Remember the New Acoustic Movement? The short-lived, ill-advised attempt to drag a bunch of vaguely-similar-sounding, acoustic guitar-toting bands into the limelight? This hastily-devised scene, concocted by the British music press in order to fill the gap left by Britpop at the dawn of the last decade, died a premature death as the new rock revolution took hold, and ‘cooler’ artists like the Strokes and the White Stripes effortlessly reinvigorated the then-ailing guitar rock scene.
But ten years on, despite much of NAM (as it became known… Urgh) completely obliterated (save for Coldplay and Elbow, who have gone on to far greater things) by the onslaught of more angular, more exciting — some would say less whimsical — music, a number of the scene’s adopted artists still lurk in the lower reaches of British guitar music. Look carefully and you’ll see Travis or Starsailor, quietly minding their own business, making albums few people are likely to buy. Stare a little harder and you’ll just about make out Badly Drawn Boy beavering away on another film soundtrack. And right down at the bottom there, in the darkest corner… is that… Turin Brakes?!
It sure is — the stool-bound duo have returned with the follow-up to 2007’s rather stool-of-a-record (sorry) Dark on Fire. Outbursts, their fifth album, is another collection of Jeff Buckley-indebted acoustic wanderings, but despite many of the reference points seemingly still intact since their 2001 debut The Optimist, we’re a long way from those rough-edged, genre-leading cuts that introduced Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian to the world back in the day.
Things start off well. Opener “Sea Change” boasts the kind of urgency Turin Brakes have been lacking for too long. It’s a lush, striding, inspired introduction, despite being the vehicle for a cod-political sentiment that sounds desperately dated (“Six billion backs against the wall, now do we walk or run?”). But the strength of “Sea Change” actually becomes the album’s Achilies’ heel, as every track that follows is a failed attempt to play catch-up. And before long we’re settling into dinner party music: too heavy on orchestration in places, mundane, riddle-riddled couplets that are just a little too expressed for their own good (witness how Knights gives earnest, exaggerratted significance to “Don’t bite your tongue / Easy go and easy come” on “Never Stops”, or the baffling reference to rain that “smells like magazines” on “Mirror”), and much of the album ends up feeling a little too… contrived. For want of a better word.
But to its credit, the album’s key saving grace has been the duo’s decision to produce the album themselves, and in places it’s clear that, after several years of venturing dangerously close to MOR Snow Patrol territory, they’ve tried to return to a more back-to-basics, uncluttered sound that made their debut long-player so special. So for every dreary, forgettable “Embryo” — which sees Paridjanian try his hand at vocals — or “Outbursts” — an underwhelming album closer that passes by barely even noticed — there’s a strangely affecting lullaby like “The Letting Down” or a soaring, slow-burning “Rocket Song”.
And boy, how the album begins to drag towards the end. The semi-priapic “Radio Silence” tries to counteract that bland-ness, turning up the amps and attempting to rock out, but it tails off pointlessly and directionless with an embarrassingly-uninspired guitar line.
Flawed as it is thanks to some truly dreary lyrics, and too many tracks that are as flimsy as they are forgettable, Outbursts doesn’t quite provide enough evidence to suggest Turin Brakes should be written off. It may only be good as background music for a 30-something’s dinner party, but, c’mon, surely that was the whole point of the New Acoustic Movement?