Aside from the lovably inept Libertines and the brief, fun interlude that was Darkness-mania a year ago, the future for new British rock music was not looking bright at all in 2002 and 2003. In fact, after the post-1997 wave of Radiohead-inspired acts, some good (Mansun, Muse, Coldplay, Travis), others not so good (Keane, Snow Patrol), there hasn’t been much to get excited about at all when it came to good guitar-based rock music. When clean-cut kiddiepunk band Busted! have the only decent guitar rock song on the UK top 20, then you know there’s a bit of a problem.
Salvation has come in 2004, however. Although the hippest and most thrilling new British music over the last couple years has been the wave of urban artists hailing from the tiny, concentrated area in London’s East End, up in the northern half of that sceptred isle, the kids have taken to the guitars in a big way, using early ‘80s post punk as their template. Glasgow’s beloved Mercury Prize winners Franz Ferdinand have singlehandedly saved British rock with their danceable, ebullient take on Joy Division’s classic sound, and in one of the most pleasantly surprising stories of the year, have managed to conquer North America like neither Blur nor Oasis could do 10 years ago. Fife, Scotland’s Dogs Die in Hot Cars have played the XTC shtick with mildly impressive results, and while they have yet to realize their potential, hard-working Leeds band The Music are brimming with raw talent. Hailing from the small northeastern English city of Sunderland, The Futureheads appear to be the one band who are poised to follow in Franz Ferdinand’s footsteps, and if their debut album is any indication, Stateside success beckons.
If Franz Ferdinand’s album is oozing with enough style to convince even the most jaded indie rock fans to dance, The Futureheads’ debut album is bound to bring pogoing back in vogue. The music is just as pop-oriented as Franz, but it comes in an extremely tightly-wound package, heaps of energy compressed into 14 tracks that span 34 insanely quick minutes. Brimming with stuttering, twitching tension, the music winds tighter and tighter, only to be released in an explosion of energy during the all-too-brief choruses, before returning to tightening the screws even more. It’s positively dizzying during the first few listens, but once listeners start to differentiate between each song, this album’s sly pop rock genius is obvious.
Of course, as with any new record that has the kind of biting guitars we lazy critics love to describe as “angular”, the usual comparisons to old post punk favorites immediately spring to mind when hearing The Futureheads, such as The Jam, XTC, and Adam & the Ants. Not only that, but the fact that it was produced by former Gang of Four member Andy Gill further adds to the temptation to blithely label the music as yet another in the ever-growing parade of young bands who sound stuck in the early ‘80s, but dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that under the early ‘80s posturing lies a strong ‘60s pop quality. The fact is, these kids can sing, and they put their vocal talents to astonishingly good use.
You can’t get any further away from post punk than do wop, and upon hearing those vocal harmonies that kick off “Le Garage”, it’s enough to remind any listener (any Canadian listener, anyway) of the irritating ‘90s a cappella group Moxy Fruvous, whose bid to lead a barbershop quartet revival sent many screaming in the opposite direction. However, when drummer Pete Brewis’s snare fills kick in, and the rest of the band, led by singer/guitarist Barry Hyde (whose voice bears a similarity to the English Beat’s Dave Wakeling), launch into an exuberant burst of old-fashioned garage rock, it’s clear The Futureheads now how to use such vocal harmonies to their advantage, as three, sometimes four different singers pop in throughout the record.
“Decent Days and Nights” is an exuberant single, made all the more charming by the band’s gentle Northern accents, “A to B” contains some of the albums more lilting melodies, while the bouncy melody of “He Knows” masks a rather grim tale of a child abduction that ends tragically (“The authorities weren’t pleased when they couldn’t bring her home”). “Man Ray” namechecks photographic legends Man Ray and Edward Weston, but like a young Charles Thompson referencing Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, the meaning of the song is deliberately vague, the lyrical rhythms fitting well with the band’s performance (“Touch yourself, touch yourself, touch each other in black and white”). The most fun is had on the uproarious “First Day”, an hilarious description of an office worker’s nervous first day at an office, as co-workers declare proudly, “This is the job that people die for.”
Best of the lot is the astounding cover of Kate Bush’s mid-‘80s classic “Hounds of Love”, which combines a goofy, over the top rendition of the original song’s vocal harmonies, with a youthful energy that evokes The Only Ones’ immortal 1978 single “Another Girl, Another Planet”. The performance is so great, in fact, that it tends to distract from the rest of the album, the band’s original compositions not quite measuring up to this cover. Still, it’s one of the more enjoyable debuts of 2004, and if the songwriting continues to improve, The Futureheads just might be the next band of Brits to take America by storm.