It hasn't even been a half-year since the folks at Fire Records dropped the first superb box-set from The Jazz Butcher, and now they are at it again. The Violent Years is out tomorrow and it collects 4 separate mid-Eighties and early-Nineties records from the band, from the near-perfect Fishcoteque (1988) and on to 1991's odd Condition Blue. The music here is, unsurprisingly, largely essential. And for every bizarre turn that Pat Fish drives the band into near the end of this set, there are loads more up-front that should still thoroughly charm and delight fans of mid-Eighties British indie.
Fishcoteque (1988) kicks off with the rollicking "Next Move Sideways" before things drift into the languid Fall-isms of "Out of Touch", one of the highlights here. Elsewhere, the charging "Looking for Lot 49" stands as one of the very best, easiest-to-like numbers ever composed by Mr. Pat Fish, while "Swell" is downright lush and lovely. Sure, there are a few minor missteps here ("Susie", "Chickentown"), but, on the whole, Fishcoteque is ever bit as good as I remembered, and surely one of the better, more solid albums overall in the Jazz Butcher back-catalog.
The more adventurous Big Planet, Scarey Planet from 1989 sees the band offer up more straightforward numbers than on earlier records, with standouts here being the first 2 songs on the record ("New Invention", "Line of Death"). Elsewhere, the fellas in The Jazz Butcher positively cut loose on the roughly-unhinged "The Word I Was Looking For", while the spry "Bad Dream Lover" almost makes up for the silliness of "Do The Bubonic Plague" and the various ill-considered sound-bites peppered throughout this release which only date the record to its era of origin when heard now.
Disc 3 of The Violent Years is given over to 1990's Cult of the Basement, a record that hasn't aged nearly as well as the first 2 records in this set, and that's despite containing one of the band's absolute best songs. "She's on Drugs" positively chimes with its distillation of the band's love of wry humor and sharp hooks. If not everything here is as good, at least some of this is exceptional. "Girl Go" is a pretty good example of front-man Fish's ease with a down-tempo number, while "Daycare Nation" is both astutely-observed in its lyrical concerns, and expertly composed in melodic terms.
It is only on Disc 4 of The Violent Years that a long-time fan of The Jazz Butcher may feel a tiny bit worn out. Condition Blue from 1991 saw Pat Fish fronting what was The Jazz Butcher in name only. And if so much of the band's greatness depended on Fish, it's clear here that he lost something when the other players moved to other projects. The tracks here are uniformly too long and a bit unfocused, but there are a few moments I enjoyed: the cute "Shirley MacLaine" and the ringing "She's a Yo-Yo", 2 clear highlights here on Condition Blue (1991). Still, what's on this final disc of The Violent Years is interesting if not compelling and, given the band's earlier enormously-endearing output before the release of this 1991 album, one can forgive them this early-Nineties diversion into sub-standard fare.
The Violent Years is essential, of course, and I sure hope that my misgivings about portions of this don't make you hesitate purchasing this fantastic box-set. Much like the work of Robyn Hitchcock, the tunes of Pat Fish always deserve attention. And if Fish's stuff near the end of this disc seems more diffuse than earlier, sharper compositions, at least it's still Fish at the helm. That guarantees that this is already better than lots of what was being produced in the wilds of a pre-Britpop England.
[Photo: Mitch Jenkins, from the band's Facebook page]