[14 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Servants were a strange case, a band beset by bad timing and bad luck. It’s easy to place all this bad luck at the feet of singer-songwriter David Westlake, since he’s the only member of the band that didn’t go on to success with other Britpop acts, but listening to Captured Tracks new collections of the Servants’s music, in Small Time and Hey Hey We’re the Manques, you can’t help but feel this is a project that got sold short. It was Westlake’s vision and great songwriting, no doubt, but there’s an alchemy to some of these recordings that only comes from the right people in the right place at the right time. For the Servants, sadly, those three things—people, place, time—only converged briefly.
The band managed one proper full-length, 1990’s Disinterest, before it disbanded, and it was a great record. Angular but bittersweet, it only seems fitting in retrospect that Westgate’s voice constantly seems to be fighting to rise to the surface. His is a story of struggle, unfortunately, but the songs are intimate and bracing. Hey Hey We’re the Manques collects early takes of many of these songs, as well as others, and sheds light on a moment where the word that should have stuck to this band was promise, not disappointment (Manque, in French, is “unfulfilled”, by the way). These are scrappy versions, but they never lack in ambition. “Move Out” pits brittle, jangling guitars against tightwire hooks that Westgate’s voice walks cautiously along. “Third Wheel” is a fuzzy, bouncing gem, where the guitars work themselves into tight coils while Westgate and the keyboards deliver a sing-songy lilt. “Afterglow”, the big closer to Disinterest, is no less weighty here. It’s a far gauzier take, and the pace slows down to a moody shuffle, but these changes serve the song better than, perhaps, the shinier studio version did. Once again Westgate’s voice is deep in mix, almost inaudible, and yet he haunts it so effectively that the song mesmerizes in a way the album version came close to but missed.
There are tracks not from Disinterest that are just as great here, as well. “She Grew and She Grew” is a pop gem. Shimmering rundowns from the guitar shadow Westlake’s voice perfectly, highlighting the isolation as he sings of the girl who “only grew sad and withdrew / From this world that wouldn’t let her feel joy without regret.” Another great cut, “She Always Hiding” stretches the hooks out into dreamy layers of sound. Meanwhile, “They Should Make a Statue” is a lean, off-kilter tune that feels more feverish nightmare than wistful dream. These early tracks show a band with so many different directions to take such basic elements. And at the center of it all were Westlake’s incisive lyrics, his careful observations, and his voice that was equal parts theatrical and intimate.
If these songs are exciting for capturing the youthful energy of the band, the set on Small Time is the darker counterpart. These are the recordings that could have been the band’s second record, and are presented here as a sort of lost record. But the recordings just feature Westlake and bandmate Luke Haines, and they are essentially stripped down demos. That’s not to say they aren’t often very good, though. On “Everybody Has a Dream”, you can’t help but feel the frustration in a line like “People talk of despair / We know why they’re upset.” Westgate delivers it in a stifled melody while the song plunks along with acoustic guitars and light percussion. “Dating Then Waiting”, with its drawn out phrasings and repetitive strum, captures perfectly the vicious cycle of endless dating. “Let’s Live a Little” shuffles along brightly, and you can feel the players getting lost in the basic structure a bit. The canned feel of some of the other songs goes away as the strumming takes on a liveliness and the drums snap and roll away.
If these moments are highlights, they’re also sad reminders of an album that never was. Elsewhere, that reminder is starker. Songs like “Don’t Leave Town” and “Motivation” are curious little pop tunes, but feel deeply in need of fleshing out, while closer “All Talk” could be a menacing entry in the Servants’ catalog, but here cuts off at just over a minute and never gets full realized. Where Hey Hey We’re the Manques shows us early versions of what would become an album, which shows us the true beating heart at the center of this band, Small Time feels too much like an elegy, like a frustrating reminder of what never was. There’s an intimacy to it that is striking, but if “everybody has a dream” then Small Time can sometimes feel like listening in on a dream, one deeply desired, that you know won’t come true.
Still, together these albums are another solid love letter to the Servants from Captured Tracks, following their 2011 compilation Youth Club Disco. If you can put the context for Small Time out of your mind, things get even better here, but even with the shadow of the band’s short history hanging over these records, there’s much to admire and much to revisit for a band that didn’t give us enough time to catch up to what they were doing the first time around.