What are ‘Greatest Hits’ albums for? In short, money; as a band or artist sees their career declining, they sense an opportunity for a quick buck. Releasing five albums in eight years, Chain and the Gang may require a retrospective, the only issue is frontman and anti-authoritarian Marxist Ian Svenonius. Unlike many, Svenonius doesn’t just walk the walk: he’s been singing the songs, talking the talks and writing the books for over 25 years; constantly reminding us that popular music is a product of market forces. However, through some new production, a couple of new tracks and the fact that Svenonius is as prolific as ever, ‘Best of Crime Rock’ manages to sidestep this money-making minefield.
Chain and the Gang may be obscure enough to warrant an introduction, but they don’t give you one on album opener and anti-gentrification anthem ‘Devitalize’. This track also opened 2014’s ‘Minimum Rock ‘n’ Roll’, and the emptiness of the lo-fi sound is maintained, but the muddiness of that album’s mix is replaced with something taught, tight and tense. A solo throws us back to Svenonius’ Nation of Ulysses days, but really this is a track of echoless drums and limited lyrics; “I wanna peel the paint, rust the rails / Close everything so there’s nothing for sale”.
‘Certain Kinds of Trash’ is a brilliant song about rubbish, which sounds brilliantly rubbish; from the freestyled opening, pissed off female vocal line and Svenonius’ screams, which sit somewhere between James Brown and Lux Interior. Like the singer himself, Svenonius’ message is often half lurking in the shadows of the song; here he believes that hoarding trash represents freedom from a world of constant commodification. But he never forces the idea on you; it is up to you to recycle it as your own.
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The better production of ‘Why Not’ moves it from stripped back Billy Childish blues into fully-fledged garage rock. Svenonius has often spoken of humour and horror being two sides of the same coin, and here we can’t help but laugh at “‘I blew the candle without making a wish/ I ate my dinner last night from a dog’s dish”, but we are also unnerved by the gut thumping drums and rattlesnake maracas. A similar sensation occurs on ‘Livin’ Rough’; the lyrics “Living in a bathroom stall/ Man, there’s no paper on the roll!” may raise a smile but we are simultaneously sickened by the song’s nihilism and neglect.
The first of two new tracks, ‘Logic of the Night’, sees a sixties organ reproduction for a song about the organs of reproduction. It is groovy enough, sustained by good guitar work and sporadic drum fills but the highlight has to be Svenonius’ squeaks, which sound somewhere between a horny baboon and a deflating balloon. ‘What is a Dollar’ begins with the regimented in-chained melody of prison blues (from which the group get their name), before ending with similar squeals from Svenonius in a crescendo where chains are broken and chaos ensues.
‘I See Progress’ sees progress from the original. For half the track, Svenonius plays the role of freakbeat beatnik, speaking a seductive spoken word piece which appears to be a nod to his often partially improvised live performances (check out his current band, the Make Up’s, recent set at Primavera). ‘Mums the Word’ goes back to guitars, with a fat, fuzzy, ‘Psychotic Reaction’-style riff, but the verses also sound made up on the spot. Even when he sits in a more stable structure such as the 1-4-5 of anti-consumerist anthem ‘Free Will’, or the sugared surf-pop of the other new track ‘Come Over’, you get a sense Svenonius is always on the edge of anarchy. These tracks break off before he has a chance to break them apart.
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The record could end with the satisfaction of ‘Nuff Said’, but pushes on to ‘Deathbed Confession’; a track that has now evolved into a brilliantly bloated piano ballad about liberty leaving the people. Most ‘Greatest Hits’ end with some summarising song, but here, just as the conspiracy theories (from the shooting of JFK, to the stealing of Ray Charles’ eyes?!) leave us with questions, we are left questioning the music of the Gang. This finale isn’t garage rock, bears no relation to prison blues and instead shows a band and a man who will continue to produce music, surprise us with new styles and question the world in which we live.
Ian Svenonius is a man with no shortage of opinions but he isn’t a punk rock preacher; as he says on ‘Livin Rough’ “I’m not complaining,/ No I’m just saying”. As a man preoccupied with freedom, he leaves you free to listen to his opinions. Like many rock ‘n’ roll greatest hits, this album will get your feet tapping and make you pout and strut, but whereas others might make you buy further into a band’s merchandise, ‘Best of Crime Rock’ might make you buy into Svenonius’ own opinions about the meaning of music.
‘Best of Crime Rock’ is out now via In the Red Records