First off, the Crookes are very good at what they do — crafting tight, catchy pop songs. Unfortunately, what they’re just as adept at doing is sounding very much like a variety of bands that came before them. Despite their critical lauding, with second LP Hold Fast, the English quartet still comes across as a young band caught up in emulating their idols, rather than taking up their mantel and running forward with it. In a sense, their name is apt (just kidding; their name is taken from a suburb in their native Sheffield).
The group is steeped in the heritage of their English forbearers, Hold Fast‘s 11 punchy songs running quite a gamut of disparate artists’ influence. The Stone Roses, Blur and the Smiths, and maybe a dash of early Who, are the most obvious points of reference, though the hallmarks of more antiquated genres are ingredients in the stew as well, most notably on the doo-wop or Motown soul of “The Cooler King”. Aping aside, the Crookes do have an undeniable knack for writing songs that are at once immediate and light-hearted. Take your pick of adjectives to characterize the album in a single word — jaunty, jangly, whimsical, rollicking. Each song here features a simple yet memorable melody, the kind that lingers in your head for days and is difficult to shake out. The downside to that, though, is it almost seems the songs’ verses are mere pretext for their choruses, the fast tempos rushing toward the sing-along refrains, cathartic and heady as they may be. (And whether you like the songs or not, good luck keeping your foot from tapping along to them.)
Opener “Afterglow” thrives in urgency, all humming bass and spark-spewing guitar lines. It’s a song that strikes the urge in the listener to get behind the wheel of a car and speed off without regard, sounding best when taking a sharp turn. The jubilant chorus of “whoa-oh-oh” backing vocalist George Waite, a go-to move lacing several of the record’s refrains, amplifies the piece’s resonating effect. With the title track, the Crookes somehow wed post-punk guitar frenzy to a surf rock rhythm to shape a surging and uplifting ditty. The lo-fi, a capella intro of “American Girls” is a particularly affecting moment of the album, quickly segueing into a Brian Jonestown Massacre-tinged bit of psychedlia. The literary references abound on the On The Road-inspired “Sal Paradise”, in which Waite laments “I can see Sal Paradise in your eyes” amid a dreamlike, languid melody harkening to an early Tim Buckley record. It’s interesting he picks the less celebrated protagonist of the Jack Kerouac novel, indicating he sees the lust for adventure in the person he’s addressing, but their diffidence as well, rather than the full-blooded, reckless abandon of Dean Moriarty.
Waite’s voice is the star of the record, mixed clearly and at the forefront of the sonic palette. His instrument is plaintive yet hopeful, or optimistic with a lining of weary sadness, depending on how you choose to perceive it. This dynamism is perfectly suited for conveying the vignettes of middle class ennui conveyed in most of the lyrics. He is tragically honest, indebted to nouveau Romanticism, though a tad melodramatic at times. The only criticism marring his voice is it is not above crossing into Damon Albarn territory.
Perhaps the grandest asset of the Crookes is the wordplay and puns that appear in their lyrics. Nearly every song on Hold Fast has a Paul Westerbergian turn-of-phrase, “I lost quick lovers / To sloe gin” of “American Girls” and the sardonic “You’re the perfect / Second best” of “Maybe in the Dark” ranking among the wittiest nuggets. Such cleverness, along with Waite’s voice, lends the songs the ability to be taken as either idealistic or pessimistic.
Lyrical shrewdness aside, the Crookes’ remain in need of a more defined identity to distance themselves from the indie pop pack. As T.S. Eliot famously said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” That adage applies to musicians as well, and with Hold Fast, the Crookes are still struggling to advance beyond artistic immaturity and assert themselves on ground they can stake as their own. Despite the Crookes’ songwriting chops, Hold Fast fails to offer anything that hasn’t been heard before, in some cases, decades previously.
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