Or perhaps it should be what else I listened to, I just couldn’t pick between these two wonderfully exciting new records this week, so I thought what the heck I’ll review them both. A sort of grudge match between two musical titans, though the idea of Hayden Thorpe and Beck fighting is of course faintly ridiculous!
Wild Beasts occupy that slightly odd middle ground of the musical industry. Neither radio friendly unit shifter nor also rans never going to sell a record. Whilst it might be the sort of nightmare scenario for a label boss, (did they say print 10,000 or 100,000 copies of the record you can imagine crossing the work experience boys mind) it’s often a fruitful place for creative bands looking to get ahead.
Take British Sea Power if you will, loveably eccentric with enough pop hooks to make Radio1 airplay, but also rather prone to playing in a cave, or releasing an instrumental soundtrack to a found footage documentary about the British Coast (if you haven’t seen “From The Sea To The Land Beyond” you’re missing a treat!) Never will they smooth the edges enough to be a Coldplay size filler of enormodomes, but neither will their loyal fans ever stop buying their records.
In these times of reduced sales, and reduced band incomes it’s becoming harder and harder for this middle ground to survive. The Record Executives wont throw money around like they did before, the likes of Hope Of The States and Tom Vek wouldn’t get major label deals anymore let alone the money once thrown at them, and whilst when Ed Milliband spoke of the squeezed middle it was largely met with a collective shrug of the shoulders, it’s certainly a relevant terminology to the music industry, and one that leaves many bands such as Wild Beasts in a quandary, stick or twist if you will. Aim high and risk loosing what made you such a thrilling prospect in the first place, or stay entirely true to the underground and risk sinking into it, which way would you go?
WILD BEASTS – PRESENT TENSE
Has there ever been a more immediate statement of a bands intentions than Wild Beasts debut single? The year is 2006, we are approaching the end of the miniature indie bubble created by the successes of The Strokes and The White Stripes, bands like The Twang and The Enemy are threatening to force the sound of the time back into landfill indie and reduce the fringed masses into despair. So what would you do? Well if you’re Wild Beasts release a song that’s so bafflingly different you can’t help but stand out from the crowd. From the soaring falsetto vocal, to the brilliantly bonkers lyrics (“swig the bottle, bottle, slap the face of Aristotle”) it was like nothing I’d ever heard before or have ever heard since. That’s not to say it was different for the sake of it, in fact what made it so brilliant was in fact how deceptively simple it was, a band taking the old 2 guitars, drum and bass set-up and injecting it with enough flamboyance, attitude and style to launch it to somewhere completely different.
Eight years have passed, and three albums have come and gone, all on the consistently excellent Domino label. The albums have each shown progress and enough new tricks to constantly remain ahead of the game and never in danger of treading on old ground. What we’ve also seen is a gradual smoothing of the edges, if debut album Limbo Panto was the sound of Kate Bush meandering around every attraction she could find at the fairground, by third album Smother, it was no more than a waltzer ride. Best of all was the Mercury Prize nominated second album Two Dancers, it had all the flourish and pomp of the debut but paired down with a languid groove and wonderfully textural production. Everything about it suited the band perfectly, it took a disparate collection of songs and made them into a frankly stunning album, all united by a wonderful shared soundbed. They still sang about “girls from Hounslow” and “brutes bored in their bovver boots” but they now had a universal appeal that would propel them far beyond being a mere oddity on this wonderful musical landscape of ours.
Many reviews of this latest review have been quick dismiss third album “Smother” as some sort of failure, an interesting characteristic of the music industry is to choose how they look back on things, sometimes rose tinted but often the opposite. Smother received good reviews at the time and rightly so, yes it lacked some of the brilliance on show previously, and perhaps one too many edge had been sanded down (Lion’s Share did verge a little close to Coldplay territory) but elsewhere the likes of Reach A Bit Further, Albatross and the brilliant Loop The Loop built wonderfully upon their previous successes. It was a very good album, what it wasn’t was a step forward.
Perhaps realising that they couldn’t take another sideways step Wild Beasts elected to do things differently this time. For starters there was a change of producers, parting with previous collaborator Richard Formby, who’d worked on both Two Dancers and Smother, and going instead with the high profile team of Leo Abrahams and Alex “Lexxx” Dromgoole. There also appears to have been a concerted effort to get away from the more instrumental approach in favour of a colder more electronic sound. Even in the opening bars of single and opening track “Wanderlust” there’s a clear shift towards synthesisers. There’s a swampy, dense opening synth line, that’s brought to life by propulsive, almost frantic drum beat, and later what sounds a bit like a choir being looped and processed beyond belief (a bit like the sound the “vocal” section of a cheap 90s keyboard would make but better) In fact it’s only once that instantly recognisable vocal sound comes into the picture you’re sure you’ve put the right record on. As opening lines go “we’re decadent beyond our means, with a zeal, we feel the things they’ll never feel” is pretty spectacular! It places Wild Beasts as the working class heroes, but in a deeply Orwellian sense, rebelling through art and expression, rather than riots and looting. For a lead single it’d oddly ponderous, indeed for a two and a half minutes or so you sort wonder where it’s all going, it’s only when Hayden’s vocal interjects with “don’t confuse me for someone who gives a fuck” that your ears prick up and pay attention. An awful lot has been made of the meaning of the subsequent line “in your mother tongue, what’s the verb to suck” whilst many a reviewer and the boys themselves have hinted this is meant as a criticism of bands who don’t sing in their own accent, a more literal and perhaps likely explanation for a band who’s lyrical content has always verged on the explicit could easily be garnered.
What follows from this wonderful single is something of a game of two halves, an album with a clear dividing line. On the one hand there’s tracks like the second track “Nature Boy” it’s based around low synth drones and a fairly slow percussion heavy sound, to which Tom Fleming adds his deep booming voice. Wild Beasts have always been a band with two frontmen and whilst Hayden often steals the reviewers attention Tom has quietly gone about fronting some of their more memorable tracks, from early single Devil’s Crayon through to the brilliant album titling double header on Two Dancers. Sadly on this album, he’s given too many of the slow, sparse numbers, as with Nature Boy. Indeed his voice gives an air of seriousness, which when mixed with the minimalist musical approach, does verge on being a tad dull. The fact this trick is repeated throughout the album on tracks like New Life and Daughters (tarnished even further by the truly awful line “you’re just a little girl and Jesus was a woman”) drags the album down, constantly breaking up the flow. Of these slower numbers only A Dog’s Life is particularly memorable. The other issue with these numbers, is the relegation of Ben Little’s guitar lines to mere accessories, indeed it’s his wonderful guitar line, melding perfectly with the Depeche Mode style synth at the end of A Dog’s Life which lend it a thrilling gothic quality and lifts it far above the standard elsewhere. Yes the use of synthesisers as a way of changing the style of a record is all well and good, but when they’re used in place of his wonderfully intricate guitar lines they simply serve to highlight how good they sound when Ben’s in full flow.
It’s a great shame, as those few nagging blips aside there’s some of the best songs they’ve recorded in their career. Take Pregnant Pause, starting with a beautiful vocal line and plaintive piano line it’s a beautifully light contrast to many of the songs around it, lyrically it’s a triumph too “there is a tongue that we speak in no one else got the meaning, but baby I have, not everybody understand us” it’s a brilliant take on the intrinsic communication between two people with a great link, but elsewhere there’s a rare moment of open sadness “sometimes you seem like a lost cause” it works wonderfully!
Better still is “A Simple Beautiful Truth” it’s a telling reminder of the power of two contrasting vocals being used together. Musically it sounds quite a lot like The Pet Shop Boys at their peek and that’s always a good thing! It is perhaps as you’d expect about finding the beauty in the simplicity of life, and in a just world we’d all have this simple beauty of a song played constantly until we appreciate that fact (ok maybe that’s a tad 1984, each to their own and all that)
Mecca floats along on a stunningly flexible vocal line, light floating drums and buzzing synths until Hayden sings the line “Hold on” and the guitar line that previously floated in the background bursts into life, it’s a stunningly catchy propulsive thing and elevates this already excellent song. Sweet Spot is classic Wild Beasts, chiming, interwoven guitars introduce it before a muted guitar adds energy and bounce. The two vocals are again beautifully balanced as they discuss “the godless state where the real and the dream may consummate” it’s about sex people if you hadn’t guessed!
There’s a number of brilliant tracks throughout but a personal favourite is Past Perfect. Starting with just Hayden’s voice (which sounds amazing here and across the record) and stabbed piano chords, the drums and guitar arrive to add a wonderful groove. “Every fella deserve his dignity” is a great line but even better is “our hurt is older than our hands it pass from monkey into man” the song appears to be about having to stop living in the past. From around two minutes it could be about anything and it wouldn’t matter, the bongo led drums and guitars creating a heady, catchy, danceable number as Hayden repeats the line “it’s tense for me” it’s in a similar vein to Two Dancers and as good as anything on that record, which is high praise!
Closing track Palace notes ”in detail you were even more beautiful than from afar” sadly that’s not entirely the case with Present Tense, yes it has incredible tracks some of the best they’ve ever written, but it also lacks the consistency of tone that made Two Dancers such a cohesive and brilliant album. Ultimately it’s another lyric that better sums the album up, “you remind me of the person I wanted to be” this album whilst very good, reminds me just how good they were, and just how good I still believe they will one day be. There’s a perfect album in this band, this is sadly not quite it.
Present Tense is out now on Domino Records. Wild Beasts tour the UK at the end of the March, playing Brixton Academy on April 1st