Friday, August 11, 2006

Records In Review: The Futureheads--News And Tributes

Review of first album here. Read it so's I don't have to repeat myself.

The much-anticipated (by me, the only person who counts) second album from the Sunderland four-piece is a grower and a change-of-pace from their excellent and spirited self-titled debut. Sonically, there haven't been any radical changes: there's still the same noisy guitars, albeit with the occasional appearance of an acoustic, and reliance on multi-part harmonies (guitarists Barry Hyde and Ross Millard share the lead vocal duties in much the same ratio as on album number one, roughly 2:1). The record's got a different personality, though, with more measured pacing (which wouldn't be difficult!), and songwriting that doesn't play so much to the back of the hall and which is distancing itself from its obvious early influences XTC and Gang Of Four. If anything, there's a touch of mod influence on a few of the songs (like "Favours For Favours") that was only hinted at on The Futureheads. The production's hard-hitting, bordering on elephantine in places--the toms on "Burnt" threatened to put a hole in my speakers--and takes a few listens to warm up to. It's a terrible album for the Discman, as it always seems to be too loud or too soft. The mix is excellent, however, and there's some lovely separation of sounds, a good example being the break part in the wonderful first single "Skip To The End." The arrangements are I think an improvement: subtler without losing any of the crunch.

As for the songs themselves, what's good is top quality, but what's less good isn't so hot; fortunately, three-quarters of it's the former. Among the best is the aforementioned "Skip To The End," a mid-paced and volume, sparsely-arranged twitchy number that sounds unlike anything the band has done before; "Cope," an absolutely scorching stomper that sounds like an improvement on the better bits of Fire Dances-era Killing Joke; and "Worry About It Later," which integrates a surprisingly conventional but infectious mod-ish chorus hook into the group's customary spiky aesthetic with relative ease. The more relaxed vein works really well here too, with "Back To The Sea" and the dreamy "Thursday." The title track, a more-or-less recitative tribute to those lost in the Manchester United airliner tragedy of 1958, took the longest to grow on me, but it's one of the best examples of the F-head's skills at four-part (I think) harmony, and goes very nicely with a restrained marching beat. Add in lead vocalist Millard's glottal delivery, and you've got a less anthemic and more abstract Big Country.

I'm less impressed with the songs that bookend the album. "Yes/No" is good and loud once it gets going but has considerably less to say than The Futureheads opener "Le Garage," and takes twice as long to say it. The finale "Face" is ponderous and very wooden in terms of melody, and as for switches to double-time...well, let's just say I'm not a fan. I'm also baffled by the inclusion of the screamed, hell-for-leather "The Return Of The Berserker," which certainly doesn't have much to recommend it even as a noise experiment. If its purpose is to show that they're not pussies, it's wholly unnecessary and extremely disruptive to the album's flow.

Like a lot of bands who put their aesthetic first, there's the occasional bit of songwriting detail that gets missed; e.g.,"Favours For Favours" and "Burnt" have a couple too many finale iterations, and "Back To The Sea" could do a better of job of building toward its chorus. But whatever criticisms are to be made of News And Tributes, you can't deny the breadth of material and mood, and the impression that this is a band that's maturing in the best sense of the word. On the five-Geordie scale, I'm giving it 1/4 less than the first album. Recommendation: a brave and very worthwhile record, if just a wee bit short of material.