ark E. Smith, the indestructible frontman of the Fall, has been a talking doll of himself for about 20 years. This is fine. Like Ghostface or Jesus, almost everything that comes out of his mouth is at least marginally interesting. But the Fall used to be a band whose music was as accomplished and penetrating as Smith’s lyrics; now, Fall records basically sound like members of the Fall getting fired. At best, they’re a wedding band with Smith as your belligerent friend.
So it makes sense that it was Smith who, perhaps just slightly tired of doing the same thing over and over again, approached Mouse on Mars to collaborate on Tromatic Reflexxions. Like the Fall in their prime, MoM are essentially peerless, suffusing electronic dance music with Kraut hippyishness, suffusing Kraut hippyishness with pervy sound effects (and turning them into hooks), suffusing all kinds of looseness with all kinds of stiffness—like the Fall in their prime, they wear contradictions well.
Once you move past the shat-pants shock of the press kit—nutjob from the Fall meets well-dressed German studio rats!—the collaboration isn't really all that surprising. Hearing Smith stumble through MoM's takes on urban styles du jour—dubstep on "Flooded," grime on "Serious Brainskin," dance-punk on "Feldermaus Can't Get It," glammy synth-pop on "The Rhinohead"—makes perfect sense: he's always been a raw eye on the world around him, and he's always been remarkably adept at playing characters we can recognize from the crowd of our daily lives. On “Flooded,” he’s a pissed-off idiot DJ; on “That Sound Wiped,” the song that birthed the collaboration, he’s a pissed-off idiot neighbor; on “Chicken Yaiamas,” he’s a pissed-off idiot prep cook in some inner-city slop-bucket, explaining, “They said boil the chicken. I said ‘No, I cannot boil the chicken.’ I had to modify the chicken.”
But this is Mark E. Smith, and within thirty seconds, he’s yelling. Of course, a lot of people think Smith is actually just a pissed-off idiot, which is sort of like thinking Faulkner was actually a half-retarded child. Because Mark Smith runs at the pace of the world, the world will never be ready for him. Sigh.
MoM, for their part, sound more and more comfortable with a vocalist in front of them, a process that started on 2001’s Idiology with Dodo Nkishi. And because they’ve spent nearly 15 years forging a pretty unique sound—broad-angle funk layered with a strong sense of humor and melody—the genre pantomimes on Tromatic Reflexxions sound unmistakably their own. Which, really, Smith needs—even if there are dull spots on the album, it reveals a mutual invigoration that all successful collaborations should. Smith has struggled with alcoholism—ha, he’s throttled it—so he knows all about the serenity prayer and giving up control to outside forces and whatnot. And while venomous prophets aren’t really the teamwork type, it turns out four manicured German hands are all he needed to hold him.