Rock: Manchester's old flames blaze again: Ben Thompson experiences the reviving properties of new albums from The Fall and New Order

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The Independent Culture
FROM raincoats and misery to Ecstasy and flares, Manchester's changing musical stereotypes could never quite keep up with her two most vital pop legends. The Fall and New Order are inaptly monolithic names for bands that have made a cult of individuality. In many ways the two - one all mouth, the other all trousers - could not be more different, but both have been sustained by perversity. And in recent months, as their home town's musical flame has been seen to splutter, both have been busy. Within a week they each present us with a remarkable album, snatched from the jaws of insolvency.

The Fall's The Infotainment Scan is a record that even those who've never liked them would be hard pressed not to fall for. Singer Mark E Smith is characteristically succinct in identifying the benefits of a recent parting with his record company: 'Maybe I needed a kick up the arse.' The split, which forced him to make the record with his own money, seems to have cured him of over-elaboration and cleansed his cultural antenna of the limescale of self-regard.

His band, too, have rarely sounded brighter, and their eclecticism is even more upfront than usual. Among the album's high-points are a crisp rendition of Sister Sledge's 'Lost in Music', with Smith supplying an introduction in French; the rhapsody in bluebeat that is 'Why are People Grudgeful?'; and 'I'm Going to Spain', originally featured on a Black Lace-type package holiday album, but now a classic Fall ballad.

Without the time or the money to bury his voice in the mix, Smith was worried the record would turn out 'too wordy', but it is the quality of the language that marks it out. The titles are good - 'Glam Racket', 'The League of Bald-Headed Men' - but the opening lines are even better. 'Stop eating all that chocolate' is the best, but 'Serial killers were always a bore, in my book' runs it close. Smith's invective has rarely been more sharply honed: 'Vimto and Spangles were always crap,' he expostulates in 'It's a Curse', the final word on Seventies nostalgia. And with 'Paranoia Man in Cheap Sh*t Room', he reviews himself - 'Paranoid man in his early thirties, at the zenith of his powers'.

New Order would never pin themselves down so neatly in song. Drummer Stephen Morris roots the group's famed elusiveness in the traumatic circumstances of their birth. The suicide of singer Ian Curtis, which put an end to their previous incarnation as post-punk trail-blazers Joy Division, also brought down upon them an avalanche of purple prose - 'Everyone analysing Ian's lyrics and telling us what a depressing person he must have been, when they didn't even know him'. Since then, words haven't come easy. Singer and guitarist Bernard Sumner is locked in a room and made to write them after the other bits are finished - 'Sometimes he calls out for a word with six syllables meaning vague disquiet.' No wonder it takes them so long to make a record.

When the record arrives, however, it's always worth the wait. Republic, New Order's sixth album in 12 years, almost got ensnared in Factory Records' death-throes. Titles such as 'Regret', 'Liar' and 'Ruined in a Day' suggest a grim soundtrack, but the music turns out to be as uplifting as ever. The pace is slower than on 1989's Technique, but that can probably be put down to the absence of certain stimulants from the bloodstream. And their already legendary Top of the Pops appearance of three weeks ago, live from the set of Baywatch, confirmed that this was a band for whom the tide has turned.

The decision to make an album with an outside producer (Pet Shop Boys veteran Stephen Hague), for the first time since their hushed debut Movement, turns out to have been a wise one. Not just in counteracting the fragmentary effects of numerous solo and duo projects, but also, as Morris contends, 'because it meant we could go shopping'. For all such shows of unconcern, the sound of the finished product is sacred, and listening to the lyrical 'Everyone Everywhere' it is hard to imagine that things could ever have been otherwise.

'The Infotainment Scan' (Permanent) is out now. 'Republic' (London) is released on Tuesday.

(Photograph omitted)

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