It’s no longer surprising when once-disruptive sounds get sucked seamlessly into the pop songwriting process. Four decades and who knows how many waves of UK rock removed from the post-punk of Gang of Four, Wire, and their contemporaries, kicky rock acts like Northampton, England’s New Cassettes strip-mine those bands’ legacies for their most arresting sounds while embracing traditional pop concerns over the arty and political. After years of recontextualization via post-punk revivalists like Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand, rhythmic bursts of guitar a la Andy Gill no longer constitute pop rupture; they’re simply another tool in a modern musician’s kit.
Maybe this isn’t so bad. Post-punk stylistic gestures may no longer signify theoretical heft, but, as amply demonstrated on New Cassettes’ second album, Winterhead, those jagged, staccato riffs can add a welcome note of dissonance to otherwise traditionally melodic pop. And this is, indeed, fairly traditional stuff, arguably far more indebted to early ‘00s emo pop and harder-edged Britpop than post-punk, but it’s all the more interesting for what remnants of the latter made it through the filter of influence. Even the political sentiments that post-punk musicality once underlined remain in a sort of vestigial form. The first lines we hear on Winterhead are “She don’t believe in romance / Use your body as a witness”, positioning New Cassettes as outright revivalists, as informed by post-punk’s personal-is-political sentiment as its musical gestures. As it turns out, “Left/Right” is a decidedly apolitical song of romantic yearning: “Sometimes I want your mind on mine”. On “A Militant King”, when vocalist Tom Stubbs sings the provocatively “You lost your heart to American dreams / How did you lose it? / You lost your throne to a militant king / How did you lose control?”, it’s only figurative grist for the romantic mill (“So take your kisses and walk away / I will change for the millions of times I strayed”). In New Cassettes’ songs, the personal seems to be just, well, personal.
In fact, the lion’s share of tunes here are about the miscommunications and desires that drive our love lives, and the insecurities that keep us from taking chances. Over the eminently catchy “Bite Your Lip”, vocalist Tom Stubbs plays friendly motivator, despite his message being somewhat ambiguous: “All the time you waited / You should be concentrating more / So maybe you should bite your tongue / Or maybe you could let it out”. Most of the time, Stubbs opts for letting it out with mixed results. On “The Waxx” and “You Are a Slow Wave”, he negotiates the terms of romance with difficult loves. On the former, one of the album’s many spiky rockers, he’s a needy partner, swimming in “an ocean I’m never crossing anymore”. On the latter, the band strikes an Idlewild-like balance of gravity and propulsion, while Stubbs refuses to budge even when faced with fundamental disagreements (“I’m betting that we don’t see things eye to eye”).
For better or worse, the combination of high drama, memorable choruses, and a slightly illusory edginess makes New Cassettes a natural fit for MTV’s Hype label, as well as the TV shows that have featured the band’s songs, like the Real World and Grey’s Anatomy. Mixed by Geoff Sanoff and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, Winterhead has a bright, commercial sheen that flatters Nik Gray’s and Owen Reed’s intertwining riffs and highlights the band’s vocal harmonies.
The winning hooks, nicely repurposed post-punk affectations, and streamlined sound end up having to compensate for a few things, though. Most significantly, New Cassettes tend to bank on abstract images carrying their songs over. Impressionistic lines like “You’re shooting silent guns at nothing” have some impact in isolation, but are largely disconnected from their surroundings. One of the album’s standout songs, the darkly epic “Ghosts”, is afflicted with perplexing mixed metaphors like “You’re on a tightrope / Are you trying to disappear? / ‘Til the end, I wanted you near”. With a scattershot approach that seems designed to reward distracted listening, the lyrics throughout are somewhat interchangeable, particularly given the uniform subject matter.
That said, Winterhead is user-friendly, hook-driven guitar rock with enough musical quirks and memorable choruses to overcome a bit of superficiality.
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