[21 September 2006]
To find the band responsible for one of the very best albums of 2006, start at the end of the alphabet and look for Liverpool’s rockin’ pop quintet, the Zutons. Ignore the goofball name, if you can. The band are firmly rooted in solid tradition, melding hook-riddled British pop to American rock ‘n’ roll swagger, with enough of a modern indie vibe to hang with the Franz Ferdinand crowd.
Their debut full-length, 2004’s Who Killed the Zutons, was the band finding its sound. Indie pop with a blues-rock base, that first album was a little jittery and insular. Although quite solid (it went gold in the UK), it showed promise rather than unleashing a fully realized sound. And it did little to separate the band from the pack. It’s a tricky balance, offering just enough of the expected sound while still announcing a unique identity. Now it’s two years later, and the Zutons have issued their follow-up, Tired of Hanging Around. The intervening years of touring have done wonders for the band, who really strut and stride on this excellent sophomore album. Singer/guitarist David McCabe’s voice has ripened, and he’s become a damn fine frontman whose confident, textured voice could fill an arena. Meanwhile, the rest of the band have turned their tensions inside-out, shaking their hips through these eleven tracks of super-catchy rock ‘n’ pop.
A lot of young lyricists fear specificity. Or, maybe, they just don’t know how to properly wield the power of a seemingly mundane detail. David McCabe, however, understands that a song about feeling left behind is richer when it has a bus in it. I’m not talking about a bus as metaphor, either. In the boogie-beat title track, McCabe’s tale of anxiety in a fast-paced world pivots around an actual bus and the chain reaction fueled when “down at the station a diver leaves late”, and how “he’s oblivious to all the pain that he’s caused”. In the fabulous single “Valerie”, McCabe pines for the titular girl he left behind, wondering what’s become of her: “Did you have to go to jail, / put your house on up for sale, did you get a good lawyer?”. Hmm, sounds like this woman is trouble! But the soulful ache of the Stax-era R&B groove will have you, too, longing for that “dizzy” girl with the “ginger hair”.
Speaking of the rhythm and the blues, did I forget to mention that the Zutons sport a female sax player? And Abi Harding, herself, sports a great set of gams, as she happily displays in the band photo in the liner notes, where she’s donning a mini-skirt and red strappy heels during a simulated rainstorm. But don’t love her because she’s got nice legs; adore her for reviving the saxophone as a viable element in a pop/rock band. Yes, we can finally lay to rest all those old Quarterflash cassettes. The group is rounded out by Boyan Chowdhury on hot-toned lead guitar, bassist Russ Pritchard, and Sean Payne on drums.
Although not mere revivalists, the Zutons borrow plenty from all aspects of the ‘70s. “Oh Stacey (Look What You’ve Done” is mid-decade Bowie. No, they’re not young Americans, but, like the Thin White Duke, the Zutons know the sweet, sweet power of blue-eyed soul and how to make the music sweat and weep. On “Why Won’t You Give Me Your Love”, another UK single, they mix glam with a dash of punk-pop, with McCabe and Harding joining in a harmonized sneer. Meanwhile, the album’s closer, “I Know I’ll Never Leave”, owes a debt to Led Zep for the sultry blues at its core.
I can’t help but hear the sounds of Memphis on Tired of Hanging Around. The Zutons are a UK pop band delving into the belly of American R&B-based rock ‘n’ roll. This is hardly without precedent, and influences like the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and the Jam all congeal together in perfect proportions on this great sophomore release. Produced by Stephen Street, famous for his work with the Smiths and Blur, Tired of Hanging Around is warm, vibrant, tight, and crackling in just the right places. I’ve mentioned some of my favorite songs, but the complete list would start at song one and finish at 11. That’s how thoroughly good this record is.