[23 July 2009]
There must be something in the water up there, as the debut by Fat Cat’s latest signing from Northern Britain attests. Like their compatriots and labelmates Frightened Rabbit, We Were Promised Jetpacks fuse types of (mainly North American) alternative music with a raw, almost religious sensibility—passionate, heart-on-sleeve, and very Scottish. It’s interesting to compare this to Edinburgh’s Withered Hand, who gets at the passion but with a wry, anti-folk/slack rock-inspired sensibility on his EP Religious Songs. Common influences are evident here too: post-hardcore plays a role, Fugazi, post-rock (lots of posts, basically)—side streets of music which are pretty well explored in Scotland amongst a certain kind of indie kid. The rawness of these roots are moulded into a poppier, more sentimental sound on this record.
Song lyrics are repeated over and over, like prayers in a rosary: “can’t even sing the words / I’m far too shameful” on “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning”, “you’re just a conductor” for the singer’s electricity on “Conductor”, and “it’s winter / and I can wait till summer” on “Roll Up Your Sleeves”. This last one is a banging indie rocker, mining the same subject matter of unrequited love that has inspired some fantastic songs (“What Difference Does It Make?” being perhaps the classic of the genre); the lyrics are straight, prosaic, sometimes violent, always sincere-sounding. This can be good and bad, however—vocals can be set to rousing too often, and the effect is dulled.
Back to influences, though—one can hear the digital delay pedal-inflected guitars of Explosions In The Sky and the more cacophonous crescendo scree of Mogwai on many parts of the record. But these sounds are integrated into their sound rather than being obvious pastiche—the epic eight-minute-plus post-rocker “Keeping Warm”, with its slow-burning cymbal and glockenspiel-heavy buildup, nods to the Texan group before continuing on its own somewhat bombastic way, seguing into hi-hat driven indie disco-rock. Though We Were Promised Jetpacks are certainly an indie band—in both the record label sense and the harder to define but easy to identify sensibility (beyond reference points like the Wedding Present)—they are unafraid of veering into solid, inoffensive cheddar cheese. The sincerity of the lyrics sometimes doesn’t help this, but levity isn’t what they’re going for, really.
They also are tentative experimenters in form. “A Half Built House” is a nice, albeit slight try for a Pause-era Four Tet instrumental; you can’t fault them for this kind of excursion, and it gets some creepy atmospherics down before leading into “This Is My House, This Is My Home”. All the same, emo-inflected, heart-on-sleeve indie rock numbers like the single “Quiet Little Voices” outnumber this impulse, which I can’t help but think is as a result of first album-inspired shooting in the dark. “Short Bursts” is also a potential single, with its euphoric, high-speed, jangly guitar á David Gedge or Live ‘69 Velvet Underground.
Throughout, the singer’s Glaswegian-accented vocals are prominent (a million miles away from the faux soul crooning of Orange Juice’s canonical indie pop), and they occasionally soar. It’s interesting to think of the motivation behind this, whether he’s consciously trying to not sound American or mannered British. Ideologically it fits with their lyrics, and the “realness” they try to convey. You don’t doubt the sincerity, but it sometimes seems a bit too earnest, a bit hard to swallow, for these ears at least. (Disclosure: I frequently lament the fact that a new Moldy Peaches haven’t emerged.) Still, a promising debut, and I’ll bet they’re ace live.