The Boxer Rebellion: The Cold Still

[10 February 2011]

By Matt James

I’ll be honest: I’ve always been a tad skeptical about the Boxer Rebellion. The bands seems to thrive on those psychic music websites that mysteriously decree because you love ‘X’ you must also like ‘Y’. On further investigation, the Boxer Rebellion merely offered itself as a ‘School Musical’ version of the ‘Bigger Boys’ (U2, Radiohead, REM, etc). “Behind the Raybans and plaid shirts they were merely infants!” You could almost hear them bickering backstage over who was going to be Bono. They just seemed over-sincere, over-earnest, and lacked the pathos and sly wit of their peers. Essentially, why have Spam when you can have steak? But by God, they were persistent. Like some little tireless puppy snapping at your heels longing to play, the Boxer Rebellion return carrying album number three in their square jaws. And this time they’ve brought the legendary Ethan Johns, the go-to-man to get one’s mojo risin’. Was it finally time to sit down and face each other, mano a mano, and see who blinked first? I think so…

[Forty minutes later] People of the jury I put this to you: The Cold Still is, for all intents and purposes, a bar band valentine to Radiohead’s back catalogue. Initially, you’d think muchos kudos and start handing out medals, shaking hands, and kissing babies. OK Computer? The Bends? All obviously amazing. It could’ve been worse. A pub rock salute to Christina Aguilera’s Bionic, for example. Although to be honest that would’ve at least packed some shock ‘n’ awe. But alas the news is not all good. No, The Cold Still ultimately, erm, left me cold. It treads so reverentially in giants’ footsteps that it offers no lasting impression other than a compelling desire to slip into something a little less comfortable. From the rolling drums of the stirring, spectral “No Harm” to the stripped down finale “Doubt”, this is an album big on stadium atmospherics, but little in the way of risks, thrills, or genuine excitement. Basically, there’re scarce alarms and no surprises.

Those Radiohead comparisons are unavoidable. The Cold Still becomes its own “Match That Radiohead Track” game. This starts off pretty exciting and can be played with up to four adults. “Oooh, easy! Hide the stash someone’s called the “Karma Police” (“No Harm”)! SHABOOM!” “Look to the sky, hombre, here’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien” (“Caught by the Light”) GOTCHA!” “Who’s that knocking on my door? Why it’s only Burke & Hare, the “Bodysnatchers” (“Step Out of the Car”) SNAP!” Hours of fun guaranteed. Well OK, about ten minutes. After that you’ll lose interest and be reading the newspaper whilst randomly shouting, tourettes-style, whatever obscure early Radiohead B-side comes into your head first. Or, just for fun, throwing in the odd U2 oddity just to mess with folk’s minds.

It’s no exaggeration—top Boxer Nathan Nicholson (who undeniably has a majestic tone) has captured Thom Yorke’s angelic butterfly vocal perfectly. He tip-toes and flutters across each song before inevitably swooping into the crisp night air with a falsetto finale. But you can’t escape picturing him wobbling his noggin from side to side, peepers shut, lost in the hoopla. A dimly lit room, the rest of the band shoegazing intently, doodling jazz hands over their instruments. There’s the same mix of teary angst (“As quick as the hope I was living on / It’s gone!”) and looped schizo threats (“I will lock you down / Oh, I will”) rocking themselves to sleep in the psychiatric ward. The arrangements favour ‘The Firework Approach’. First, simmer and hiss atmospherically (preferably acoustically). Then starburst an exploding rainbow across the sky (everyone play fast at the same time, repeat key slogan like a mantra). Finally, crash back down to earth, drained and burnt out (a weary vocal sigh). Musically, it all sounds de-lovely, wonderfully polished and hell them darn kids can play, but the unoriginality makes you cringe. When Nicholson spins into a bloody crescendo of “LOVE AND HATE! LOVE AND HAAAATE!”, I felt embarrassed for the lad. I didn’t know where to look. Each twist, every turn, is totally expected and blindingly signposted miles in advance. It’s all Radiohead 101 but consistently unconvincing, somewhat dreary, joyless, and, well, daft. 

There are moments however when they dispatch their Radiohead robes to the dry cleaners and shelter in others’ gladrags. This produces unexpected—CUE EXCITEMENT!—and wonderful results. “Organ Song” is uplifting, invigorating, and made me throw my newspaper down dramatically and stare deep, deep into the heart of the speakers. It’s like Dylan’s “Series of Dreams” on Viagra. Trumpeted by, well, a massive organ introduction and tribal drums, it compelled me to initiate an elaborate victory dance around the living room. Meanwhile, “Locked in the Basement” has one slipper in Fleet Foxes’ allotment and another in Mumford & Sons’ back garden. Again, folky loveliness grows underfoot. “I don’t want anything if I’m without you”. Awww.

Besides the compelling, adults-only ‘Match That Radiohead Track Game’TM, The Cold Still offers 40 minutes of slick, competent, widescreen angst. However, for anyone who already owns a copy of OK Computer or The Bends, its hard not to drift off to Sleepytown after the first listen (or worse, halfway through). There is just such little originality, no individuality, no curious spark. It swiftly becomes such a predictable ride you could pull over at track three, improvise the rest of the journey yourself, and still reach the same destination. I admire their plucky, (if ironic) independent ambition as a band, but by album trois, true artists should be finding their own way musically too. Savvy Radiohead fans jonesing for a fix of sharp, mysterious rock would be better advised to take Warpaint for a mistress whilst they wait for their lovers return. Ultimately, in the style of our telepathic wizards at iTunes and Amazon, it comes down to this—if you ‘love’ Radiohead you may also ‘like’ the Boxer Rebellion. But good people of Earth, why just ‘like’ when you can ‘LOVE! LOVE! LOVE!’. Immerse your soul, only, in love.

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