[8 April 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Most Americans might have never heard of the British group the Hours, but, chances are, they might have actually heard work by the core duo making up the band if they’ve dabbed a toe into the world of British rock and pop. Guitarist and vocalist Antony Genn was a member of Britpop group Pulp as a 16-year-old and toured with Elastica. Keyboardist Martin Slattery, on the other hand, worked with Black Grape. What’s more, the pair was in the late Joe Strummer’s post-Clash band the Mescaleros. And, if you want to go deeper, Genn has co-written songs with Robbie Williams, Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Brian Eno, and Ian Brown (the Stone Roses), while Slattery has co-authored tunes with KT Tunstall and Grace Jones. So, if you live in the States, you might have come across the work of Genn and Slattery, you just not might have known it, seeing as though they have more or less been kept out of the spotlight in working with such pedigree.
That’s going to more or less change, albeit likely not in record smashing numbers seeing that they’re on an indie, with the release of It’s Not How You Start, It’s How You Finish, the Hours’ first US full-length album. It is made up of tracks from the band’s previous two European-only releases: 2007’s debut Narcissus Road, which went up to No. 47 on the UK charts, and its follow-up, 2009’s See the Light. (Those who pick up the Deluxe Edition of the album get three more bonus tracks on top of the 11 offered here; one of them, “Born to Be”, is a new song, while another, “Fade Into You”, is a previously unreleased cover of a Mazzy Star track.)
Here’s where things get a little odd. Despite the presence of human skulls on the covers of all of their albums, which might signify the Hours to be either into metal or punk, they are strictly a British rock/pop band that sounds remarkably like Coldplay or Keane. Thus, in Britain, the Hours call major label A&M Records home, which would seem to be a suitable environment for a band of that ilk. However, It’s Not How You Start, It’s How You Finish is being put out by Adeline, which just happens to be co-owned by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. Thus, the Hours, in America, can be mentioned in the same breath as Living with Lions and Pinhead Gunpowder. What’s more, their manager also works the All-American Rejects, the Goo Goo Dolls and (surprise, surprise) Green Day. It’s extremely odd company to be in, even though Genn and Slattery might have punk roots playing with Strummer. The Hours are not punk in the slightest, though Genn has lived the life of a hard-edged drug abuser, hitting rock bottom in 2001 before he got it together to put the Hours on the map in 2004. Instead, the Hours are rousing, anthemic Britpop lead by the distinctive sound of Slattery’s tinkling of the ivories and Genn’s soaring voice. This is pure pop at its finest, so it is an odd mix to be mentioning them in the same breath as, you know, Green Day. But it is what it is.
It’s Not How You Start, It’s How You Finish takes its title from the first lines of the compilation’s opening track, “Ali in the Jungle”, which is the Hours’ most well-known song (at least in Britain). The cut, which is partially about Muhammad Ali’s prizewinning 1974 fight against George Foreman in Zaire’s Rumble in the Jungle—widely considered to be one of the greatest comebacks in sports history—is featured in the EA Sports FIFA ‘08 game, and it is what snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan entered to in all his matches at the 2010 Wembley Masters. What’s more, it is the soundtrack to the Nike short film Human Chain, which debuted as an advertisement during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. There’s a reason why the song has been used all over the place. It is an amazing, rousing, anthemic and inspiring song, with Slattery hitting the keys like a man possessed, about picking yourself up when you’ve been knocked down.
I was at my job recently one afternoon where I’d just hit a brick wall and was feeling exhausted, and threw on “Ali in the Jungle” while listening to my iPod. It helped me gain my second wind. Just something about the lyrics (“Everybody gets knocked down / How quick are you gonna get up?”) had an intoxicating effect. It’s a truly immense Britpop tune, sweetened with stirring strings during the second chorus. And there’s a touch of sentimentality to the song when Genn sings “It’s the greatest comeback since Lazarus”: you get the sense he’s talking about his rebound from drug abuse, not just the heroic efforts in the ring by Ali. Chances are, once you’ve heard “Ali in the Jungle”, you won’t be able to get enough of it. It is truly a jewel of a song, one that makes minimal use of guitars, instead letting all of the potency go to Slattery’s key pounding. The Hours might not know it—or maybe they do—but they have effectively created the soundtrack to any professional sporting event with this song. I can imagine soccer, erm, I mean football goons tailgating to this cut. (If football fans in the UK actually, you know, tailgate.) It is truly spectacular.
But, wait! Things actually get even better from such a vast, towering moment. Second track “These Days” stands heads-and-shoulders above “Ali in the Jungle” in sheer potency. Led once again by Slattery’s maniac piano playing, and the triumphant opening line “When you’re going through hell, you gotta keep going”, this is a song that will zap life into the most uncharged of batteries. Then violins come swooping in again during the chorus, and you just want to pump your fist in the air to them. Or, better yet, get into your sweats and running shoes and hit a treadmill or something. There’s a relentless pace to the song and it’s just stunning. It even reaches the emotional heights of the New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give”. I’m not a jock, but the Hours make me want to go take a workout with just these two songs. They are a victorious start to this compilation, and, believe me, you need to get this album into your life just to hear the raw vitality of these tracks.
The rest of the album doesn’t slouch from there, either. “Big Back Hole” starts out with finely plucked grand piano notes before the rest of the band gradually claws their way into the mix, and then Slattery just goes completely batshit with his Don Music-like hammering. Genn offers the rousing “It’s time to cut the umbilical cord / And stand up on your own”, and by that point, I’m feeling like maybe I should get out and run a 5K marathon or something with such stimulating platitudes. Thankfully, things get brought down in the amazing sequencing of this compilation by putting the lush ballad “Back When You Were Good” up next. Once again, Slattery makes his case for being a modern-day Liberace with his tinkling, and the song maintains a Bic-lighter-waving quality to it. The highlights keep coming from there. “Icarus” is a modern day rendering of the Greek myth, with Genn’s troubled past rearing its ugly head (“Like Icarus he flew too close to the sun / I know he felt that for a while there he must have had some fun”). A particular delight, too, is the driving “Narcissus Road” with its roaring chorus, which is musically just about as swooning a piece of British popular music that you’re going to hear.
There are a few stumbles. Ballad “I Miss You” is a bit syrupy, even by my Chicago-loving standards, and it seems a little out of place in the proceedings—particularly given the punk leanings of the record label the Hours call home in the States. Similarly displaced is the final cut “See the Light”, which feels more like an outtake or a bonus track, considering it is the only song on the album that is mainly lead by raging guitars and a sense of theatricality that wouldn’t be out of place on a latter day U2 song. And while the lyrics on this album are a call to arms to take action and are particularly moving at times, there is the occasional dud (“Twinkle twinkle little star / Who the fuck d’ya think you are?”).
Forget all that, though. It’s Not How You Start, It’s How You Finish is a solid collection of songs, which is made all the more startling in that it primarily comes from two separate albums. I’m not sure how the individual albums stack up, so cherry picking among the best songs from those records to create this statement might seem to be a bit of a cheat—maybe like doping yourself with steroids before going out on an Olympic sprint. Still, given the mad dash behind many of these songs, you’ll wind up cherishing the staggering hooks and left jabs to be found on It’s Not How You Start, It’s How You Finish. Maybe you haven’t heard of this band if you live outside of Britain, but one thing is definitely for certain. Aside from wanting to get a good jog in while listening to these songs, I want to jump on an airplane for the UK and hear these guys in a stadium somewhere just so I can sing along to “Ali in the Jungle” or “These Days”. All in all, it can be certainly said that a little time spent with the Hours is an occasion not wasted.