The Wave Pictures aren’t a band with much of what you could conventionally term ambition. They started out in Wymeswold (pop: 1,000) in the semi-rural Midlands of England, the nearest metropolis being Loughborough (pop: 57,600) — just a group of friends jamming their songs in their houses, recording on 4-track, and not really bothering to consider without. And despite the semi-breakthrough of Instant Coffee Baby, their second conventionally-released album (i.e through a record label, on CD — they’ve released plenty more on CD-R and, yes, tape), they remain fairly understated. An eclectic, passionate, mid-fi album, both obscure and affecting, it brought together indie pop, ’60s rock, and northern soul influences to produce a truly great record. It was uniquely romantic and English like Morrissey, but with levity, goofiness, and less melodrama, particularly the title track (and it was well played too). The album brought them mainstream media write ups, festival slots at Primavera (hipster-fest) and Indietracks (twee-fest), yet with their latest they’ve taken a palpable step back from further indie popularity.
On If You Leave It Alone, they are more understated, quieter, even overly reflective. There are songs which could be lazily played in the corner of a cafe, lending wry melodic backing to a failed romance. The standout nature of singer/guitarist/songwriter David Tattersall’s voice is still in effect, and on songs like the slightly Smokey Robinson-esque title track, he hits real poignancy. The album is full of post-love songs, and the overall tone is somber and self-deprecating. There’s also far more folk and country, the latter hitting a Johnny Cash groove and a resigned hook on “Canary Wharf”, Tattersall’s narrator taking time to reflect on a past romance and “admire the speed with which we grew boring”. A Salvation Army-style brass band backs up the folksy “My Kiss”, and adds to the tune’s charm, but it’s still quite navel-gazing in nature. “Your father swims with the fishes / I killed him with my kisses” is a pretty good non sequitur couplet to offset, but it’s not up there with “I’d buy you bras instead of pickled eggs / Chocolate instead of chutney” from Instant Coffee Baby. In fact, the whole of side A is a study in understatement.
Only on the flipside do the more familar pop tones come out, but only a little. “Come on Daniel” is twee as heck with a nice chord progression, boy-girl vocals leading into a group sing-along, and an exhortation for Daniel to get off his arse and be happy, including the great lyric “let this song roll back your eyes”. “Too Many Questions” is a melodic tale of a girl who just doesn’t want to have to disclose everything to her man, holding out for a simple “hold me tight, treat me right” kinda boyfriend, in contrast to a more over-analytical approach to relationships. “Softly You, Softly Me” has got some quirky clipped guitar, and like the brass accompaniments on other tracks, a bit of a progression (not that this sort of music is really noted for that). The maudlin lyrics can get a little bit trying, but the closing “Nothing Can Change This Love” — to me, their equivalent of “After Hours” from The Velvet Underground — is just beautiful, and feels redemptive rather than resigned.
Essentially, If You Leave It Alone is an alright record. It’s a hard balance to strike between words and music, but when music becomes incidental to words that aren’t really that striking, it’s a little frustrating. They’ve scaled back their sound, and I don’t think it suits — though it makes sense. Their quirkiness, self-deprecation, and very English sound — which has the sensibility of anti-folk as well as Hefner’s indie pop/soul hybrid, underscored by a wide-ranging record collection — marks them out as a cult band in waiting. It’s as if the album is a retreat, to satisfy their own whims as opposed to an imagined audience, and that’s fair enough. But I would love to hear these nice boys let loose and indulge their Modern Lovers more than their Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers side a bit more.