British indie is in crisis. Just look at the leading lights: The Arctic Monkeys have been off the scene for nearing two years, and could easily collapse under the pressure to deliver another flawless album later this year. There’s Razorlight and the Kooks—two bands who have, in the past twelve months, released limp and unconvincing new albums. And the band generally regarded as the biggest band of UK indie, Oasis, released their debut fifteen years ago. They’re hardly regarded as cutting edge these days.
So it’s up to bands like bookish art-rockers the Maccabees, really, to take British indie into the next decade. To try out new things, to make it sound as refreshing as it did six-or-so years ago. They were the “mostly-likely-to” in the class of 2007, a band that, despite mostly delivering only serviceable-yet-unremarkable indie on debut Colour It In, ended the same album on a high-point with gentle, doe-eyed acoustic ditty “Toothpaste Kisses”, a huge radio hit in 2008 that hinted at greater things.
Two years later they’re back with this, their second album. And tellingly, there’s actually really nothing of a “Toothpaste Kisses” ilk on Wall Of Arms. The nearest they get is with beautiful closer “Bag of Bones”. Which means, like all great indie bands, the Maccabees are willing to stick to what they believe in, rather than have their upward trajectory dictated by the tastes of radio programmers.
There’s still intent, here, mind: On Wall of Arms you’ll find the Maccabees have grown up, and in the process rid them selves of the kind of youthful tendencies of the debut and replaced it with a darker, deeper sound. It’s still all sewn together with the kind of twee indie charm that once made British Sea Power so appealing, but without Colour It In’s inherent flimsiness.
The newer, fuller sound is partly down to producer Markus Dravs. He’s the guy responsible for producing Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, and it shows. The influence is everywhere, from the sonics of the album to the use of trumpets and keyboards on most tracks: usually subtly, but adding to the sound nonetheless. In fact, the thunderous intent of “Love You Better” is so blatantly Arcade Fire it could be a body double.
Frontman Orlando Weeks also appears to increasingly take inspiration from the Antony Hegarty school of singing; that is, of course, a vulnerable, almost-wobbly delivery—only in this case it isn’t always convincing. It’s something that works better on the slower, more tender tracks, although with the absence of any “Toothpaste Kisses Mk II” it leaves the vocals feeling, at times, a little out-of-place.
It’s just a minor gripe, though. For the most part, Wall of Arms is amazing, an album that’s a giant leap from the Maccabees’ 2007 debut. It’s obvious from the songwriting: “Can You Give It” and “Dinosaurs”—enormous tunes that are almost a world from Colour It In—probably sound most like potential hits.
And while the lack of any hush-voiced acoustic tracks may turn some away, in fact Wall of Arms is an album that will give more the more time you give it. It’s expansive without being overblown, meticulous without being tedious, and hints at even greater things come album three. Crisis? What crisis?
// Notes from the Road
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