BY MICHAEL TOLAND
The Pop Group could only have existed in the late ’70s. An almost textbook example of that nebulous genre known as postpunk, the Bristol quintet deftly combined nervous funk with clanging punk rock and performed it with a loose sensibility that has as much in common with free jazz as rock & roll. Jagged and dissonant but with enough respect for tune to be just this side of accessible, fiercely political but still in thrall to the joy of simply making music, the Pop Group never found chart success in its original 1978-1981 lifespan. But as a favorite of maverick musicians like Nick Cave and Mike Watt (who readily acknowledges the huge debt the Minutemen their British fellow travelers), the Pop Group’s influence lives on.
We Are Time, originally issued in 1980 near the end of the band’s tenure, is a postpunk Odds ‘n’ Sods, compiling early singles, outtakes and live cuts. On “Kiss the Book,” “Trap” and the prophetically titled “Genius or Lunatic,” bassist Simon Underwood and drummer Bruce Smith twist dance rhythms into shapes suitable for future hip surgery while guitarists Gareth Sager and John Waddington scratch and strum their way to fractured funk-punk glory. Singer Mark Stewart blurts his sociopersonal texts like an asylum inmate desperate to communicate his ideas before the visitor makes it out the door. From the whiplash tempo changes to the unhinged vocal performances, the title cut and “Sense of Purpose” sound chaotic and disorganized, but hold together like the tightest pop song, even when free improv sax codas the former. We Are Time may be the ideal introduction to the Pop Group’s frenzied world.
A brand new comp featuring even more previously uncollected alternates and outtakes, Cabinet of Curiosities kicks off with “Where There’s a Will,” the band’s most overt funk move and one of its greatest singles, and “She is Beyond Good and Evil,” a spine-twisting funk rocker that’s recently entered the repertoire of St. Vincent. The record also hits up the John Peel archive for oddly antiseptic takes on “Words Disobey Me” and (again) “We Are Time,” and digs up a pair of unreleased songs: the jazzy and (nearly) melodic “Abstract Heart” and the particularly raw and crazed “Karen’s Car,” apparently the Pop Group’s final song in its original incarnation. Though not as consistent as We Are Time, Cabinet contains essential tracks that make the Pop Group’s importance clear.
After its demise, Groupers went on to various adventures with Pigbag, Rip Rig + Panic, Public Image Ltd. and Mark Stewart and Maffia, keeping the postpunk flame burning. The band reunited in 2010.
DOWNLOAD: “Genius or Lunatic,” “Sense of Purpose,” “Where There’s a Will,” “Abstract Heart”