[6 October 2003]
Sportique has never been an easy band to peg. Despite playing loosely within the pop milieu of the rest of their Matinee Records labelmates, the band has tended to lean more heavily toward a retro art-rock sensibility and less in the twee-pop direction of its peers. Blurring the line between serious artistes and art pranksters, London-based Sportique plays off mod-ish pretensions against complex interests and cerebral themes.
You can, however, trace a trajectory of the band’s career to arrive at Communique No. 9. Formed by songwriter and vocalist Gregory Webster after the demise of his first band, the Razorcuts, and time spent in smaller, short-lived projects, Sportique’s first output was a mélange of the Jam, Wire, and the Pastels, made rougher by Webster’s growling, punky delivery, and their 1999 full-length debut, Black Is a Very Popular Colour, caught some notice for its throwback to a time when pop and punk in the same sentence evoked anything but Southern California. Its sophomore release, 2002’s Modern Museums, solidified its reputation with critics, but also found Sportique abandoning the softer side in favor of the angular post-punk of bands like Gang of Four, as well as thematically focusing most of the tracks on art and culture.
Communique No. 9 continues this shift towards artsy nostalgia, and may even be the full realization of it. If the title track to Modern Museums was Sportique’s critique of a vacuous British art scene, then Communique No. 9 is a call to arms, or perhaps a call to art. Unabashedly influenced by situationist art and the politics of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s art world, Communique No. 9 is a time machine back to a radical and mod scene where culture was a form of activism.
Which, when it’s put that way, sounds pretty pompous. But what allows Sportique to pull it off is a sense of humor, conveyed through the music and lyrics alike, which makes it difficult not to smile while still taking Webster and company at their word. Whether seriously funny, or funnily serious, Communique No. 9 drips with carefully controlled historicism. Part of that can probably be attributed to producer Liam Watson, who’s had his hands all over the current surge of garage-revivalism, but it couldn’t have been carried off so well without the ability of the band to make it genuine.
Webster’s spiky guitars and thickly accented vocals are still in attendance, albeit with maximum efficiency and few wasted notes, but the rest of the sort-of-supergroup band contributes immensely to the sound. Rob Pursey’s bass gives the disc a dense and fuzzy bottom-end, adding to the street-level-revolutionary retro feel, and drummer Sir Mark Flunder manages the post-punk skittering beat with precision and a keen ear for replication. But it’s Amelia Fletcher’s keyboards that give Communique No. 9 its reach. The punchy organ sounds fill the disc with a timelessness, like a skipping stone between the music of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and on up to the present, and reinforces that keys and organs were as integral to art rock bands as were guitars.
Lyrically, Communique No. 9 is as spare as the band’s music, sometimes to the effect of disaffection. “Arthouse Cinemas” plods through a slow-paced delivery of short couplets like “American indie films / Blurred”, so drawn out that it’s hard to maintain, well, focus. However, the effect is used later on the disc for the title track, and here Webster manages to make the long gaps between lyrics work to his advantage, turning the revolutionary fervor and throaty whisper of “We are getting closer” into something truly menacing.
When not inciting people to throw art bombs, Sportique mixes up a little bit of clever cynicism to produce some wryly funny tracks, two of which are definitely highlights of the disc. “Other Peoples’ Girlfriends” comes as close as any other band in recent memory to emulating the Buzzcocks (if Pete Shelley’s voice were given a slightly more Johnny Rotten-like twang), with Webster lamenting, “Why are all my best friends / Other people’s girlfriends?” On “Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell Records”, Sportique turns its critical eye on other bands, particularly poseurs who are looking to sell out. It’s a funny track, and the invective comes off a lot more smartly than the typical punk tirade against commercial whores. Add to it the straight-up, fast and furious punk of “Stereotype” and the slightly artier “Angry Street”, and Sportique delivers a disc that isn’t so pointedly monochromatic as to be annoying.
If there’s a downside to Communique No. 9 it’s that the album really doesn’t do much to forward any kind of art revolution. It’s a history lesson, really, a look back in time to a past that Sportique obviously idealizes. However, Sportique itself doesn’t really offer more than empty slogans, and Communique No. 9 is itself as much artifice as art. However, there’s a sly grin to all this, something picked up on the last track, “Requiem for the Avant-Garde”. After musical intros of plunking piano and guitar/bass breakdowns and a tense melody, the song slinks into a straight pop mode, with Webster and company offering an almost postmodern critique/acceptance of the failure of art to overcome. As Webster and Fletcher harmonize on the opening verse, “Have yourself a cocktail / The DJ’s playing beats so willfully obscure / It’s the new sensation / A cozy little scene, and I’m bored”, Sportique echoes the apathetic end of art as activism, even as it skewers the same.
If a discourse about art is difficult to take as art itself, at least Sportique offers a variety of ways for enjoying Communique No. 9. At only eight songs, most of which barely scratch two minutes in length, the disc can be appreciated as a collection of quick, punky tracks that strip music to a melodic core and have fun with it. It can also be appreciated as an homage to the post-punk bands of the past that have obviously influenced Sportique’s direction, particularly Wire and Gang of Four. Or, if intellectual considerations are what floats your boat, Communique No. 9 can be approached for its statements about the art scene of yesterday and today. The disc is, in fact, all of these things, and for that Sportique deserves a decent helping of praise. It continues to be one of the most interesting bands in the indie pop scene and Communique No. 9 only further cements Sportique’s reputation as a wry, slippery band that actually has something to say.