Gallon Drunk – The Rotten Mile

Gallon Drunk
The Rotten Mile

If the recent reissues of Gallon Drunk’s first three incendiary albums only taught us one thing, then it was the cruel reality that James Johnston has allowed his gathering of mercurial sonic mercenaries to coast along for the best part of a decade under the long-imposing shadow of the group’s early years. Johnston has tacitly acknowledged this uncomfortable truth with the promise that this new full-length set has been cut with spirit of 1993’s From The Heart of Town ringing in his cranium. This, in theory, implies that The Rotten Mile should be infused with both vivid literary wordplay and a brutal played-as-live rawness; in effect being sophisticated and savage in equally potent measures. The burning question is then, has Johnston pulled-off such a lofty aim?

Well – perhaps predictably – it’s a ‘yes’ as well as ‘no’ scenario. The Rotten Mile does indeed attempt bed itself in the dank late-night London lives detailed in the coarse narratives of From The Heart of Town. But whereas the well-drawn dark characters of From The Heart of Town leapt lucidly from the speakers, here the miscreants are far less easy to recognise or define. Johnston instead prefers to converse in broader terms about vengeance, insanity and obsession, in the process making this fresh batch of songs feel far less like a collection of stand-alone short-stories. Indubitably, the fact that Johnston seems far more comfortable hissing his lines low in the recorded mix, suggests that there is a begrudging admission that the core songwriting isn’t quite as scolding as it could be. Such lyrical disappointments aside though, The Rotten Mile is still arguably the best sounding Gallon Drunk album since 1996’s inspired but flawed In The Long Still Night.

In fact, it’s almost as if the slick studio-saturated Black Milk (1999) and Fire Music (2002) never really happened. Nearly all the great Gallon Drunk elements are here again; albeit shaken and stirred, swallowed and spat-out. Which means that The Rotten Mile captures Gallon Drunk re-galvanised in viciously splenetic splendour. The opening blast of the title-track is certainly an apt (re)introduction for sneering guttural vocals, juddering Jesus Lizard bass licks, loose snappy drums, free-noise sax and searing meshes of organ ‘n’ guitar grinding. The grimy grooves continue from thereon in. The thuggish “Give Me Back What’s Mine” could be The Doors beaten to a bloodied blues-rock pulp, the delicious “Down At The Harbour” is a malevolent Morricone-mutation worthy of the band’s own You, The Night… And The Music LP from 1992, the gyrating “Grand Union Canal” is the finest Gallon Drunk single since the terrific “Two Clear Eyes” some ten or so years back and the appropriately-named “Night Panic Bossa” rides a slinky nocturnal-jazz wave that continuously teeters on the crest of an apocalyptic tsunami. There’s room for some subtly too, with “Put The Bolt In The Door” echoing the foreboding atmospherics of The Birthday Party’s “Wildworld” and “On Ward 10” prowling along like a very murky instrumental outtake from Curtis Mayfield’s peerless Superfly. Perhaps the most peculiar and atypical track is the straight-laced yet sarcastic cocktail-bar cover of the jazz-ballad standard, “The Shadow of Your Smile”, which closes proceedings as if it were a rolling over an ironically-schmaltzy end-credits sequence to a particularly gory Tarantino gangster flick.

What has brought Gallon Drunk back to almost full-strength is hard to pinpoint precisely but it matters little when the end product is so righteously gripping and self-assured. Now if James Johnston could just find the words to truly match the lacerating novellas of From The Heart of Town, then we could have another unquestionable classic upon our ears. Until then though, The Rotten Mile does at least pack as many deadly-punches as a brutal Wild West barroom brawl.