Rarely does even the British music press set upon a record with the kind of savagery that has been reserved for Viva Brother’s début. Having been signed by Geffen on the back of airing of their demo on BBC Radio 1, the band – who would still be known simply as “Brother” were it not for a conflict with an Australian group with that name – are now the music hack’s go-to whipping boys. Widely mocked since their laughable declaration at an early gig that anyone who didn’t “want to see the future of music” should leave, Viva Brother would have been up for a critical mauling if they produced anything less than rock’s second coming.
It’s no surprise, then, that their album of drab ’90s revivalism has been named as one of the worst British efforts of the year, but that doesn’t make it true. It’s a safe bet, for example, that Cher Lloyd, perpetrator of astonishingly awful current UK #1 single “Swagger Jagger”, will put out an LP this year that makes Famous First Words seem like the White Album. No, the accolade Viva Brother and their début are still very much in the running for is a less coveted one. This is one of the most pale and uninspired records from an apparently serious rock band for some time.
That Viva Brother were aping that elusive Cool Britannia era was clear from the first passages of their strange story, but the true extent and depth of their Britpop forgery was concealed until now. The band’s ruthless poaching from Oasis, Blur and Pulp has failed to transfer any of the swagger, wit or charm from those bands, leaving them with soulless husks of songs that wouldn’t withstand consideration for Shed Seven B-sides and certainly don’t belong on a purportedly listenable commercial rock album. What does it say about this band when even their album’s cover is surely a knock-off of Mumford & Sons’ Sigh No More, with real people replaced by flat, black and white photographs?
Producer Stephen Street, who has worked with Kaiser Chiefs and the Smiths among others, puts in a Herculean effort and almost succeeds in making something credible of all the inanely chugging guitars and directionless, wailing vocals. His efforts are in vain, however, and to have played Fifth Beatle for Viva Brother will, no doubt, sadly remain a black mark on his record for years to come. Ultimately the band themselves will take the brunt of the blame for the crimes committed here and foremost among those is unquestionably the lyrics.
Oh, the lyrics. The infamous first words set to mediocrity here are of that special sort that don’t so much insult your intelligence as actively leech it away, comprised as they are of some of the most nonsensical phrases ever juxtaposed. “It takes a moron to know one”, frontman Lee Newell wails in a rare moment of clarity, “and he knows me”. A little earlier on the record, “Still Here” stands almost as a monument to comical songwriting starting with the lines, “you take my money and burn it to the ground / it’s no inferno but it follows me around”.
The lyrics, in fact, are reason enough to ignore claims that Famous First Words isn’t worth your time. So hilarious is Viva Brother’s addled logic that finding a way to stream it for free is actually highly recommended. As a record that Geffen plus Newell and co expect anyone to pay for, though, this album is a distillation of all that is wrong with British guitar music, peddled by a band so consumed by their own deluded egotism that they think of themselves as its saviours. Whether to laugh or cry is your choice to make.