This is going to be one of those awkward reviews in that I am acquainted with some members of Wonk Unit, and also some of the people behind the TNS label. However, I have not only a duty as a reviewer to be objective, but also have a reputation for giving my honest opinion. If you can bear that cross, but wear no crown, step the fuck up.
First of all, I suppose I should give some background on TNS Records for those that are not familiar. They have been around for some number of years now, and, they started out as a collective that put out a free fanzine, and that also put on gigs in the Manchester area. I don’t think I’d be alone in saying that, at that time (i.e. up to 2010, when I left Manchester) I didn’t really take them very seriously. Don’t get me wrong, as people they are/were/continue to be decent enough people (as far as I know), and I’m pleased to hear that they are still around doing this stuff. I think that my main criticisms of what was happening with TNS at the time (i.e. up to 2010) were as follows:
1. The reviews in the fanzine didn’t seem to offer any negative criticism of releases that clearly deserved negative criticism. It just didn’t feel reasonable to me in that no form of quality control seemed to be exercised. I can’t speak to what the reviews are like, these days though.
2. The gigs they were putting on at the time seemed to consist of (at least) 90% garbage bands that nobody else would put on. They were truly awful.
3. That fucking band, Revenge of the Psychotronic Man. Fucksake, mate. Some bands should not be allowed out of the practice room. Sorry. I hate to piss on people’s chips or whatever, but that’s my opinion.
4. They were a bit too much of an enthusiastic bunch for my tastes, and seemed to have an ethos which was something to do with either behaving like idiots or being idiots or something, which, I regret to say, more than occasionally I could find irritating. Which is my problem, not theirs.
However, I qualify this by saying that they believed in what they were doing back then, and have continued to do so, and, good for them. Whatever way you look at it, there’s an achievement here, particularly as they seem to have generated enough interest to keep going. Not to mention that they have also built up a sizable back catalogue with their label. So please note guys, that I bear you no ill will, and never have. We just come at things from different angles, I think. I do not think I am cool. I have never thought I am cool. I continue to view myself as severely un-cool. Although I can understand why people may find me to be a bit curmudgeonly or surly or whatever. Anyway… There we go.
I should also at this point introduce the band Wonk Unit, who were formed out of the ashes of a band called the Flying Medallions (circa 1992 – 1995). The band tragically called it quits after a European tour bus crash in 1995, in which their bassist Dougie died and another band member was critically injured. The Medallions were famed for their riotous live performances. You can also hear their album on Bandcamp – it’s worth a spin or three.
My own first exposure to Wonk Unit was something of a delayed one. My friend Martin “Knolle” Brosthaus had been banging on about them for some time and kept trying to persuade me to go see them with him. I was fairly resistant, because I thought the band name was stupid. Eventually, though I saw them with The Murderburgers and The Queers (in Tufnell Park), where they played with Duncan Redmonds (Snuff, Billy No Mates, Guns n’ Wankers etc.) on drums. And I was blown away. It was really fucking good. I then went and bought the two CDs they had out at the time, Flying The Japanese Flag, which I found a bit annoying, and Trolleys Thank You / Wonk Unit Saved My Life. The Trolleys… part I thought was great, and again it featured Duncan Redmonds on drums. The other half had a different line-up and feel to it, and I was not enamoured with at all.
However, I did go and see them several other times, and they were always entertaining, and Alex and Mark have always been kind and friendly whenever I’ve encountered them. Since that period, for one reason or another, I’ve not had much exposure to them, other than hearing the Muffy album, the acoustic demo version of which I by far preferred. In fact I’d recommend tracking that one down if you can.
Although their recorded material hasn’t always struck a chord with me personally (it has sometimes), I have always enjoyed seeing them live. I find Alex to be quite an engaging front man, and the band always seem to have a buzzing, positive energy about them. Having said that, I’m not really a fan of the artwork that they use for their t-shirts and record covers. Realistically though, a lot of people seem to really dig that aesthetic, so maybe there is something in it that I just don’t get, or maybe there is nothing in it. I don’t know. Besides which, I’m not really sure I’m the intended target audience here. However, having said all this, I did quite enjoy the Poison Idea record cover skit they did Pwosion Idea – Feel the Wonkness
Now, to the actual matter at hand. Being a review of Mr Splashy. The cover of the record is actually a portrait of Alex’s grandmother, drawn by her care-worker. I kind of like the sentimentality of this type of tribute to an older relative who has passed on, which is very sweet, but as a record cover, I’m not sure it works for me. But it’s not really up to me, I’m not Alex. I’m not in Wonk Unit, and as they say, you shouldn’t judge a book (or an album) by its cover.
Lyrically, there has been a progression from earlier releases, which had been heavily focussed on being an alcoholic in recovery, and also on the misery of working as (variously) a builder, a plasterer (and so the list goes on) but not wanting to do that line of work and being made seriously unhappy by it. If you are one of the fortunate few that loves their job, then you’ll never be able to relate to hating your job. Anyway, it seems over recent months, there have been some changes for Alex. He’s got married, Wonk Unit have stepped up a gear somewhat with touring and releases, and Alex has launched his own skateboard production company, called Cement You CNT Skates. These things seem (to me, as a casual observer) to have had quite a positive effect on his general outlook, as although he’s always been perfectly affable in person, unhappiness did seem to weigh on him beneath the surface (I hope he doesn’t mind my saying so). For me, personally, this does seem to have the made songs somewhat less relatable, although there is some interesting social commentary to be gleaned, relating to fashion trends, Brexit types, relationships, growing older etc. etc.
They’ve had a few line-up changes over the past few years, and they have finally got a drummer that seems worth his chops. Speaking as a non-musician, on previous releases I’ve felt that the drumming has ‘let the side down’ a bit (asides from Trolleys… and the mighty Duncan Redmonds of course!!). Wonk Unit can be a bit of a strange beast. They definitely have a sound all of their own, but it does also seem to change quite a bit from album to album. I don’t write songs or music, so I’m perhaps not best placed to say, but I invariably come away after listening to a Wonk Unit album wishing that it sounded more like Trolleys… With Mr Splashy, they seem to have hit a bit closer to that mark, which can only be a good thing, I suppose. However, I don’t feel like the songs here have the same sense of immediacy for me as the ones on Trolleys… did. I would describe it as even having a Blur-esque type flavour to its sound. Oddly. Again, I’ll throw it out there that perhaps I’m not the target audience here (realistically speaking, I really am clearly not). I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an embittered, jaded, salty kind of character. I’ve also been living with mental health issues for some number of years (which I now make very little effort to cover up – why should I feel ashamed? If you think I should, then fuck you. This is just me. Here I am.), and I can only imagine that this has had some influence on my personality, it’s definitely had an effect on the way I project myself and the way I behave, not to mention on what I do or do not find musically appealing.
Who is the target audience then? I’m not sure that I could answer that. In fact I’m not sure that there is specifically a target audience! Alex is somebody that I do respect both as a person as well as a songwriter, and I think that the songs he writes are probably representative of where he is in life at the time (see earlier comments). Perhaps the problem here is that my own outlook on life at this time isn’t allowing me to relate to what he’s trying to communicate.
Musically speaking, this record variously seems to channel the spirit of The Wire, Revolver era Beatles (have I ever gone on at length about how much I hate the Beatles?), Snuff, and Screeching Weasel to name but a few.
I simply just don’t feel like I feel that I’m not a part of the applicable demographic that this would appeal to. If I was going to be unfair, snide or lazy, I would probably describe this as punk for “cheeky Nando’s” types. But I won’t. And that is because at one period in my life, I’m pretty sure that I would’ve thought this ruled. Although Alex is some few years older than I am (not loads and loads), I would say this record does have a kind of youthful exuberance to it that reminds me a great deal of life in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Had they been around at the time, I’d far rather have been watching these guys do every major tour support going instead of Capdown (now they were fucking shit and inexplicably popular). Nowadays I could imagine them going over well as a support to Me First & The Gimme Gimmes or something like that.
All I can really say in summary is that I didn’t hate Mr Splashy, but I didn’t love it either. It’s just not really for me. The outstanding tracks for me are Old Man, J’m’appelle Alex (on which the drums and vocals are fantastic) and Ode to Summer (the best cut on the album by a country mile). They really nailed those ones. If they’d chosen to make this an EP, those three songs, filled out with I Told You So, Hot Day You Know It and We Are The England, we’d have an end to end solid release here, no complaints, make no mistake.
Wonk Unit seem to be doing really well at the moment, and people seem to like what they are doing. The band do seem to enjoy what they are doing, and from what I can gather seem to have a really great attitude. As I said before, Alex and Mark have always been very kind to me, and I wish them every success with Wonk Unit, because they’ve put a lot of leg work in over the years and I’d really like to see them do well.
Catch them on tour in a town near you soon:
Listen to them on their Bandcamp page
Pre-order / buy Mr Splashy from TNS Records here plus other things.