atmosphere to "Stayin' Alive" and actually make it work with Ryder in place of one of the Bee Gees. Most of the verses have been replaced, giving the tune a surprising among of edge. This isn't exactly essential, but fans might get a kick out of it.
Yes, Please! (1992)
This album was the result of the label rather infamously sending the group to Barbados in order to keep them off heroin. They wound up on coke instead, and Ryder blew the album's budget before even coming up with any lyrics. With Paul Oakenfold involved in other projects, he wasn't available to produce, so they used ex-Talking Heads members Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth instead. When the album finally was released, it was a huge flop, and Factory Records went bankrupt. Needless to say, the album got thrashed in the press and was branded "unlistenable" (as most journalists had already hopped over to the grunge bandwagon), which makes me wonder if they even bothered listening to it, as it's fairly straightforward. Frantz and Weymouth produce this in the only way they know how, which is to say it sounds like a Tom Tom Club record, with lots of synths and drum machine rhythms. You basically get a Caribbean-styled plastic dance record, but with Shaun Ryder in place of an actual singer. He's backed up by Rowetta on most of the tracks, which at least lends a bit of credibility. The problem is that almost all of these songs really are generic dance tunes, as though they were presets on someone's keyboard ("Dustman", "Love Child"). It's kind of enjoyable on first listen, but only a few of these songs warrant more than that, and even those are second rate ("Total Ringo"). The one saving grace is the leadoff track and single, "Stinkin Thinkin", a slow developing and seductive tune with a couple of surprisingly good vocal performances. It's reflective and downtempo, which is not something the Mondays have ever really attempted, but the song has a neat groove to it that builds throughout the song. Alas, it does not really lead to anything later on the album. As you may have guessed, there is a slight Talking Heads vibe, but if this resembles any Talking Heads album, it's Naked, which a few of these tunes could have easily fit on ("Monkey in the Family", "Sunshine and Love"). In fact, "Sunshine" is almost a perfect cipher for latter-day Talking Heads, and could have been a successful single if they had done it. I guess I don't really have to say that their edge is completely gone, but I will mention that the only track that goes for any loses it when Shaun slurs his words to the point that you wonder if he really is asking "When did the Simpsons begin?" ("Angel"). Props to Frantz and Weymouth for at least making this listenable, as I highly doubt anyone could have saved this record.
Black Grape - It's Great When You're Straight...Yeah (1995)
This has got to be one of the most unexpected comebacks in rock history - while many assumed that Ryder succumbed to his addictions and would never be heard from again, he was busy forming a new group and writing an album that immediately hit #1 on the UK charts. This is the promise of the Mondays fulfilled - he kept Bez around, but added some real talent with bassist/producer Danny Saber and British rapper Kermit, who trades lines with Shaun on most of the tracks. The result is a tighter group than the Mondays ever had, but they play in a loose and fun style. Unlike Yes, Please!, you can tell that this is an album that Shaun and company really wanted to make. That sort of enthusiasm is what turns good singles into great ones, and this album has two of the best Shaun ever wrote - "Reverend Black Grape", a big funk rocker with a big chorus, and "In The Name of the Father", an infectious Eastern-sounding tune with a dub/hip-hop overtone. None of this is really conventional - there's something bizarre or unpredictable on nearly every song here. But they score major points by grounding everything with big hooks that will stick in your head for months. Once again, they don't really care where they come from - they borrow both the Lord's Prayer and "O Come All Ye Faithful" for the singles, and one song borrows vocal melodies from "A Day in the Life", "This Land is Your Land", AND the guitar riff from "Loaded"! ("Submarine") But none of those tunes have lines as surreal and funny as "he was so proud of the crocodile on his sock/that we had to tell him they came from Planet Reebok!" Ryder's on his game again – the lyrics are great, though vocally he kind of sounds like Grandpa Simpson. For those questioning whether or not he can work well with another vocalist, let me just say that Kermit is not just a novelty, as he's essential to this album (and has more talent than Ryder anyway).
It's easy to criticize this album for being top-heavy; the first four songs are either singles or should have been, while some of the later stuff doesn't stand out as much. All I can say is that even the fillerish stuff is either intriguing ("A Big Day in the North") or at least keeps the good vibes going ("Yeah Yeah Brother"). Plus, both "Submarine" and "Shake Your Money" are first-rate cuts that are impossible to forget. It's also true that this album borrows an awful lot, but to dwell on that is missing the point. This isn't an album about songwriting or musicianship – you can hear the spirit of DJ culture in this album, which puts the bottom line ahead of originality. The album was produced in a way that takes focus away from the band, so Black Grape themselves do not really have much of an identity. None of the songs really sound like they could be played live without parts prerecorded, as it's full of samples, deep bass hits, and drum machines. Again, the end goal is the sound above everything, a dodgy approach that pays off big here. They don't have the grit of the Mondays, but they sure as hell have the spirit.
Stupid Stupid Stupid (1997)
No, Black Grape's second and final album isn't as good as the first, but at least they give it a decent try. I mean, in terms of sound, this is nearly identical, and the spirit is still mostly there. The difference is that the songs aren't as much fun or as effortless as they did before, and the individual elements don't quote come together this time. It's overproduced, tossing off meaningless samples and little DJ fills seemingly at random, though to be fair this was the late 90's and every pop record was being produced that way. This is a fine album on its own, with a few standouts that could have improved the first album - "Get Higher" is the type of lazy, drugged out groove that Ryder typically does well, cleverly editing samples of Ronald Reagan's speeches to make it sound as if he's hooked on heroin. "Marbles" is an exciting and jazzy tune that dips into soul music, including some great vocal spots by Kermit. And "Money Back Guaranteed" is a total success, as it's the type of exotic, hook-infested, fast-paced jam that the Grape are known for. Those three are worth tracking down, but what about the rest of the album? Well, there are an awful lot of horns ("Spotlight") and fuzz guitar riffs ("Squeaky", "Rubber Band"), and the songs are always busy. The problem is that they often get dragged down by generic arrangements that prevent them from being too interesting. "Tell Me Something" sounds like it could be an Eastern-tinged stormer like "In the Name of the Father", but the actual tune is just a generic brassy rocker, loud but easy to ignore. While the choruses are suitably big, they aren't exactly inspired ("You got it/I want it/You know I'm gonna get it", repeat x4). And the giddy sense of surrealism and offbeat humor has more or less gone missing in action. What you're left with is a decent 90's album with a decent atmosphere and a handful of decent songs to go along with the few great ones. Lots of sparks, but only a few fires. Still, things do roll along fine until the last two tracks - an out of place cover of Fredrick Knight's "I've Been Lonely For So Long", and "Words", a half-written groove track that's a clumsy imitation of "Little Bob" from the first album. Limp finish aside, I can't see anyone who's a fan hating this; there are a lot of good parts and the energy is kept up. If you're disappointed, let's not forget how much of a fluke the debut was in the first place. As legend has it, Black Grape didn't exactly cut back on their drug intake either, and as a result the group was short lived, splitting after the release of this album (and a few hospitalizations).
The Boys Are Back in Town (1999)
With Black Grape dissolved, Ryder reformed the Mondays for a few shows and Greatest Hits-type albums, many of which featured this "comeback" single. It's not actually a disaster; it's got a thick beat and a good edge, and if you haven't heard the original in a while you may not recognize that it's a cover until the very end. As it turns out the group didn't write any new songs - the other tracks on the two single releases are "perfecto" mixes of Pills 'n Thrills tracks, which change up the intros and use slightly different beats but otherwise are basically the same. The one I have has a "dirty mix" of the title track which is quite entertaining.
Shaun Ryder - Amateur Night in the Big Top (2003)
Just so you know, Shaun Ryder does have a book out. But in case you wanted to hear him tell his stories over sub-par Mondays-lite grooves, you can rest assured that there does exist a fairly obscure album produced with Pete Carroll (no, not that one) for the obscure Offworld Sounds label that offers you just that. I suppose if you're listening for lyrics, there are a few gems in there ("Clowns", which is about getting murdered by them, "In 1987", which tells some pretty funny stories about the early days of the Mondays), but they're hard to pick out. Not because they aren't there, but because of Ryder's thick accent, heavy use of slang, and tendency to mumble half his words. Plus, the vocals are undermixed and often get drowned out, which makes matters worse. So the real question is, how good is his backing? Well, it's basically a bunch of mid-tempo computerized beats with a lot of low-end buzz, with some sampled horns and a few bits of funk guitar. As a video game soundtrack, this would be pretty good for say, the in-game menus, but as an actual album, it's dull and tedious. Most of the hooks are either trivial ("The Story", "Northern Soul Brother") or stagnant second-rate dub (pretty much all the rest). There is one track that really gets into a tight groove that's reminiscent of Black Grape ("Scooter Girl"), and it's good enough to fit onto a Happy Mondays mixtape. But the rest of the music is hard to concentrate on; it doesn't develop much and goes too long, and even when they hit on something good, the producers don't have the good sense to ride it ("In 1987", which ditches a surprisingly good reggae beat). This wouldn't be a big problem if they hadn't decided to extend the 8-track album to an hour - had the grooves clocked in at 4 or 5 minutes instead of 7 or 8, this would be okay. As it is, everything's extended to give more room to Shaun, who sounds like he's had better days. His voice has lost some of its clarity and power, turning kind of grizzled in the process. Which I guess is appropriate, since he's mostly griping about random shit anyway. I guess you could argue that you really can't ruin Shaun Ryder's voice, the same way Mark E. Smith can't get worse than he already is. But being incomprehensible only really works when you've got good grooves behind it (as Smith often does), and these grooves sound like they were all written in the span of a few hours. Unsurprisingly, this album sank like a stone and remains tough to find, and I would imagine most fans don't even know this exists.
Uncle Dysfunktional (2007)
The first new Happy Mondays album in 15 years (did anyone think they would even be alive in 15 years?) was certainly unexpected, but it's definitely welcome. The music media at large focused on Ryder and Bez's bankruptcy, figuring the effort was just a cash-in, apparently forgetting how bad of a deal the labels roped him into in the 90's. Without going into details, suffice to say that Ryder is going to be bankrupt no matter how many albums he records (he famously asked Damon Albarn not to pay him any royalties for his guest spot on "Dare", as he would never see them anyway). The truth is that the Mondays were just sick of performing "Kinky Afro" every night and wanted some new tunes to add to the setlist. There is some filler, and the songs aren't as immediately danceable as they've been in the past, but the best moments are pretty astounding. Let's just say that the group has not lost its edge, and if anything has gotten more grizzled, vulgar, and pissed off. Leadoff track and single "Jellybean" is the best example - it's arguably the most lyrically demented song they've ever done ("It's good to feel my ass against the grass/It's good to press my tits against the floor/It's good to throw my beard away for a minute or four/Cause I don't get to fuck me anymore"), but it's got a first-rate sleaze groove and a massive chorus. In general, the weirder they get, the better - "Cuntry Disco" is kind of a light country stomp that Shaun pretty much ruins, and I mean that in the best possible way. And "In the Blood" is not only ridiculously catchy, but also has one of Shaun's greatest vocal performances ("I'm gonna build a fuckin' house next door to you/yeah, that's....what I'm gonna do").
Musically, this pretty much just picks up where Ryder left off, meaning it sounds a lot like a Black Grape album minus Kermit. There's more hip hop or DJ production work than anything that sounds like a band, as the album is full of drum machines, heavy buzz, and samples. But underneath everything lays a few good guitar lines, which often sound like a demented version of what the Mondays used to do. As for Shaun, his voice has deepened and gotten a little scruffy, but he seems more than comfortable with that fact and plays up the roughness. They're not writing tour de force dance tracks like "God's Cop" anymore, but rather stuff that's simpler, more twisted, and arguably catchier ("Dysfunktional Uncle", "Dr. Dick"). There are a few tracks that show directions that the Mondays could have gone in but didn't - "Deviants" is basically Black Grape gone hip hop, with Ryder sounding a lot like The Streets with a deeper voice. "Anti Warhole on the Dancefloor" even sounds like pure electro in spots, and could have been massive had they doubled the length and continued to build it up. But it wouldn't be a Mondays album if it didn't feel unfinished in spots, and in the end I'm really glad this album exists. As for why it doesn't rate higher - it's too tempting to just play the best five or six tracks and skip stuff like "Rats with Wings", especially since some of this gets grating after a while ("Weather"). But you definitely won't want to be without the good songs, and as an album it spreads the wealth and doesn't overstay its welcome. My one real gripe with the album is that they didn't include the song they did for the Goal! soundtrack, "Playground Superstar", which would have fit in perfectly with the album and given it more single material. That would have been helpful since the singles that were released ("Jellybean", "Dysfunktional Uncle") don't exactly cover up the group's ugly side, and unsurprisingly this didn't move many copies. Ultimately, this isn't going to change the group's reputation much, besides giving them the option to go out on a better note than Yes, Please!. But there's something endearing about a group like this putting out a good album in the same style of the great albums that made them famous, despite being so far removed from that period. Christ, if Shaun Ryder can do it, why can't everybody else?