When fans and rock writers look at the career of Comet Gain, a bratty quasi-punk outfit born and bred on the streets of London, there is a tendency to divide the band's output into before-and-after halves.
Let me explain. Between 1993 and '97, Comet Gain released a few choice EPs and two beloved albums, Casino Classics and Magnetic Poetry (the latter repackaged with extra tracks as Sneaky in the States), all on Britain's credible Wijja label. Marked by punchy horn/harmony arrangements and a mod-influenced rhythmic thrust, the band flirted with and usually encompassed strong elements of achy folk, distorted punk and baroque pop.
Renowned for exuding a quintessentially British charm, what with those working-class London slice-of-life tales sung in knotty accents, Comet Gain split its primary creative responsibilities between singer-guitarist David Christian (known sometimes as David Feck) and singer Sarah Bleach. While Christian brought a politically tinged, D.I.Y. punk sensibility to the band, Bleach was keener to craft whispery twee candy.
As is often the case, this aesthetic tug-of-war led to some of the band's most compelling material, torn between dueling shades of noisy angst and tasteful introversion. As is more often the case, the rift in songwriting styles grew until the Comet Gain lineup finally dissolved altogether. Bleach took most of the band with her to start Velocette, whose glossy pop songs have yet to live up to the buzz, while Christian was left on his own.
True to the aforementioned D.I.Y. spirit, he gathered different collaborators and launched a new era of Comet Gain. The fruits of this retooling came to bear with 1999's Tigertown Pictures, released in the U.S. on Kill Rock Stars, a label infamous for uncovering riot grrrl legends like Huggy Bear, Bikini Kill, and Sleater-Kinney.
The second coming of Comet Gain offers, predictably, a rougher and more urgent edge. Having ditched pop sheen for punk distortion, the band boasted lo-fi production and feisty anthems on Tigertown. Classic hooks and snide singing still carve out each song, but only after getting past a few layers of fuzz.
With his creative hands thus untied, Christian has been free to write some of the catchiest, sharpest tunes in Comet Gain's history. On Realistes, the band's second album for Kill Rock Stars since the lineup shift, the collision of wintry distortion with keen melodic sensibilities brings to mind San Francisco's acclaimed Aislers Set, who actually contribute handclaps here.
Riot grrrl iconoclast Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre) also shows up on Realistes, adding barely audible vocals to the Velvets-meets-Slits chaos of "Ripped-Up Suit". Other guests lend the occasional bit of brass or pedal steel, but it's the urgent chemistry of the now regular Comet Gain players that keep the sonic shrapnel glued together. Singer Rachel Evans is especially a good fit, matching Christian's earnest pipes at every turn.
Like all Comet Gain material, the album paints a visceral portrait of the London underground, as seen by such bittersweet veterans of the scene. "The Kids at the Club" kick-starts Realistes with a shot of youthful exuberance, recalling the social energy of early Bis singles (which also came out on Wiija, as a matter of fact). There is still a lot of unhappiness shot through the songs, though, as is clear in titles like "Why I Try to Look so Bad" and "Don't Fall in Love if You Want to Die in Peace".
On the former, Evans and Christian join voices for a defining line -- "And heaven is the closest thing to hell" -- before launching back into the lurching anthem. Christian is known for spiking his crunchy pop/rock with dark subject matter, and indeed, themes of death, God, drinking, and loss all peer out at some point.
All this angst is probably best summed up by "My Defiance", on which the man sings about how his heart is broken and his brain is "split in two". Still, he's always very aware of his wiry, witty song structures, as he announces "Here comes the chorus now" and later lists all of the things the song is about. A nice moment of pop magic comes with "She Never Understood", a spirited cover of the classic song by Biff Bang Pow, a British cult band led by Creation Records founder Alan McGee.
Grizzled though it may be, there remains a sense of optimism to Realistes, and not just in its hooky dancefloor charm. On the deceptively quiet "Carry On Living", Evans sings by herself, "So I'll be strong / And carry on living / So I'll be strong / And carry on dreaming". With her pipes toned down so much, it almost sounds like a lost Pastels single, which is a grand compliment, if you didn't know.
"Moments in the Snow" also finds Comet Gain grappling with life's elusive silver lining, and when Christian sings, "I'm beginning to see the light / I'm beginning to feel alright", it's enough reason to think that maybe redemption is just another album or two away. That's not to hope that Comet Gain will quit anytime soon, though, because we can always benefit from catharsis this catchy.