What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish.
Woah. That’s pretty badass.
—Ross Langager, upon seeing the cover of the new Subways album
By all rights, the Subways should be a guilty pleasure. There they are, cutely energetic Brits from the Home Counties who sound like Californian rock-radio mainstays, laying down power chords like railroad ties and driving home the hooks like spikes. They rock undeniably out, without a hint of either hipster pretense or mainstream recumbence, and with plenty of hopping. They are best known in America for selling teen-soap tie-in soundtracks with a gloriously dumb rocker demanding that you “be my little rock and roll queen”. By any reasonable measure, they should simply be consumed and forgotten, as that dead poet suggested, to be inevitably replaced by the new.
But what it is about the pleasure afforded by a band like the Subways that must necessarily be preconditioned by guilt? These twelve barreling tunes (or nine, anyway; more on the subtler outings in a bit) certainly don’t challenge your worldview, or enrapture with their boundless creativity, or deconstruct the basic assumptions of established popular music. But why should we distrust the pure surge of pleasure such impeccably-rendered sugar-rush rock provides? Is enjoyment that isn’t lashed tightly to intellectual insight so aesthetically suspect? Are we all closet Freudians, fretting and uptight and requiring ourselves to transcend our rampaging ids in order to stand out among a festering social cesspool of slavering, sex-mad reptilians?
I mean, the limeys put a bloody flaming airborne car on their album cover! You were expecting Finnegan’s Wake?
Let’s be honest: the Subways have their shit together. From the start, there is nary a misstep to be decried. All or Nothing‘s lead single, “Girls & Boys”, is no winking pop ode to gender-bending like the Blur classic, but is a killer modern-rock stew of Britpop chime, towering power-chord monoliths, and soaring melodic trade-offs between Billy Lunn and Charlotte Cooper. Some Cobainesque screams are even thrown in at the end, for grunge measure. The polished hand of producer Butch Vig is clear, though no amount of expensive production can manufacture the swaggering attitude that permeates every track.
The clichés should be overwhelming: the guttural “ugh"s in “Kalifornia”, the fist-pumping shouts of “Shake! Shake!”, the “yeah”-heavy chorus of “Turnaround”. But there’s more at work here than meets the ear. For all its predictable elements, “Turnaround” beguiles with Cooper’s girl-band countermelody and Lunn’s closing uvula-scraper “You gotta believe!” The Subways haven’t the restless dynamism or the biting, observant wit of their countrymen the Arctic Monkeys, but they don’t simply layer distortion on like cake icing masking a shoddy baking job. There’s a steady hand at the tiller of their song structures. It may indeed be Vig, but a band doesn’t build up the kind of slavish live following the Subways have cultivated at the Reading and Leeds festivals without their fair share of chops.
As if to prove it, the Subways lay off the unforgiving rocking now and then to let Lunn indulge his latent acoustic-emo singer/songwriter side. It’s curious to register how much more British Lunn sounds when he does this, especially in comparison to his flattened American syllabic outbursts that prevail on the faster tunes. It doesn’t hurt that Lunn’s lyrical choices in the ballads encourage the Albion associations, particularly the mention of the Irish Sea and the casually prim pronunciation of “Glasgow” in “Move to Newlyn” (which itself is a town in Cornwall, natch). The other lower-key exercises also provide some color. Album-closer “Lost Boy” is a lovely composition, extremely reminiscent of Australian folk-popper Josh Pyke in its breezy melody and striking banjo. It’s kind of the “Butterfly” to the rest of the record’s Pinkerton, a simply soulful counterpoint to the brassy abandon that swirled before it. “Strawberry Blonde” doesn’t linger in the quieter registers, but wrings ample affect out of Lunn’s sensitive bookends: “You’re the wind / I’m the weathervane / You’re the strawberry blonde / And I’m the grey”.
All or Nothing has all of nothing wrong with it, unless you want to make an argument that that’s what’s wrong with it. Some would, but I won’t. Are the Subways the rock equivalent of a chewy chocolate bar, rich and delicious and sweet, but ultimately insubstantial and equally bad for your health? Probably. So nibble away righteously at indie rock’s organic vegetables, if you would. I’ll be wolfing down Subways-brand choco-treats, blasting “I Won’t Let You Down”, igniting the hood, and accelerating for that jump ramp. See you in hell, Auden.
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// Notes from the Road
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