Scottish band siphon the spirit of Camera Obscura and Belle and Sebastian, distilling it down into their own brand of fey folk and indie-pop.
Ever since Postcard Records perfected its own brand of pop back in the late 1970s with their ‘Sound of Young Scotland’, Glasgow has grown into a musical epicenter. From Orange Juice to Teenage Fanclub, through to the Pastels and Belle and Sebastian, the Scottish city has distilled its own DIY ethos and a mix of punk and classic pop to create something of a scene -- albeit one that’s as disjointed as it is distinguished. With such a strong base to start from, Glaswegian bands can sometimes get by on association alone. The Hermit Crabs have affiliations in abundance. Singer and rhythm guitarist, Melanie Whittle -- the only permanent member since their 2003 inception -- and bass player, Des McKenna, both played in California Snow Story with David Skirving, who was an early member of Camera Obscura. Several of the album’s songs were produced by current Teenage Fanclub drummer and former BMX Bandit member, Francis McDonald. And the album’s title track name-checks the Buzzcocks, a band that Edwyn Collins, lead singer of Orange Juice, once said “subverted people’s idea about what a punk group should be like,” thus informing the city’s indie pop cognoscenti.
Unfortunately, though, much like their crustacean namesake, which live inside salvaged sea shells, the Hermit Crabs cling to existing structures and styles instead of striking out on their own. Their home is a well-honed one -- cozy and comfortable, safe and secure. The foundations are built upon Camera Obscura’s fey indie-pop and slight female vocals, which, given the Hermit Crabs' background, should come as no surprise. (Both bands have, at one time, shared a stage and a drummer). There are also remnants of early Belle and Sebastian, but where their fellow Scots’ first two albums sounded timeless, the Hermit Crabs resurrect a bygone age. Indeed, Saw You Dancing might be hailed by some as a lost classic had it been released by Sarah Records in the 1980s. But in today’s current climate, it sounds too slight, as if a breeze might bum rush it before reaching our ears.
The band first gained recognition two years ago when their song “Feel Good Factor” won the Burnsong competition -- a Scottish songwriting contest named after poet Robert Burns. Upon first listen, it’s easy to see why it did so well. The track, a glorious folk-pop ode to their hometown’s main thoroughfare, Sauchiehall Street, is catchy and instantaneous, utilizing guitar, piano, and violin as a capsule for Whittle’s wily lyrics and “cha cha cha"s. It’s a shame, then, that it also signifies the band’s blueprint. Much like Camera Obscura’s “80’s Fan”, which sounded like Belle and Sebastian, the Hermit Crabs are the next generation, opaquely cribbing from similar sources.
Then again, the band may be openly inviting these comparisons. Any Glaswegian group that name checks Sartre in song is, perhaps inevitably, asking for the obligatory Belle and Sebastian cat call. That said, the band is not as precious or precocious, and there’s no brass instrumentation either. What there is, though, is violin, and on several occasions the instrument lifts a song above its flat-lining folk.
Opening track “Tonight” benefits from this instrumental intervention, as does “Closet Fan”, the added texture toughening up the folk-tinged indie pop. Texture, it seems, is the Hermit Crab’s key to success. Whittle’s thin vocals work exceptionally well when double tracked, or backed by additional harmonies, as on the soaring “Third Time Lucky” or the jaunty, juxtaposing “Goodbye My Friend”. More often than not, though, the band sounds too meager. “Lean Free Summer” is so terribly twee that it makes the opening bass line of the proceeding “Bad Timing” sound rockabilly.
Yet for all the fey, pastoral, folk pop, there is a punk undertone -- not in sound, but in the simplistic spirit in which the songs are structured. Nothing sounds extraneous. Thematically, punk also plays a part. On the album’s title track, Whittle sings: “Saw you dancing to ‘Ever Fallen in Love’”. Later, in the same song, she runs home, pulls the covers over her head, and listens to some punk rock. With this in mind, there are times when you wish they would instill a similar attitude, take to the streets, and actually evoke some of Glasgow’s grit and grime, and some of the salaciousness of Sauchiehall Street into their music as well as their lyrics. Scuff it up a little.
There is promise here, and with a settled line up (the group’s revolving door stopped spinning during the recording process) it will be interesting to see how they expand on this release. But if the Hermit Crabs really are the current sound of young Scotland, someone needs to spike the Iron Bru.