28 April 2008 saw something akin to an alignment of musical planets. Solar eclipses are surely less rare. As if a brand new - and, should you not yet have realised this, utterly magnificent - new Fall LP was not enough, right-thinking folk the world over were prompted to camp outside their nearest record shop awaiting the Monday morning opening by the issue of the latest from Half Man Half Biscuit, CSI: Ambleside. Truly, the rest of the week could only be blissful, and there was no point in anyone else putting any records out, although that new No Age LP surely merits some further listening once a sense of proportion has sadly reasserted itself.
If you ask people who claim to know a bit about music about Half Man Half Biscuit, chances are they'll tell you some of about four things: that they were around in the indie mid 80s, they made funny tunes like All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit and Dickie Davies Eyes, they supported Tranmere Rovers and they split up. People occasionally tell me that they split up, and I splutter, not again. Fewer people seem to know that they ever reformed, or that they went on through the 90s and beyond to produce a string of life-affirming, necessary records. Sure, the early stuff's great, but in it's the later work where singer and writer Nigel Blackwell's sheer observational genius truly shines through. There's grumpiness and disdain for modern inanities aplenty in this stuff, but also a pleasure in the small and simple things. The songs I like best are those seemingly pure streams of consciousness where odd shards of observation and apparently random thoughts line up together, strings of uneven pearls.
It's all about the words of course. The music remains rudimentary, occasionally veering towards competence. It's meat and potato fare. It's all about listening again and again to dig out the nuggets. Thank god HMHB LPs don't come with lyric sheets. Of course there's a website dedicated to HMHB lyrics, and I admire their dedication, but I try not to look at it. A large part of the fun is puzzling out obscure and unexpected references. The band remain a surely uniquely British concern. If you haven't spent at least 30 years growing up here, it's questionable whether you'd understand much of this. The growth of minor celebrity culture and the proliferation of shit TV must have come as a godsend to Nigel Blackwell. He's the man who observes and dissects this stuff so you don't have to.
Like other recent genius LPs - and everything since 1998's Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral has been essential - I thought on first listens this represented a dip in form. I always think they've lost it. But it takes a few plays before it seeps in. Bits of lyrics catch you. You hear new phrases every time, piece it together. By now, a week in, having barely had a day when this didn't get heard at least once, I'm convinced it's as good as anything they've done, and like the new Fall LP, an unusually consistent work, if perhaps lacking the occasional standout songs of earlier records. And of course I'm going to resist the temptation almost every HMHB review falls prey to, of simply regurgitating the best bits of lines. That would be spoiling your fun. Suffice to say that at the moments my favourites are the chugging Totnes Bickering Fair, which has one of the great throwaway final lines of all time, the only-they-can-get-away-with-it Hokey Cokey parody of Petty Sessions, which they have the good sense to leave short, and the closing sour state-of-the-nation blast that is National Shite Day, which follows in their tradition of both epic closing songs and sustained, weary rants - see also from earlier times A Country Practice and Thy Damnation Slumbereth Not.
They're a band like no other. They're really the only band allowed to do this. They're a secret treasure not too many people should know about. They're doing their best work right now. They are worthy of your love. But the question is, are we worthy of them?