What do Slobadan Milosovich, Mark Chapman, Rasputin, Idi Amin, Joseph Stalin and John Wayne Gacy have in common? Well apart from an assured place in the upper echelons of the 20th Century’s “Hall of Shame”, their portraits all feature, in grainy black and white, in a collage of the nefarious on the front sleeve of the Strays’ debut Le Futur Noir. In the centre of this rogues’ gallery sits a naked woman wearing a gas mask with “Le Futur Noir” sliced into her arm (referencing Richey Edwards of The Manic Street Preachers and his infamous “4 Real” act of self-mutilation). The CD itself is emblazoned with words like “Culture”, “Science”, “Capitalism”, “War” . . . you get the idea. The cards are on the table, then: this is not a record afraid to deal with BIG issues, right? In the tradition of bands like the MC5 and the Clash, they will be struggling with major political and economic concepts, right? A quick glance at the track listing with song titles such as “Start a Riot” and “Servant of the Gun” places them at the vanguard of a new revolution; fighting the good fight in the down and dirty rock ‘n’ roll trenches, right? Er no, wrong actually, far from it in fact. All this pomp and bluster acts simply as a smokescreen for the paucity of ideas within.
Let’s get one thing out of the way for starters. England-born lead singer and guitarist Toby Marriott is the son of the late Steve Marriott (of Small Faces and Humble Pie fame). It’s both unfair, and nonsensical, to compare the attributes and achievements of the children of the famous and successful to those of their parents, but it will happen nonetheless. All I’ll say on the matter is that those looking to trace the lineage of the high register cockney blues voice of Marriott Sr. will not find its legacy in the powerful, though ultimately empty, Kurt Cobain-ish rasp of his progeny. To be fair this power trio do generate an impressive amount of noise, but it all sounds contrived, so utterly devoid of meaning or originality.
Opener “Geneva Code” carries strong echoes of Nirvana’s tighter punkier moments, as well as Cobain’s more nihilistic pronouncements: “Wash away humanity, / Playing games destructively”. There’s even the faint whiff of At the Drive In in the rhythm guitar playing, but at only two minutes long it feels more like a fragment than a finished song. When Marriott sings “Another lie is what I crave” you can almost sense how easy it is to write this sort of generic sloganeering without it actually having to mean anything. Is the song about the controversy over Guantanamo Bay and its transgression of the Geneva convention? Who knows? The lyric sheet runs to ten lines, two of which are the repetition of “4-3-2-1”. Compared to this the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” is practically a dissertation length study of the British Monarchy. The lead guitar playing of Jeffrey Saenz is strong and furious but to what end?
“Block Alarm” opens with a chiming guitar riff reminiscent of Television, with a reggae-ish bass line that could have come straight from the Clash’s Paul Simonon. Marriott’s slurred vocals come on like a cross between Liam Gallagher and Pete Voss from Campag Velocet. You can imagine this earnest sludge whipping up the front row of a live audience as he snarls “Wake up, this is the CIA” but on record it sounds anaemic and pedestrian, desperate even. “You Are the Evolution” sounds like Oasis doing karaoke over a Libertines’ track, and doing it badly. Oasis for all their manifold flaws have never pretended to be anything other than a “meat and potatoes” rock band; in fact their best work deals with working class kids longing for the stardom they eventually achieved. The Strays’ fundamental problem is that their music, whilst catchy, is hugely derivative, but the posturing faux-political invective makes it even worse, for example “It’s not the N.R.A., / It’s not the F.C.C., / It’s just the enemy”. The overwhelming image is that of an adolescent scrawling the anarchy symbol on the back cover of their school book, and thinking that this passes for meaningful protest.
However, it’s not all bad. “This is Forever” reveals a more personal, vulnerable side to the band. Built around the repeated phrase “I never do anything right”, the guitar lines are clean and wistful, the singing more subdued and consequently more successful. The track feels more “grown up”, and musically not unlike something Interpol might come up with. The same goes for “Start a Riot”: when they extricate themselves from murky grunge production and snarling vocals it’s really not too bad; not great by any means, but not bad.
The longest track on the album clocks in at just over three minutes, and there is clearly a “get in and get out quick” mentality at work. There is nothing inherently wrong with that: Wire’s first two albums obeyed exactly the same rules of brevity and they were great. In this case, however, it just feels awfully shallow: no new territory is being charted, there are no surprises; the songs are brief because they are half-baked. The music is fundamentally O.K. Marriott’s singing is charged but unsure as to which side of the pond he is on, and therefore ultimately lacking in confidence and identity. If the band wanted to channel the anger and protest which is referenced on the album’s cover images (and so poorly realised in its lyrics and music) into a coherent sound, they would have done better to take a close look at the aforementioned Manic Street Preachers’ bleakly disturbing The Holy Bible. At least that album strikes its socio-political targets precisely and unambiguously. Instead this trite mishmash of punk, ska, grunge and britpop comes over like a tragic case of style over substance; in thrall to the past but unable to offer anything for the future, noir or otherwise.