[28 September 2010]
Juju and Nez make up Little Fish, a UK guitar-and-drums duo that manages to synthesize pop musicianship with punk energy. What saves the music from being horrid pop-punk a la Sum 41 or Good Charlotte is the fact that singer/guitarist Juju conveys both a sense of humor and a sense of angst, rarely falling into the traps of taking herself too seriously—or not taking her music seriously enough. The debut album Baffled and Beat serves up a dozen tightly wound guitar/drum workouts with musicianship varied enough to maintain interest, but what really carries the album is Juju’s weary, anxious, and surprisingly melodious voice—sounding something like a cross between PJ Harvey and Chrissie Hynde but very much its own instrument.
Album opener “Darling Dear” is the strongest cut on the record, which means the rest of the album will inevitably struggle against anticlimax. But what the hell: it’s a great song, seesawing between two chords throughout its four minutes, playing with dynamics and ending with a hair-raising squeal that is, frankly, unlike any I’ve heard on record before. This song in itself is enough to warrant giving the rest of the album a listen—if there were any justice in the world, it would be a massive hit—and happily there are enough highlights here to make it worthwhile.
But not right away. The band missteps bit after this strong opening, struggling through its weakest song, “Bang Bang,” before edging into the creepy but sluggish “Am I Crazy?” Juju shrills in the chorus, “I am inclined to fall in love with you,” but it’s not altogether clear whether this is a desirable outcome or not.
Things pick up again around “Heroin Dance,” a positively hummable tune, which exchanges the expected bang-em-out guitar chords with gentle strumming. The song crescendoes nicely and leads to “Sweat N Shiver,” another song whose pop sensibility—zippy verses, layered vocals, bubbling organ underneath the hubbub—marries an edgy, punky attitude. It’s worth noting that although the band is a two-piece, there are plenty of sounds on display: bass, keyboard, layered guitars and vocals all fill out the soundscape, underpinned by Nez’s solid drumming. The sonic palette is full, although the overall vibe remains stripped-down and urgent.
The back half of the record continues the vibe and keeps the lively tunes coming. “You, Me and the TV” is another two-chord workout that answers the question, “What might Lou Reed have sounded like if he had been born a woman in England?” This is followed by mid-tempo scorcher “Die Young”—probably the second-best song on the record—and love-it-or-hate-it piano ballad “Luck’s Run Out.”
A trio of strong songs close out the album. “Whiplash” is a frenetic workout featuring cat-scratching-the-strings guitar work and hiccupy, squealed vocals. “Hallelujah” is a slow song that starts off with minimal musical accompaniment and angsty lyrics along the lines of, “Dying we’re told is easy, so why’s living so God damn hard?” Cue drums. Album closer “Sorry State” is kind of slow, kind of sad, kind of unexpected.
There’s no shortage of two-piece bands around these days, but Little Fish have earned a little niche of their own with this strong debut.