Monday, June 27, 2011

A Review Of Smother From Wild Beasts

I am so late to the party on Wild Beasts but I finally got Smother, out now on Domino Records, and it's a delight.

I'm sometimes prone to that sort of lazy description that reeks of 1980s music journalism but here goes: Smother sounds like China Crisis covering Side 1 of Kate Bush's Hounds of Love (1985) album.

If that sounds less like a bad idea than one that might make you go: "Hmm", I'd say to keep reading and then seek out this record.

I mean, there's an organic sound here that recalls The Blue Nile, China Crisis, and Kate Bush. And, yet, the record sounds utterly modern and fresh and human despite any number of electronic sounds permeating the mix.

I keep recalling Elbow here but where that group seemed to be taking Britpop and stripping it down to the basic elements, Wild Beasts seem to be making a less jittery pass at those first Talking Heads albums.

This is art rock but an art rock of the everyday -- hence that Elbow go-to on my part -- and one free of too much overt pretension.

Listen to "Invisible" and ask yourself how can singer Hayden Thorpe sound like 3 different vocalists over the course of the track.

And then listen to the range of sounds the other 3 members of the band produce.

It's a beautiful song and it seems to hit at the mood that Radiohead once captured before they disappeared largely up their own arses.

"Loop The Loop" features a plucked guitar line and what could be a drum or a keyboard loop as Thorpe asks: "Don't you think that people are the strangest things?"

"Plaything" recalls an artier era. With drums -- or a drum machine? -- somehow bringing to mind a less sinister "Atrocity Exhibition" by Joy Division, the song pushes in unusual ways. There's something sad and disturbing here but this sort of mature art rock is something I've missed in the last few decades; in the early 1980s' post-rock boom, there were a lot of bands taking risks like this.

If "Albatross" is the lighthearted, almost peppy, single from Smother, then a track like "Burning" is the darker cousin. Bringing to mind the unheralded Long Fin Killie, the guitar or mandolin rattles like a rusty harp as the vocals begin, Thorpe's voice very much forward in the mix.

Album closer "End Come Too Soon" opens with what sounds like Vini Reilly of Durutti Column plucking out a guitar figure, a piano entering somewhere behind that. As the other instruments enter the mix, the song ambles along with a sort of easy catchiness that I found really charming. It's odd, but the longest song on the record is, perhaps, the most melodic and lyrical. The slight jitteriness of earlier tracks is gone as "End Come Too Soon" unfurls like something off of side 2 of The Unforgettable Fire.

As Thorpe's amazing voice takes flight on the coda to "End Come Too Soon", I found myself trying to pinpoint all the pieces I was hearing but it didn't matter really; the song intoxicates with a swirl of familiar pieces put together in a new, unfamiliar but warm, way. The song, like most of Smother, is rich music of the sort not made very often in today's musical world.

It seems that some reviews of Wild Beasts seize upon the the sense of sexual ambiguity in the lyrics, or maybe Thorpe's androgynous vocal style. That's lazy. It's also dangerously reductive just like it was in 1983 when journalists wanted The Smiths to be a "Gay" group.

No, good music is good music. What makes the music of Wild Beasts so great is that it is human music, with real emotion and moments of beauty and subtlety not found in the work of many other contemporary acts.

Follow the band on Domino Records, or on their own website, or on their Facebook page.