Gang of Four | Return the Gift (V2)

If you can find anything on the radio worth listening to these days, odds are you have Gang of Four to thank for it.

 

If you can find anything on the radio worth listening to these days, odds are you have Gang of Four to thank for it. Gang of Four were a musician’s band, much like the Velvet Underground, who sold few records in their day but everyone who bought them started bands of their own. In the 80’s, bands as disparate as Fugazi, R.E.M., and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were singing Go4’s praises and now, 24 years from the release of the original line-up’s final album together, the airwaves are stuffed to the gills with bands – Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, the Kaiser Chiefs, and Hot Hot Heat, to name just a few – riding Go4’s coattails to the success the band never could achieve in their brief lifetime.
 
The time seems right for a comeback, but Return the Gift seems an awkward choice, consisting entirely of new recordings of material from the band’s first three albums. Many fans may grouse at being asked to buy the same songs twice, but guitarist Andy Gill’s reasons for wanting to rerecord them certainly seem reasonable: as amazing as the songwriting is on those early albums, no amount of Rhino remasters can change the fact that the drums sound like they were recorded in an empty barn. Where the original mixes left Dave Allen’s bass dully thumping in the background over Hugo Burnham’s tinny drums, the new recordings have percussion that pops and crackles with energy and enough bottom end to fill Primus’ entire back catalog.
 
Of course, good sound can never improve a lackluster performance. Luckily, that’s not a problem here. The reunited Gang of Four plays with ungodly fire and intensity, like not a day has passed since their brutal, brilliant 1979 debut Entertainment! Opener “To Hell With Poverty” kicks off the album in high gear, Andy Gill’s angular guitar riff blaring like a police siren over Burnham’s faux disco beat. Singer Jon King still snarls with more authority than ever, as if the lack of global improvement in the last two-and-a-half decades has lit an even bigger fire to fuel his deeply political lyrics.
 
Gill’s signature guitar style, an almost backwards style that concentrates on not playing almost as much as playing, sounds revolutionary even by today’s standards, with songs like the start-stop “Natural’s Not In It” sounding strikingly modern considering their vintage. The performances don’t veer much from the original arrangements, but the production improvements and modern recording techniques give a vaguely goth-industrial twinge to the mechanical “Capital” and give a Minutemen-like kick to the downright funky “Not Great Men” and “I Love a Man In Uniform.”
 
“Anthrax” remains the band’s greatest accomplishment, the lone love song, and I use the term loosely, on this otherwise fiercely politicized album. The highly unique arrangement still sounds revolutionary, with King’s sung vocal and Gill’s indifferent spoken vocal overlapped, twisting in on each other over an incessant, driving bass and drum line. King, never one to let himself get bogged down in sentimentality, rejects love and all its trappings, singing that he feels “like a beetle on its back.” “Love will get you like a case of anthrax,” he intones in a comparison that seems far more prescient today than it did in 1979, “and that’s something I don’t want to catch.”
 
It may have been a generation since Gang of Four’s seminal Entertainment!, but with Return the Gft the band proves that no matter how much time passes and no matter how many bands appropriate the sound, this brilliant foursome can still never be beat. | Jason Green

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