If there’s any type of debut album that ever suffers the least criticism and receives the most respect, yet ultimately boasts the fewest sales, it’s the one by the young, trendily dressed, preferably indie band who choose to see the world through glum-tinted glasses. Blame the Smiths.
Which is not to say that Bombay Bicycle Club’s debut deserves to be panned, falling as it does into the above bracket. A teenage, middle-class group of friends who are neither from Bombay nor a Bicycle Club, this four-piece employ many of the tricks and take inspiration from the same mid-‘80s artists as the Maccabees did on their recent sophomore set, Wall of Arms. Which, in indie circles, makes Bombay Bicycle Club more now than an outbreak of swine flu.
I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose is the result of three years’ gigging and single releases in between homework and exams—after winning Virgin Mobile’s “Road to V” new band competition, ahead of fellow London favourites-to-win the Holloways. Now, on paper it’s all starting to seem a bit too good to be true. Add to this the fact that I Had the Blues was produced by former Arctic Monkeys knob-twiddler Jim Abbiss, and Bombay Bicycle Club could very well collapse under the weight of expectation.
Let’s start with singer Jack Steadman’s voice: For many this’ll be the make-or-break point. Somewhere between Editors’ Tom Smith’s dark, determined delivery and Antony and the Johnsons’ quivery whine, it belies the fact he’s barely old enough to buy a beer. Coupled with the wiry guitars that underpin it, it occasionally makes for difficult listening. A recent single, “Dust on the Ground”, for example, is almost as unlovable as a bad Joy Division cover—in fact, that’s exactly what it sounds like.
But while Bombay Bicycle Club rarely seem to be acting their age, at times the dark vagueness of their lyrics is welcome. “Lamplight” is fantastic, beautifully written, and a perfect example of how literate the group can be during their better moments. ‘‘Evening/Morning’’ is even better, effectively building under a crystal clear riff, and, in lines such as “I’m ready to owe you anything”, it embodies the loveless-teen spirit perfectly.
It’s when Bombay Bicycle Club lighten up and try something different that they really come alive. The final track, “The Giantess”, is a totally unexpected surprise, coming as it does after 11 tracks of tormented vocals and temperamental guitars. It’s a beautiful, delicately plucked acoustic conclusion that’s more in line with what you’d expect from the likes of Fleet Foxes. A glimpse of the band’s future or simply a one-off acoustic foray?
There’s an itchy-footed, paranoid restlessness about I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose, suggesting they haven’t fully shook loose those blues. Which is a shame. But while I Had the Blues is a serviceable debut that doesn’t really disappoint but rarely shines, it does suggest that Bombay Bicycle Club have a promising future. Hopefully they’ll have something to smile about next time.