Reviewed – Bethlehem Casuals – The Tragedy of Street Dog

Rating – 4/5

There won’t be many albums that tell the story of a dog that goes in search of where all the music of Manchester has disappeared to. This is one. Presumably the only one. Street Dog, the eponymous hero, goes off to find that Manchester’s music is being held in the Dirty Old Town of Salford. Well, it would be, wouldn’t it?

The journey begins with “80 Something” describing the malaise of our canine hero sat at home wondering forlornly whether there is more beyond the window. A familiar refrain for a dog one would assume but this one has more lofty ambitions of living the life his owner never managed.
Indeed.

“River Rat” is met in the Temple Bar but the music has been canceled by this nefarious rodent. While “80 Something” had an air of the Divine Comedy, this has a feel of early Space blended with The Stranglers. Ghost Town and Neighbourhood combining in an engaging voice. Interesting.

“Context” switches fire to a Santana styled opening guitar which riffs back to more Ghost Town vibes. Narrative wise Street Dog makes the choice to find out where the music has gone. It’s got a very “dream sequence in a play” feel. It’s bonkers, it really is, but tearing your ears away from it is harder than it sounds. It’s starting to feel like Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds if it had been written by Morrissey. That’s more of a good thing than it would seem.

“The Oke” starts all Andrew Lloyd Webber. Not going to mention Cats here, thinking more of a Jesus Christ Superstar thing, with “The Oke” being chanted along menacingly. It then develops strutting 70’s funk backed with even more menacing spoken vocals. Alexei Sayle is the mental image here, a slightly deranged sounding man with a message. Not sure if that helps in any way. The dreamscape is very dark and atonal and feels like a bad trip. A bad trip watching Andrew Lloyd Webber. Yes, it’s still a story about a dog too. Bonkers? Undeniably, but bare with it.

“The Passion” changes tack with a 60’s panpipe, soft feminine vocals and a trip to the Hacienda. This isn’t Ian Curtis electrically charged intoning doom on the mic. In fact, the male vocal that cuts through has more of a Bowie air if anything. This is a dog we’re following here but the musical roadmap has all the hallmarks of the canine sense of direction as it goes all over the shop following whatever smell takes it’s fancy. Including a Ceilidh style Irish section that fades out into a Foo Fighters style driving guitar. Yeah, that actually happened. Set in the Hacienda. It’s about as far from the Happy Mondays, New Order era musically, but the central theme highlights the Hacienda problem of style over substance. The pace is frenetic then chilled, then hyperactive all over again, which is handy because it’s a monster track of almost 10 minutes. Without that pace or texture, you’d be hard placed to keep going despite the sense of almost wonder at what on earth you’re hearing.

The next two tracks are called “Interlude IV” and “Interlude VII”. I’m sure the guys can count but what happened to five and six is a mystery.

IV opens with Voodoo Chile style chopping guitar but the vocal is all Shaun Ryder. The layering of musical styles as if they’ve been picked by chucking a dart at an open book of British Hit Singles is quite incredible. VII begins with organ keys, like Ray Charles having a warm-up, then proceeds to synthy blues and violin. These changes aren’t gradual, it all melds together in about 30 seconds and is so disparate in origin it should just be a garbled mess of nonsense. But it works. Not a clue how or why, but it absolutely does. You could imagine arty shots of a poor hound trudging through the wet back streets of Manchester in desperate melancholic hunt for whatever the music is that’s gone missing. Quite impressive for two completely different two and a bit minute tracks.

“Street Dog”, gets his own song! He’s a good boy, isn’t he? More of the storytelling now, though giving tequila to a dog should purely be undertaken in a flight of fancy concept album. Vocally this is more of the same Space/Divine Comedy but with patches of actual singing. If that possibly makes any sense.

Dom dom, dah dom, dom dom dom dom dah dom. It’s not the most lyrically insightful but it’s not meant to be, it’s more the choral background that gives a canvas that the vocal styling which is in parts Pete Doherty and then back to the spoken style. Just after the midpoint musically it does hit a Happy Mondays on speed feel. Quite appropriate to be fair. “The Drink” kicks us off with a dirty bassline and then goes sort of steel drum Kaiser Chiefs, or Kasabian if you prefer. Oh and then Madness-style horn section. If you feel there’s a distinct lack of a grip on what’s going on, you would be absolutely correct. Just when you feel like there might be a small handle on things the violin kicks back in and the vocal changes, the tone changes, elements of the West End show reappear and you’re carried along in this mental whirlwind. Let go of the sense you need to know what you’re hearing, why you’re hearing it, and what the band is trying to say and just go with the flow.

This is much more about the journey than the destination. “Interlude VI” arrives, better late than never, old chap. Old it is. Classic Jazz abounds with this one and it’s refreshing to be out of the darker notes with something that feels quite free and liberated. Though brief it’s a good showing of the musical chops of the band that they can damn well play when there’s just the one theme to play with. “Magpie Park” is the penultimate track and we’re back to the Libertines style of music. With more jazzy interludes in the middle. “Change” ends the album in a style that is more a seventies cop show blended with the now-familiar stage show vocal. Lyrically it touches on the ineffable nature of self-determination, the immutability of the self, and predetermination. Pretty deep for a dog.

Jazz abounds again, backing the refrain that we don’t write our lives or surely we’d do it better. These guys have written a life, albeit a dog’s life. Could they have done it better? Who knows. Could they have done it differently? It’s easy to argue that this couldn’t be more different. Just as it should, this album feels like the most eclectic of journeys, covering a range of vocal and musical styles but always with the sense that you are watching something whole. A very construct that seems impossible to maintain with all the meandering, but all the way through you are aware you are following one story. It’s completely mental but in the best possible way. Hear it to believe it.

Review by James Clinch

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