Thursday, November 19, 2015

Strawberry Whiplash “Stuck In The Never Ending Now” (Matinée Recordings): The Hermit Crabs “In My Flat” (Matinée Recordings)


Here in the UK, that sweep of once-quiet days from late October through early November has turned into a confused, even hectic, time of year. When I were a lad, Halloween was barely a “thing”, Guy Fawkes’ night was just that - starting and stopping on 5th November – and, a few days later, Remembrance Day felt dignified, elegant and meaningful, wrapped largely around a solemn Sunday parade.

But now, as soon as the first late-year chills start to hang in the air we’re launched into an unforgiving month-long mélange of: drawn-out Halloween celebrations; random bonfires and firework-fests; an increasingly prickly and politicised poppy season; an admittedly welcome sprinkling of Diwali colour; and the first stirrings of our rapidly commercialised and wantonly over-extended Christmas season.

All this means that for days on end you find yourself entertaining trick or treating neighbourhood kids and sporting poppies of one colour or another at the same time as the TV schedules take on a festive flavour and the local youths launch fireworks outside your front door. You don’t know whether to smile or scowl or mourn or yawn.

But then suddenly the rockets stop landing in the garden, the minute’s silence passes for another year, the bonfires are extinguished, and left-over pumpkins are plonked into the food waste bins. You find, inamidst all that chaos, that autumn had secretly stolen into winter, and there’s now nothing to do but wait as we count down to Christmas Day, trapped in the haze of Mammon’s headlights, if looking forward to the blessed relief of a few days off work. It’s right then - right now - that we find ourselves most in need of new distractions, and in 2015 it’s Matinée Recordings who have answered our prayers with a brace of top-notch pop-Scotch albums from the very heights of their roster.

Strawberry Whiplash’s “Stuck In The Never Ending Now” is more mannered, less urgent and fuzzy than earlier outings (whilst only two songs on their excellent first LP made the three minute mark, this second full-length only has two below three minutes). Its grooves tread a knowing line between the (more tuneful) outings of the 80s anorak bands and the sincere sonic flower grooves of the 60s revivalists, all the time keeping listening hearts aflutter courtesy of Sandra’s knowing purr.

Our own pick of the songs here, the drivingly dapper Shop Assistants homage “Halcyon Morning”, is perhaps unrepresentative in that it sits towards the shambling, rather than the Byrdsy, end of that particular continuum, but there are plenty more perky treats on offer: other pearls well-worth diving for include “Never Ending Now” with its jauntily chugging guitars and excitable drum machine, or the confident, almost gilded opener, “Every Day The Sun Shines Brighter”.

One of the joys of the record throughout is the fact that although there are no long guitar solos or over-indulgent instrumental sections (let’s face it: if there were, this review might not be happening), virtually every track is embossed instead with a few bars of attractive little guitar lines, weaving in easy melody: your man Laz on the guitar there is a deft historian of nimble hooks, a skilled curator of cunning little riffs.

This, alongside Sandra’s stories of the ebb and flow of the years as they buffet us and pass us by (a “Now And Then” theme, as much-missed former Matinée darlings the Windmills would have had it) helps give this second LP continuity even as the ‘Lash flirt with a range of subtle variations (from the BMX Bandits-bossa nova of “Ride The Waves To The Shore” and the Cineramatic trills of “Too Close To Call” to the Pastels-y charms of “Fly Me Over The Rooftops” and the glock-bedecked “All I Ask For Is Everything”).

That said, there is nothing here that caused us to fall off our bar-stools with surprise (unlike their first album, which a tad unexpectedly delivered both the dizzy shoegaze of “Sleepy Head” & the assured dreampop of “Now I Know It’s You”).

There is more than enough consolation, however, in the record’s gorgeous denouement as “This Is All We Have”, picking up on the theme of sister act Bubblegum Lemonade’s “Have You Seen Faith?” single, reminds us that yes this is all there is, and there isn’t anyone looking out for us from the heavens, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing: our higher purpose is to be ourselves, and to live life to the fullest.

It feels hard to credit that it was all the way back in the summer of 2006 when the duo first crossed our path with “The Boy In The Bubble Car”, and we tumbled out our usual stuff about John Peel and the spirit of “cracking, fizzing flexis” and compared them to their compatriots the Fizzbombs and Baby Lemonade and yes, the Shoppies – lazy as that may sound, it was certainly high praise - so it’s doubly exciting to see them still going strong, on one of our favourite labels, close to a decade on. Cheers, and here’s to the next ten years of never-ending now.

The Hermit Crabs also explored matters temporal on their last release, “Time Relentless”, part of a discography which has also been building for around a decade, even if we only really started to warm to them, thanks in part to a tip-off from our old friend Sam, around the time of their “Correspondence Course” EP. The band therefore made their bow in these pages a mere six and a half years ago, though you mightn’t have spotted it given that it was in the middle of a novella-long reverie inspired by filthy-mouthed lost Bristol punk legends Chaotic Dischord. It happens.

Now, we find that the Hermit Crabs impress us more with each new release, just like the Would-be-Goods did: but just like the WBGs, we can't quite nail whether they are really ever-improving, growing subtly better with every record, or whether they’ve always been this brilliant and it’s us who are belatedly getting used to them, finally learning to appreciate them properly.

“In My Flat” was mostly recorded not in anyone’s flat, as far as we can tell, but in Boise, Idaho, which lends it an exotic flavour straight off, though we should emphasise that there’s nothing here that fans of the previous EPs shouldn’t lap up. This time around, there are also members of the Very Most in tow, but don’t let that put you off, because the instrumentation makes a telling contribution to the purpose and flow of this record, a record that feels sprightlier at times than “Stuck In The Never Ending Now” (reeling off a petite eight tracks in a mere 20 or so minutes), though it has its own fluctuations of tempo and timbre.

Difficult to know where to start, but with a dim memory of a sometime trip to Charles Saatchi's floating around, we’ll go for “Tracey Emin’s Bed”, a song of hit single quality if ever we’ve heard one. It captures songwriter and singer Melanie Whittle’s gift for combining a certain humour and whimsy with hints of real sadness: the uptempo jollity of the piano and guitars determinedly grates against the protagonist’s depression and loneliness (the latter theme also examined in the musically more contemplative “I’m A Fool”).

Otherwise, we’ve developed a special fondness for “Should I Drop You Off?” a tearjearking tour de force that benefits hugely from a mournful country twang and steel pedal vibe, but if that doesn’t sound like your staple diet please don’t fear, because the tumbling melodic cascades of “Stuart Murray” show how they have the whole pop-perfect thing all wrapped up (that Sauciehall Street ‘feel good factor’ hasn’t dissipated just yet), as do the jinglingly fresh opening and closing tunes “Bravado and Rhetoric” (lovely guitars, cooing backing vocals, P.U.N.K. girl theme) and “Did I Tell You That…?” (lovely everything).

So. Seems we’re not waiting for the winter any more. The days are short. The nights are cold (they’ll be even colder where these two bands hail from). Xmas is coming, like a big benevolent juggernaut, but a juggernaut still some roads away. In the meantime, in need of a soundtrack, we long for winter warmth where we can find it, and these two modern Matinée classics might just tide us over until we get to rip open the first door on that Advent calendar.

2 comments:

Jeremy said...

I'm not sure how to take the "don't let that put you off" comment about my band The Very Most, but thanks for the good review anyway!

stricken office worker said...

Jeremy, I'm so sorry for that comment which came across as flippant and ungallant. It really wasn't the intention, but I've since taken it upon myself to listen to more of TVM and am beginning to see the error of my ways. Best wishes and thanks for commenting.