wears the trousers magazine


skunk anansie: smashes & trashes (2009)
November 5, 2009, 10:45 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , ,

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Skunk Anansie
Smashes & Trashes ••••
One Little Indian

Best-of collections are tricky things to get right. These days they all too often appear barely three albums into an act’s career as a painfully transparent excuse for a Christmas cash-in. Skunk Anansie may be guilty of releasing Smashes & Trashes in the run up to the festive season, and of only having three albums to draw from, but circumstance dictates that this collection is in a very different category to most of its competitors. Nearly a decade has elapsed since the politically motivated skank-rock four-piece were last on our radar, a silence punctuated only by a pair of decent but safe solo albums from their once-iconic frontwoman Skin, so this collection carries more weight, aiming to remind us quite how large their presence once was.

Having sold over five million albums worldwide, notched up over 10 hit singles and headlined several major festivals, the band’s disappearance from the spotlight following the release of their third album, 1999’s Post Orgasmic Chill, went surprisingly unheralded. While no one expected The Samaritans to set up a hotline especially to cope with the mass hysteria sweeping the nation at such a disaster, the lack of any sense of mourning for such unlikely superstars seemed undeserved. Being the black sheep of the UK music scene’s then-obsession with all things Britpop certainly helped put the band on the map in the mid ’90s, but later perhaps made them come across as cocky, a band that was easier to admire than to love. And if they were happy to leave their career in the last decade, then apparently so were the public and industry.

Let’s be clear about one thing though: at their peak, Skunk Anansie were fantastic. Talented, clever and photogenic, they trod the difficult line of churning out raw yet highly polished anthems. Indeed, their ability to tick a few too many boxes is what kept some critics at arm’s length; being Kerrang! cover stars one week then miming through a ‘Top Of The Pops’ appearance the next will certainly raise eyebrows. Their marketing was also cautiously structured, happily playing off the three main categories their single choices could be slotted into: the brooding rock ballads with obligatory sweeping strings; the mid-tempo epics that bordered on pop; and finally, the blistering stadium thrashers. (Fittingly, of the three new songs on Smashes & Trashes, there’s one that conveniently slips into each of those pigeonholes.)

There’s always a sense of suspicion about non-chronological singles collections that the artist is covering something up. Not to mention that by messing around with the timeline in fans’ memories, an outright classic can wind up becoming prime skipping fodder. Despite adopting this approach for Smashes & Trashes, Skunk Anansie largely escape such pitfalls as, with barely five years between their three albums, the songs all have something of a signature sound. That’s not to say that there was no evolution at all in their production – whereas their 1995 debut Paranoid & Sunburnt threw caution to the wind with an all-out pelt and ramshackle feel, 1996’s Stoosh was a slightly more tweaked and experimental affair and Post Orgasmic Chill was a supremely confident and glossy parade of their talents – and it’s this progression that slightly jars to begin with.

Opening Smashes & Trashes with one of their final (and arguably finest) singles, ‘Charlie Big Potato’, and then following with one of their earliest, ‘I Can Dream’, risks leaving the latter sounding barely good enough to be a demo. Luckily, the wonders of digital remastering saves the day elsewhere, giving a sense of cohesion to the chosen order without filtering out any of the songs’ original power. Even simpler classics like ‘Selling Jesus’ sound on par with raucous newbie ‘Tear The Place Up’. And while it’s a huge shame that some the band’s genuinely greatest and most fan-worshipped material (mainly album tracks like ‘Intellectualise My Blackness’ and ‘The Skank Heads’) is nowhere to be seen, the quality of the new tracks goes some way to atoning for these oversights. Current single ‘Squander’ is the album’s red herring, however, as a vaguely half-arsed rehash of ‘Secretly’ they could have written in their sleep. Even so, the production and ludicrously OTT final minute demonstrate that Skunk Anansie are still leagues ahead of other rock bands when it comes to a good old-fashioned power ballad.

While One Little Indian’s obligatory numerous and luscious limited editions come with a fair amount of bonus goodies, the basic version of Smashes & Trashes ultimately doesn’t do much to aid the tired old greatest hits format. But, even without the digital remastering, the band’s best songs have stood the test of time well; had they been released in the last year they would have happily stuck out like a sore thumb among today’s stars just as they once did up against Oasis, Blur, Pulp and Radiohead back in the day, and that’s a fact worth celebrating. By making a solid case for the band’s uniqueness and reigniting dormant fond memories of a few forgotten gems, Smashes & Trashes succeeds in being a great reintroduction to a group who deserve to be more than just a footnote, and will hopefully pave the way for a new album proper.

Léigh Bartlam
UK release date: 03/11/09; www.myspace.com/skunkanansiemusic


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