The Pheromoans’ vocalist Russell Walker is on the record as wanting to call this album The Smell Of Evil Is Dylan Jones’ Thoughts Fermenting. This might have been a joke on his part (another purported working title was Let England Shake), but it was one with legs, from where I’m sitting. Despite emerging with a patently inferior title, Does This Guy Stack Up? compensates like crazy, for those who wanted this London-and-nearby-satellites postpunk band to clown a hapless British journalist-cum-celebrity or two.
“Dear Mariella...” begins ‘The Final Sugar Rush’, the album’s opening track. Over blocky one-finger synth drone, Walker’s imaginary letter continues: “I can no longer afford a counsellor / But I’ve been looking into it.” As the song branches out into a detuned, punky rattle, and Walker’s pleading gets decidedly more obtuse (“Tell me, Blackadder / What do women want?”), it’s a bit hard for the casual listener to know which part of the field he’s pitching these lyrics from. Yet it seems safe to assume that at some point in the last few years, the founding Pheromoan has read, and eyerolled at, Mariella Frostrup’s column in the Observer, in which she gives four paragraphs of advice to problems she’s profoundly unqualified to tackle, let alone in the medium of a Sunday supplement.
Ironically, or perhaps not, The Pheromoans’ lack of formal training is also intrinsic to their craft. However, rather than getting paid handsomely for giving bad advice to desperate or fictitious people, they turn it to their advantage on Does This Guy Stack Up?, their fourth full-length and first for Upset! The Rhythm (thus making it the first you have any realistic chance of buying in a record shop). It would be wrong to dub anyone performing on here rank amateurs, as if they were The Shaggs or Old Skull or something, but the rhythms tend to be deceptively simple; keyboard and violin parts enter and exit in a pointed and jarring manner, and Walker is roughly as skilled a singer as Farrah Abraham [http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/the-scary-misunderstood-power-of-a-teen-mom-stars-album/262237/]. There are, probably unconscious, echoes of British pop culture staples: ‘Waterworld’’s bassline sounds, at points, like a GCSE music class having a go at ‘Song 2’, and you can sing the verse of ‘No More Heroes’ by The Stranglers over ‘A Freak’s Xmas’, if you’re that way inclined.
This is all a roundabout way of pinpointing The Pheromoans’ place in rock’s snaking and bad-tempered queue. The ‘alternative’ history of punk – the one that takes in Crass and The Raincoats and Young Marble Giants and The Homosexuals and bands who later appeared on Messthetics compilation CDs – isn’t quite as alternative as it used to be, thanks to reissues and the internet and Simon Reynolds and, well, Messthetics CDs. It’s where this album’s coming from sonically, though: ‘I’m A You-Know-What’ might not have had that minimal synth refrain in 1977, and the powerplant canter of ‘??????’ was probably unattainable to anyone without Throbbing Gristle-esque amounts of flash gear, but otherwise the sextet have created something coolly timeless. Moreover, it says something that 35 years down the line, music like this can still sound genuinely odd, abrasive and not slavishly retro.
It helps that The Pheromoans are not alone right now in this quest: they’d likely balk at notions of a ‘scene’, but if you look at their label’s list of upcoming gigs at any given time, a fair few of their peers ought to be found on the bills. The reason these guys hit more bullseyes than the competition (I know it’s not a competition, it’s just a turn of phrase, don’t write in), to these ears at least, is that both music and lyrics genuinely intrigue. If you’re ‘not one for words’ or whatever, you can tune Walker out and immerse yourself in the stumbled-upon earworm hooks and gloopy sampled noises that float to the surface; this might be a lo-fi recording, but it has myriad layers. If it’s driving you crackers, and I can’t promise it won’t, there’s ample fodder contained in the prose.
Only occasionally will you get much of a handle on it, like when the subject of the uneasily droney ‘Power Watch’ includes “a threesome” on his bucket list of conspicuous consumption; mostly, the overarching subject matter is tantalisingly out of reach for us lumpen listeners. In this respect, Does This Guy Stack Up? stands alongside The Fall and the band that The Pheromoans most consistently remind me of, Datblygu. Like Mark E Smith or David R Edwards, Russell Walker would rather take on a foe with allusion and allegory than let the attack dogs loose, and this is where ‘Deport Little John’, a rush of no wave scree and plucked violin strings, comes in. Richard Littlejohn, the second shit British hack to have their name invoked on the LP, isn’t lambasted directly, but is an avatar for an especially rote and unconsidered type of patriotism. “Deport that Littlejohn / Now he wanders Europe like a fat James Bond.” We cannot make this happen, but we can collectively dream, with The Pheromoans as the soundtrack.
8Noel Gardner's Score