South is one of those often forgotten bands that some people will discover just by being lucky (much like the brilliant guitar-pop of Canada’s Sloan or the Welsh act Super Furry Animals). In the US, the atmospheric British guitar blokes released their largely acoustic-driven 2001 debut From Here on In to decent acclaim and few sales. Sadly all people could hear from across the pond was “Yellow” and that’s frankly all they wanted to hear. The great ’03 saw South’s darker and far superior With the Tides fly out into public view, and though some critics saw it for what it was (the best damn Travis album ever made), it, again, left them by the wayside in the States — this despite the fact that Britain was slowly beginning to warm up to the lovable blokes (especially in the form of single “Colours in Waves”).
Yet, 2004 brought a surprising event that could alter the fortunes of any indie artist: inclusion on a soundtrack for The O.C. (or as I like to call it, Now That’s What I Call Indie!). The exposure of From Here on In‘s “Paint the Silence” suddenly thrust the band into the US national spotlight. Yet fate had to enter at that exact moment and make a mess of things as their record label, Kinetic Records, suddenly folded. Suddenly without a label, South became the flagship act for Rocco Giordano’s Young American label (Rocco formerly of Kinetic). With a new label and newfound fame, the band decided to try something else new: produce a majority of the record themselves. There are times where this kind of shift in a band can create something brilliant (Pinkerton), or something terrible (list too long to print).
So, how does it sound?
Adventures in the Underground Journey to the Stars finds South occupying a middle-road between their two major efforts. The album’s awkward title somewhat suggests this: they’ve lingered in obscurity for some time and had the ups and downs of label drama, while still aspiring for something bigger. Sadly, if they think that an inclusion on one O.C. compilation is the step towards the stars, then they obviously haven’t picked up the latest Finley Quaye album or any release by The 88. The album retains a good deal of the gloom of their debut, while also holding onto some (but not all) of the propulsion they discovered on Tides. What they’ve offered up is something that sounds like the Brit-jangle of the Stone Roses but less optimistic, a bit ballsier, and ultimately not as compelling.
Some songs reach the same mope-anthem highs as “Paint the Silence” and “Motiveless Crime”. Truly, “A Place in Displacement” finds South’s love of dazzling guitar echoes (and clichéd lyrics) as potent as ever. The chorus is a blistering rush of joy and is easily in the running for Best Track on the Album. Closer “Flesh & Bone” reminds us of the quirkiness that they exhibited on Tides and why it made that album so memorable. Plus, like any good rock band, opening with one of your strongest tracks (the playful “Shallow”) never hurt anyone.
Sadly, some other tracks are trying too hard. “Habit of a Lifetime” has a pleasant folk-guitar line, but their turn at Doves-styled happy pop feels nothing but a bit contrived. Sure, this might serve as fitting background music in a romance movie where the young executive spots the love of her life in the corner of the room, but oddly, feels out of place here. Other songs, especially “Meant to Mean”, are just drab and lack dramatic spark.
Yet while “Habit of a Lifetime” feels like forced happiness, the two-faced “Up Close & Personal” proves to be one of the best songs the band has ever recorded, as it switches back and forth between quiet moments, bell-decked clap-along pop verses, and an edgy guitar chorus. Here South proves that even with an incredibly inane chorus (“Don’t be so down / crazy baby”), a song can still rock. Plus, while they may not even know it, the beautiful acoustic ballad “Know Yourself”, complete with female duet vocals and a hopeful message, proves to be the greatest stylistic tribute to Britain’s own deceased folk-popper Matthew Jay ever made (they completely cop his style to the T with this song, but when it’s so damn good, it’s hard to point fingers).
Some might still call for the instrumental and atmospheric noodling of South’s debut, or the complete indulgence of every melodic whim of their second LP, but with Adventures the band can claim one thing few other upstarts can: they have never made two albums that sound alike. They may not be Britain’s kings of melodic rock songs yet, but at this rate, they won’t even need The O.C. anymore.