Animals & Men – Never Bought Never Sold (2008)

“I never worry, I’m never in a hurry and I never say sorry”

cs332843-01a-bigBiking home the other night I encountered another rider engaged in the unfortunate practice of amplifying music from some feeble device attached to their handlebars (are such people just flagrantly selfish or do they think they’re doing the rest of us a favor?). So for a good block or so I had to endure Tears For Fears—which triggered a hateful hit parade of earworms I’ll never shake from my childhood. Once home I quickly scanned the As on my shelf for some means of exorcism and pulled one I thought would do the trick but didn’t know all that well: this compilation of Animals & Men singles and demos from 1979 to 1983. They got back together around the time of this release and from what I can tell are still going and are still great. The constants have been the married singer Susan Wells and guitarist Ralph Mitchard, and their recent recorded repertoire includes a number of remakes from this nascent era.

True to the primal promise of their name, theirs is a direct take on the rock basics. Burbling below it all is an obsession for the blues—betrayed by song titles like “Evil Goin’ On” (but not the Howlin’ Wolf tune) and “Terraplane Fixation” (presumably honoring Robert Johnson and not the automobile)—in fact more than half the tracks here were recorded under a lineup they called The Terraplanes. Though not as explicit, there’s a deep blues spirit to “Waiting For My Stranger,” while “Shop Talk” has a Bo Diddley beat and riff, and the tribal bass and drums of “Evil” make it one of the best things here.

The genre crash course resumes with their surf song “The Man With The Spike-Toed Shoes,” and while not precisely motorik, “We Are Machines” could be Kraftwerk unplugged. Like most bands forced to embrace lo-fi conditions, they use it to their advantage, and the sonically distant and remote “You Excite Me” could fool the most savvy garage fan as a lost Link Wray classic (I just read in the notes that Ralph cops to the comparison, adding the Shangri-Las as the other half of the equation). On most of these songs the bass comes through the clearest, as if it were recorded last, while everything else is recessed like having been bounced down on a 4-track. The drums are so poorly recorded on the opener “Don’t Misbehave in the New Age” it sounds more like a machine than a kit. Last is “Shell Shock,” possibly the most unusual song here, starting as a no wave dirge but quickening to their usual pulse before long. But with its creeping beat and anthemic chant, “I Never Worry” is their undeniable classic—decades later they would add a harmonica part, perhaps the missing component that coulda made it a hit—had it been released in 1982.

I wonder, if I’d been wise to Animals & Men and other rock minimalists at a very young age could I have survived adolescence more resiliently? Would it have even been possible to deflect the bad music and keep it from haunting two thirds of my life? I envy those lucky few who can reliably call A&M their local band and go see them in the same size clubs they were playing three decades ago. Meanwhile, Tears For Fears are about to embark on another nostalgia lap, and while scarcely on my radar, still have the power to ruin my day.

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