Tuesday, April 21, 2015

album review: 'glitterbug' by the wombats

It's one of the weirdest things about music throughout the years, and something that the more you think about it makes less and less sense: how power pop just isn't successful on mainstream radio.

I mean, sure, you might get the occasional hit from bands with enough of an edge to rock out but a penchant for the strong, sticky hooks that pop music needs, but they seldom stick around, even in years when you'd think they do well. Take the pop rock boom of the mid-2000s, the heyday of Fall Out Boy and My Chemical romance and Green Day: you'd think mainstream radio would have been desperate to snatch up more bands that were willing to take fast-paced guitar-driven rock and present it with a more polished, anthemic package, but success tended to be limited, especially if the band had a quirky, indie edge that hadn't yet become popular.

Such was the case for The Wombats, a Liverpool-based indie band that broke out with their debut album A Guide To Love, Loss, and Desperation. Like many of the indie acts of the time, you could see the lineage of their sound - the jangly production and overwritten lyrics reminiscent of the Arctic Monkeys crossed with the warped, jagged, and yet oddly theatrical styling that recalled a lot of Modest Mouse and Franz Ferdinand, especially with the frenetic drumming and bass harmonies. But The Wombats stood out against all of those bands for me, mostly because frontman Matthew Murphy was able to convey an air of sheer panic so well to match lyrics drenched in over-detailed working class heartbreak and wasn't afraid to toss on some lightweight backing harmonies to cut the sting a little. It helped the band had a solid sense of humor and idea of scope: the topics were pure pop idealism, and they worked to build off of that, and made one of the most intensely listenable and fun albums of 2007.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a formula that was destined to last. Four years later they dropped This Modern Glitch, and while the idealism and energy was still there, it wasn't quite the same. The writing didn't seem as sharp, the energy was less raucous and wild, and while the addition of synthesizers worked well enough in a way reminiscent of The Killers, I couldn't help but feel that The Wombats didn't need to become a cleaner or more polished band, no matter how much some of the guitars snarled. Some could argue it might have been a sell-out move... except it didn't take them any further in the mainstream. So when I heard that not only was the band staying with that direction, but even losing some of their trademark humor, I really had a bad feeling about this. Would Glitterbug end up being the album that breaks The Wombats but at the cost of what made them special?
Well, let me start by reassuring you that The Wombats didn't quite go in that direction - in fact, if we're looking for an album that finds more of the happy medium between wild and weird exuberance and a little more maturity, it'd come here with Glitterbug - and what's all the stranger is that it did so by taking a step by playing to the band's strengths in songwriting and self-aware framing. And even while it does have the most conventional sound and presentation of their albums to date in terms of modern indie rock, it knows it and is planning to exploit it for all its worth - so yeah, you can bet I really enjoyed this album, if even if I would argue that it's not exactly a classic or better than their debut.

And here's the funny thing - it's still very recognizably a Wombats record, mostly because the fundamental strengths of The Wombats haven't changed, even despite the glossier, more synth/reverb heavy production courtesy of Bastille producer Mark Crew, it still maintains elements that work shockingly well beyond it. Bastille has always had great subtle bass melodies and energetic and eclectic drum patterns, so even as the guitars are crushed further back, the bass can have melodic interplay with the synthesizers that's both prominent and energetic. If anything, the greater focus on groove with this production emphasizes this, from the rubbery bass on 'Emoticons' to the incredibly bouncy groove on 'Give Me A Try' to the strikingly sharp kickdrums on 'Be Your Shadow' to the increedible tightness on 'This Is Not A Party' or the thicker guitars on 'Your Body Is A Weapon'. And while I could easily draw a line from mid-to-late 80s inspired synthpop to this record, especially with the Phil Collins-inspired drum breakdowns that pepper the mix, it's hard to complain when the grooves are this good and the synths add all sorts of gleaming presence. Granted, the mix balance isn't perfect, and if we're looking for the element that suffers here it's the guitar solos, as almost all of them are crushed midway to the back of the mix or given tones that are either compressed too heavily or just are completely unflattering, like on 'Emoticons' and 'Your Body Is A Weapon'. But even with that, there are more rough edges that lurk around the edges, or even moments like the XTC-like chorus switch-up on 'Headspace' or the fantastic bridge swell on 'Curveballs' that show the band hasn't lost the off-kilter flavour that I loved in the first place.

And really, those late-80s influences are unmistakable, especially harkening back to the heady rush of ecstasy-fueled rave culture in the UK. They're also intentional, which ties directly into the lyrics and themes of the album, which really can be split into two distinctive arcs on the album. The first is the heady, swirling, drug-fuelled immersion in the party, and even as our protagonist knows the rush is unsustainable and the girl he's doing it all with is using and abusing him, he's not going to walk away because on some level it's everything he's wanted and it's fun as hell. Hell, he begins the album with the impetus to dump her because of emotional distance, but instead he sinks all the deeper, yet still observant enough to notice just how much everyone else is trying to make it work too, faking it with such desperation that they're almost seeing it like on 'This Is Not A Party'. The second half of the album is when reality hits, with the realization from our protagonist being that he just can't do it anymore, especially as his distance from his girl and their growing incompatibility prompts her to cheat and him to finally walk away. And that midpoint is sharply defined by 'Isabel', one of the most well-written songs on the album and the point where he realizes what this life is doing to the both of them... and yet it is a love ballad, only tinged with regret in the delivery that does wonders. Now you could easily argue that the girl on this album could be representative of the music industry or the nebulous mainstream audience that never quite embraced him - and as a brand of pop satire it actually works surprisingly well - but I'd make the case the album has viability both ways. It's not like the lyrics aren't still witty or sharp - although I still miss the incredibly-detailed writing of their first record that painted such vivid pictures - but going for that additional level of abstraction, no matter how often it's implied, does distance the audience a bit from the more intimate moments.

But here's the element that brings it all together and really does set The Wombats apart startlingly well: Matthew Murphy's vocals. Quite simply, without him this album wouldn't work because you'd lose that sense of frantic, self-aware desperation that gives The Wombats so much energy and earnest power. Sure, the framing helps, setting up exactly why our protagonist would want to re-enter a bad situation, even despite knowing that for all of its intoxicating atmosphere it's a really bad idea, but Murphy's delivery manages the razor thin balance in humanizing his story. Hell, he could very easily look down on all of those people in the same straits - which, incidentally, is the very issue I have with most Arctic Monkeys albums - but there really isn't cynicism here, no matter how much he'd have reason to be cynical. Hell, the one moment where he comes close to that line is 'Pink Lemonade', and his exasperation there comes across as more hapless than biting. Quite simply, while he might be one of the smartest ones in the room, he's just as confused and desperate as everyone else, and Murphy sells that. Now some might argue that Murphy's relationship - which the way he describes it is damn close to abusive or exploitative - could be used here as a cheap way to garner sympathy or pity, but there are two major counterpoints against this, the first being Murphy does a terrific job selling that giddy rush of that love for all the wrong reasons, and secondly when he does come back to earth, he leaves.

So to put it another way, if Bleachers' Strange Desire told this sort of story with a similar arc and themes using the sweeping bombast of the mid-80s, The Wombats' Glitterbug tells the story in the spaced-out giddy rush of the very late-80s - and I'd argue it's nearly as good. Incredibly tight with terrific melodic grooves balanced against the melodies, to say nothing of smart, well-framed lyrics and a great performance, this album is a ton of fun and easily earns an 8/10 from me. And it's proof for as much retro-leaning synthpop as there is that saturates the market right now, there's still a place for those doing it great, and The Wombats managed to pull it off.

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