It’s unfortunate, really, that there’s another band out there with two pairs of brothers and a sophomore album named for a large reptile. That said, they couldn’t really have seen that one coming — not being able to follow my particularly random train of thought that ended with: Hey! That sounds like The National! Normally, comparisons to The National’s Alligator would be welcome…except, in this case, not only does Young Rebel Set sound nothing like Matt Berninger et al, but just thinking about The National in comparison to Young Rebel Set makes me want to sit down, close my eyes, and pound my brain with “Mistaken for Strangers”.
It’s equally unfortunate that, at times, lead singer Matty Chipchase does a weirdly perfect imitation of Marcus Mumford. Though a comparison to Mumford & Sons is, at least on the critical totem pole, somewhat less esteemed than one to The National, I can assure you that there are moments on Crocodile would any sane person running back into Babel’s welcoming arms.
My somewhat meandering point here is that, firstly, this is the kind of record that gives rise to lots of associations — intentional, unintentional, whatever — and while for some bands that kind of provocational association can be a good thing, it is bad news for Young Rebel Set. The reason, you ask? Well, quite frankly, it’s because this band can’t live up to any of them.
For a better, more accurate associative example, take the band’s eager embrace of ’90s Britpop (as I’ve read, they even have the same management as Oasis) — especially on tracks like “The Lash of the Whip” and “Berlin Nights”. And even though the reference is purposeful, they end up sounding more like awkward admirers knocking politely on the door of the Gallagher mansion than musicians in their own right. Noah could write a big hook paired to lyrical nonsense, but, boy, could little brother Liam snarl and swagger his way through it. Matty Chipchase et al have the lyrical nonsense down pat, but they struggle mightily with the snarling and swaggering.
Listen closer to Crocodile and you’ll hear the Beatles, Billy Bragg, and even a few strains of Eric Burdon and the Animals fade in and out, and none of it does Young Rebel Set any favors. Comparing themselves (if somewhat inadvertently) with the greats of British rock, Young Rebel Set comes off as rather underwhelming. That sounds awfully mean, which isn’t quite how I intend it. The truth is that when one gets bogged down by the comparisons, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Crocodile is not without its charms.
“Tuned Transmission”, for instance, has a bouncy, brilliant chorus; the very nearly paired tracks “Show Your Feathers & Run” and “The Girl From the 51” showcase an impressive grasp of dramatic tension; and there are little elements throughout the record that almost transcend the general ho-hum-ness of the tunes in which they are buried. (Listen for those carnival-esque keyboards in “Reap the Whirlwind”!)
But for every potentially redemptive moment, there is an equally distressing one that tilts the scale back towards mediocrity. The worst part on the entire album might be the first two lines of “One Law”, where Chipchase intones: “You said this mountain was too high to climb / But I say this mountain’s no master of mine”. Even Mumford, in his giddiest moments, never sounds that unworldly. But it gets worse in the chorus when Chipchase goes out on a limb to claim: “One law for everything / One law for everyone / Now see the world around you changing”. In summary: The limb sags, then snaps, and you’ll be tempted to switch the song you feel such acute embarrassment for him. No Schadenfreude here.
The only holdover from the band’s debut album, Curse Our Love, which took its Billy Bragg influences to a loony level of idolatry, is the track “Unforgiven”, which, I have to say, almost works with its rough-and-ready studio treatment. And there, by the way, is the major accomplishment of the album — the sound of it all. If there’s something I hate about bands with some potential, it’s when they drape their albums in production that makes every track sound exactly the same.
In the studio, the band wises up to that potential folly and takes some safe but rewarding risks. It also helps that the band is big — Chipchase plus the brothers Evans (Mark and Luke) and Parmley (Andrew and Chris), with Paddy Jordan and David Coombe to boot — so the fullness of their sound isn’t all a studio creation. And while calling the production of “Berlin Nights” innovative is a stretch, it’s still eons more interesting than almost everything on their first album, which sounds shambolic by comparison.
All in all, the things that work on Crocodile get them about halfway there. It’s a long way to the top, guys – better not ignore that mountain.