Named after a bourgeois curry franchise, Bombay Bicycle Club made quite a stir a few years ago with EPs The Boy I Used to Be and How We Are. These records issued the band’s signature sound, and were as creamy white and tempered as those restaurants’ interiors. There was a politeness to them, perhaps a lack of bite. It turns out that this has been the band’s staple ever since, but there was also a restless creativity to those EPs that helped to push them to the top of the UK Indie Charts.
There was just a dash of unaffected attitude to them, so Bombay Bicycle Club’s current reluctance to rock out hints at a self-serious sophistication, a stand-in for the squealing noise made by their many peers. Nevertheless, these early records were lovely. Pinned by vocalist and guitarist Jack Steadman’s quivering, pining voice, they told of a maturity and a dynamism that reached far beyond their 16 years.
They carried those records’ best songs—“The Hill”, “Sixteen”, and “Ghost”—into last year’s debut, I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose. It was, perhaps, less successful than their avid fan base had hoped, and it met mixed reviews. It was also a slow burner, and it was easy to mistake this for their being tedious, or having simply not applied enough thrust to their music. However, there were occasions on this record when they threatened to burst, to make good on their promising teenage kicks. Yet they largely kept it restrained, so these moments of overdrive were merely points of punctuation. The new material failed to match the old and, excepting “Dust on the Ground”, “What If”, and lead single “Always Like This”, it wasn’t an easy album to love. Only the album closer, “The Giantess”, hinted at the band’s new folk-based direction, and even that was kitted with an electronic beat.
To support I Had the Blues, Bombay Bicycle Club played a series of acoustic showcases. They are continuing to do this to support Flaws. At those gigs, the band’s singular, devastating flaw became apparent: the star of Bombay Bicycle Club is Jack Steadman. The rest of the band are certainly competent, but Steadman combines the songwriting engine, the vocal force, and the instrumental prowess to shine brighter than the rest of them combined. It’s likely that he’ll go solo at some point, and it’s likely that this will be successful. It’s also likely that Flaws was made largely at his command.
Flaws is the loveliest sound of a band totally losing the plot. While still polite, the band are earthier, more pastoral, but they sound a little homeless. Perhaps they can’t decide if they’re from the deep South, the Midwest, or from deep within the English countryside. Perhaps they’re equally as trapped by the calloused fingertips of folk as they are the grubby fingernails of post-punk.
Of course, Steadman dominates. He leads the band through the plains of “Dust on the Ground”, borrowed from I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose. He also makes them wait at the crossroads of “Leaving Blues”. Surprisingly, it’s not a Leadbelly cover. It is, however, utterly, devastatingly, beautiful.
The album’s sense of displacement—geographically; from the band’s back catalogue; from the expectations of genre confines and pigeonholes—makes it a confusing whole. The triplets of “Ivy and Gold” and “My God” make way for gorgeous vocal harmonies, and “Rinse Me Down” is both open and intimate. However, Flaws suffers because there’s little in the way of logical progression between it and its predecessors. Bombay Bicycle Club’s move from indie belligerence to bucolic folk doesn’t signal a development in their sound. Instead, it just seems like they’re being inconstant. Only on closer “Swansea” does the band branch out, embellishing their sound with keyboards and drums treated with dollops of reverb. Perhaps where “The Giantess” indicated their move towards folk, “Swansea” indicates their move towards mournful psychedelic pop. Its drones are layered and there’s an interesting interplay between electronic and organic sound. It would be very interesting to hear Bombay Bicycle Club explore this sound further.
It’s far more original then any of their previous efforts. However, where Flaws diverges so far from what we expect, it’s likely that any further experimentation would make the band lose focus entirely.
// Notes from the Road
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