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“The Albums 1991-1997” • Stiff Little Fingers (review)

The Albums 1991-1997
Stiff Little Fingers
Cherry Red Records

 

When a band releases their first record, they can only hope that they stick around long enough to build up a catalog of cherished releases. When Stiff Little Fingers released the brain-pummeling “Suspect Device” single 40 years ago, I’m sure that the Irish quartet would’ve been happy just to be able to release at least one full-length album to their name before the Punk movement ran its course.

Now, four decades on, Stiff Little Fingers are still touring and releasing music to an adoring public without ever bothering the U.S. charts. In Ireland and the UK, they are considered nothing short of heroes and their music still inspires modern Punk bands today. Their fanbase lovingly embraces their output between their 1979 debut and their 1982 breakup but the band’s post-reformation releases often get overlooked. Thankfully, Cherry Red Records is trying to rectify that situation with the release of the four CD box set THE ALBUMS 1991-1997.

SLF’s first two albums were heavy on Punk attitude but by the time they released their ‘swan song’ – 1982’s NOW THEN – their aural approach had mellowed quite a bit. Some called it selling out. but it was really all about maturing as musicians and songwriters. It is normal to want to hang on to many aspects of your youth but angst and anger aren’t on the top of anyone’s list. As musicians let go of the forces that initially pushed them forward, they find new motivations to inspire them. As for Stiff Little Fingers, they stopped making music when they felt that they had nothing more to say. The members went on to pursue other projects but five years later, they came back to battle more demons.

This box set picks up with the 1991 release FLAGS & EMBLEMS, their first official studio album since their reformation. Three-fourths of the 1982 line-up – Jake Burns (vocals/guitar), Henry Cluney (guitar/vocals) and Dolphin Taylor (drums) – returned alongside ‘new’ SLF bassist Bruce Foxton, best known for his work with The Jam. Rather than pick up where NOW THEN left off nine years earlier, the band had refined their sound and came out swinging. Still Punk as fuck, the band chose to move with the times and sound contemporary while also trading on their musical legacy. This was not an album that could have been recorded in 1979 but it sure sounded like the same passionate band, albeit with a new outlook. With a slightly metallic guitar sound, the album didn’t shy away from their roots, adding a smidgen of Irish Folk to their melodic Punk edge. The album features appearances from Dr. Feelgood’s Lee Brilleaux and guitar legend Rory Gallagher. The CD includes three bonus tracks.

Disc Two features the live album PURE FINGERS, originally recorded in 1993 but not released until ’95. The line-up on this album is the same as on FLAGS & EMBLEMS and boy, are they on fire! Mixing old SLF classics and songs from their then-latest release, they even manage to include a few new songs that wouldn’t appear on a studio album until the following year. Jam fans should take note that they perform Foxton’s “Smithers-Jones” with Jake handling Paul Weller’s harmonies and vocals on the end bit. For a live album, it is pretty powerful and proves that they had lost none of the spark that fueled their original albums. The CD adds one bonus track.

Disc Three contains SLF’s 1994 studio album GET A LIFE. Recorded as a trio following the departure of original guitarist Henry Cluney, the album sounds even more powerful than FLAGS & EMBLEMS. Moving forward again, the band sounds rejuvenated and focused with their Punk spirit completely intact. Then again, SLF were redefining their sound and the songs were just as powerful emotionally as they were sonically. With Jake’s distinct vocals and Foxton’s easily identifiable backing vocals, this was an album that stepped up their game. ‘I Want You” is a jazzy acoustic ‘ballad’ while “Forensic Evidence” sounds like it could be a track written during the band’s first run. There is still a hint of metal in their riffs but it all fits together so well. Just like the early days, SLF were on a roll! The CD includes acoustic versions of three older SLF nuggets.

The fourth and final CD is their 1997 album TINDERBOX. By this time, Dolphin Taylor had given up the drum seat to Steve Grantley and the band continued as a trio. Picking up where GET A LIFE left off, TINDERBOX ups the ante a bit with even stronger songwriting than on the previous two studio releases. Easing the Punk tension just a slight bit, the album is truly song-focused, bringing different instrumentation into the mix and allowing the songs to breathe more freely. “Dead Of Night” has one of those hooky choruses that won’t leave your head for weeks. Foxton finally gets a showcase with “Dust In My Eye.” The biggest surprise on the album is their Finger-ized version of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message.” Normally, something like this sounds ‘better on paper’ but not in this case – SLF successfully reinvents the song without losing any of the power of the original. TINDERBOX is yet another gem of an album.

Fans of the band’s original releases should really seek this set out and give these albums a proper listen. As for the rest of us who have stuck with the band since the beginning, it is still an essential purchase as it allows us to revisit this overlooked period in the band’s career.

 

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