The Scottish group formed by members of Arab Strap return with one goal on This Gift: to rock.
It was the single "Taste the Last Girl" that really set things rolling for Sons and Daughters, the Scottish group formed by members of Arab Strap. That song became an unlikely indie dance floor hit, one of the upbeat songs providing the muscle to the dance rock that was everywhere in 2004. Taking this success as a hopeful sign of things to come, perhaps, the quartet gives us more of the same on its second full-length album. But it never quite gels.
If it was the restraint and folk influences that garnered the group its original praise, well we'll have to learn to live without it. This Gift comes on with the straightforward guitar rock aesthetic of '90s alternative music, from the astringent White Stripes guitars of "Gilt Complex" to the disgusted na-na chorus of "Rebel With a Ghost", all "gutless conversation" over a strong 4/4 stomp. At these moments, Sons and Daughters manages to perfect the growling rock version of dance-rock, truly what Frere-Jones must be wishing for when he complains of indie rock's cowardly retreat from the hips.
Sons and Daughters aren't really 'indie', though. They're too straightforward, too garage rock, to be aiming at any independent voice. Adele Bethel's vocal style is indebted to early period PJ Harvey, at least in her swooning femininity and independent spirit. But there's no trace of irony to be found on This Gift, no awareness of the occasional absurdity of what they're caught up in. In this they are fundamentally different from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a comparison that seems apt at various points across the album. When this happens, as on the "Awoo awoo" exchange between Bethel and Scott Paterson on the title track, you're left with the impression of a paint-by-numbers song, somehow missing the point of rock music itself.
Where the band does venture into a bit of innovation, as on the collision of time signatures on "The Nest", the effect is competence, but something's still missing. Maybe it's the youthful excitement to be showing the world just what they can do (which makes groups like be your own PET and Black Kids so electric). True, there are many raucous sing along riffs. But occasionally, you're left wishing for a more catchy melody as well, which would take these albums from mid-CD filler to killer rock single.
The opener, "Gilt Complex", is probably the best song on the album. Bethel's strident voice rides over the one chord verse and simple, catchy riff. It's dirty rock with something of the dark minor-chord noir of Nick Cave, but without that artist's sense of complete desolation, of complete loss of faith in the future of mankind. Across the record, the band should be commended for sticking stubbornly to its guns. No wimpy ballad is going to interrupt the procession of growling rock tracks here. More bands should have the confidence in their sound to do this. The result is that, while at times that sound is a little forced, over the course of the album we become very familiar and comfortable with Sons and Daughters, indeed, on their own terms.
"We never asked for an audience / So why d'you care about the reviews you're gonna get?" Bethel sings on "Split Lips". It's admirable the band has such an independent and self-assured outlook, but the prominence of this line is a little unfortunate. It's almost a challenge to the judging of the album. If push comes to shove, Sons and Daughters might have to rely on their established fans.