Lowgold have to be one of the unluckiest British bands of the past five years. When the likeable pop rock band signed to Nude Records in 1999, commercial success seemed inevitable. Their first album, Just Backwards of Square, though a bit plain at times, was nonetheless an assured, catchy little record, an easygoing blend of Big Star style pop touches with the unassuming indie rock quality of Sebadoh, a record that would have fit perfectly between other young bands that were garnering attention at the time, like Travis and Coldplay. Unfortunately for the band, their new label was beset by financial difficulties (eventually leaving the band £60,000 in debt), and the release of the album was postponed for an extended period. When the debut finally hit stores, it was practically ignored by listeners. It was especially tragic, considering how great two of the album's singles were. The stunning "Mercury" and the ballad "Beauty Dies Young" were every bit as great as Travis's "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" and Coldplay's "Yellow", but they simply didn't catch on with the public.
Such a run of bad fortune would break the spirits of anyone, but much to their credit, Lowgold have soldiered on, working day jobs to pay off their debt, playing gigs, building a reputation as one of the better live rock acts in the UK, and now they've returned with their first new album in four long years. Released by Sanctuary Records this time around, Welcome to Winners, incredibly, sounds like Lowgold have barely skipped a beat in the time between albums, as they build on the promise of the debut, serving up a confident, introspective piece of work.
Singer/guitarist Darren Ford says it all in the first verse of the album's opening track, "Quiet Times", singing in that warm, soulful voice of his, "It's the quiet times that get you/ If you let them creep in... Ain't that the truth." Heaven knows these boys have had enough time so sit and reflect. The rest of the album continues in the same vein, rarely wavering from the gentle, unpretentious Brit rock Lowgold do so well. "We Don't Have Much Time" is tailor-made for anyone who misses the Travis of four years ago (before they went and got all adult contemporary on us), while the rough-edged "Clear the Skies" does what every Nickelback clone keeps failing to accomplish: create a song loaded with distorted guitars that actually possesses a memorable melody. Meanwhile, "Save Yourself", with Ford's hushed, lower register vocals, greatly resembles the gentle acoustic pop of Badly Drawn Boy.
A trio of very pretty ballads, "Let Me Into Yours", "Means to an End", and especially "Famous Last Words", stand out the most; they're rather blatant with the whole Coldplay/U2 schtick, but they're all done very well, with complete sincerity, and will appeal to anyone who gave in to recent Coldplay singles as "In My Place" and "The Scientist". When Lowgold do manage to turn up the volume a bit, it's especially refreshing, as songs like the soaring, upbeat "The Same Way" and "Just a Ride" have the band returning to their Sebadoh and Low influences.
If there's a down side to Welcome to Winners, it would be the lack of a couple of real knockout singles, and the album does get a bit repetitive near the end. It doesn't help that lugubrious, maudlin ballads like "Keep Your Gun Dry" and "Fade Down" grind things to a halt. Sensitive is okay; it's when a band gets unbearably sensitive that bores a listener to tears, and those two songs dampen the mood considerably.
However, it's so great to have Lowgold back making good music, that those minor mis-steps are forgivable. Welcome to Winners isn't a great album, but it's a nice one, one that at the very least deserves more attention than it's been getting. There are plenty of people who would like this album; seeing that Travis has lost the plot for the time being, and we won't be getting a new Coldplay album until probably 2005, fans of either band should do themselves, and this hard working band, a favor, and give this CD a listen.