I’ve been writing for Backseat Mafia for a while now, prior to that I honed my music reviewing on a website where members of the public were encouraged to review the music in their collection. It was as a tiny part of this small but enthusiastic online community that I first encountered Fifth Column, the only studio album released by U.N.P.O.C., the performance name of Tom Bauchop.
Fifth Column is a strangely infectious album, rattling along at a considerable rate powered by little more than Bauchop’s oddly percussive strumming of his guitar, some enthusiastic drumming and a not inconsiderable amount of tape hiss. Listening to it, Fifth Column doesn’t sound so much produced as recorded in whatever room the recording equipment had been left in last. There’s some refreshingly rudimentary audio touches throughout the album, such as the amount of reverb on the vocals, which sound for all the world like they were recorded in a tiled bathroom. It’s one of those albums where it’s obvious that no expense was spared on audio polish. Or spent.
It kicks off with the “Amsterdam” a wonderfully evocative number which sets the tone for the whole album, but it ups a gear with the infectiously enthusiastic “Been a While Since I Went Away” before (in the grand tradition of High Fidelity) it changes course slightly with “I Don’t Feel Too Steady on My Feet”. Five minutes in and U.N.P.O.C. has created its own universe to exist in, something which most acts struggle to do over a whole career. Next up is “Here on My Own”, which is as close to anthemic as this album gets and is arguably one of the centrepieces of the whole album. Universal anthems don’t come naturally to U.N.P.O.C. though, as most of the lyrics tend to deal with relatively provincial issues and concern themselves with the type of intimate and small scale matters that most of us spend our lives trying to untangle. U2 this isn’t.
This is an album which seems to evade most pigeonholes. It’s largely acoustic, but never really gets bogged down in the type laconic strumming that blights so many acoustic bedroom-based recording artists, neither is it an outright indie-rock album, as it’s far more interesting than the vast majority of what the NME was writing about at the time of its release. Anyone who tries to label it as lo-fi would be pretty wide of the mark too. On the rare occasions on this album where Bauchop unleashes his electric guitar, it’s never for very long, but when he does he makes the idiosyncratic playing count. It’s this slightly wonky approach to musical competence that makes Fifth Column so refreshing. It’s a playful album that reminds you that all the fancy recording equipment in the world can’t make up for a deficit of enthusiasm and ideas and there’s a DIY ethos underpinning this album that reinforces its untameable organic feel.
As the second half of Fifth Column starts, it does so via the downbeat “Dark Harbour Wall”, before it bursts into glorious technicolor, first with “Jump Jet Friend” and again with “Some Kinds of People”. The very best is saved for last with the track “Nicaragua”, which is my personal favourite U.N.P.O.C. tune, perhaps because it was the first song I heard by them. It’s a song which is almost impossible to describe other than by saying that it takes everything great about the album and condenses it into one last song which lodges itself in your memory and will continue to haunt your mind for weeks afterwards.
Fifth Column is one of those albums you get recommended or stumble over rather than one that you purposefully look for because the tastemakers tell you that you should. I found it because a fellow amateur reviewer was so enthusiastic about it and I hope that in reading this your curiosity may get the better of you too and eventually you’ll recommend it to someone else and so on. Fifth Column is one of those albums that the appreciation of gets passed from one person to the next by word of mouth alone, not by a marketing exercise. It’s beautiful, it’s unique and it really is very special.