We Were Promised Jetpacks has the sort of name your meathead freshman-year roommate would suggest for a band: ambiguously ironic, nominally funny, appealing to a sort of lowest common-denominator pop-punk crowd. Actually, most of the Scottish acts with which the young group is affiliated have the types of names that make me embarrassed to mention them in discussion (Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad). But that’s on me – all three of these bands make vital, engaging rock music with hardly a hint of preadolescent twee to be found, no matter what their monikers might imply.
The Edinburgh quartet gathered a steady heap of buzz in the last several years, stemming from their debut record, These Four Walls (2009), a sleeper hit of anthemic, yearning rock. Much of the praise for the group came, too, from their rollicking live shows, perfect showcases for their build-and-release formula and frontman Adam Thompson’s powerful pipes. Is it possible to write a We Were Promised Jetpacks review without using the word “brogue”? Yes, Thompson’s thick accent inflates his songs with a heady romanticism when played for American ears, and he remains the star of the show on his band’s much-awaited follow-up album, In the Pit of the Stomach.
Stomach doesn’t see We Were Promised Jetpacks pulling any punches. The record employs many of the same dynamics that made Walls’ best moments so thrilling. Like that record, too, Stomach is uneven. When Jetpacks hit its mark, it really does. When it doesn’t, the results plod along with a workmanlike serviceability. Compare the opener from Walls, “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning,” with the opener from Stomach, “Circles and Squares”. Both tracks begin with a tone of urgent melancholy before shifting into a kick-drum fuelled power-chord workout. However, where “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning” takes its time, building beautifully toward an honest-to-god cathartic release, “Circles and Squares” hits the ground running, all immediate squall and (sorry) thundering guitars. The difference between the two songs serves as a model for the difference between the albums: Walls showed an almost fundamentalist devotion to the crescendo, whereas Stomach opts for pure, consistent volume as a way to grab the listener’s attention.
Unfortunately, when you don’t have a moment to catch your breath, things tend to go by in a blur. It can be difficult to distinguish the songs on Stomach once the album has finished. The sense of encroaching doom, a rising tide of energy, that made tracks like “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning” and “Ships with Holes Will Sink” so exciting is mostly absent here. But Stomach still delivers in its finest fare. “Sore Thumb” displays Jetpacks’ wonderful ability to blend unapologetically pretty melodies with guitar-driven muscle. Similarly, “Boy in the Backseat” and “Hard to Remember” have enough raw grit to propel them toward greatness.
Strangely, In the Pit of the Stomach is best digested as a whole, a big block of chugging guitars and fist-pumping earnestness. For a record that doesn’t at all attempt to reinvent the two-guitars-bass-drums toolkit of punk-inflected modern indie rock, it’s fundamental whole ends up being greater than its parts. If it ain’t broke, et cetera. And, furthermore, if you can’t have an album of distinct, unique, challenging songs, perhaps it’s best to slather on the heart-on-sleeve atmospherics and crank the volume up to 11. You could do worse to get your pulse going.