As much as sixties psychedelia has been artlessly plundered by last month's media darlings, Best Coast, it seems only logical that the 90s re-visioning of that movement be picked over in the cultural parasitism that constitutes musical inspiration in the era of the mixtape.
Macks Faulkron's Friends; opening with the skaggy, shoegazy guitars and reverb which typified northern England's winsome attempts to recreate the music of post-acid, post-Vietnam SoCal; initially sounds like a Slowdive tribute band.
But doesn't music have to be exceptional now to inspire even the most cursory interest?
It would be difficult to find an album more taunting to the music writer, more obviously screaming to be damned with faint praise, or snobbishly sneered at with knowing references to Spacemen 3, Joy Division or Cabaret Voltaire. It's worth wondering if that's exactly the point. What merits there are to the record are not obvious on a casual listen. It does sound exactly as if the songwriters have decided to choose a range of 90s indie subgenres and recreate them almost exactly. But kneejerk scorn aside, the truth is that (the ethics of emulation aside) the job is well-done. As it should be, featuring guest appearances from Bloc Party and The Magic Numbers personnel, professionalism is assured at least.
Opening with the skaggy shoegaze of 'All I Ever' – a jangling guitar and droning vocals track which seems to be trying for Sonic Youth but ends up sounding a little more like uninspired landfill indie circa 1990 – the album seems unable to settle on any specific indie posture and instead dips into the catalogue of pre-Napster microlabel culture with a randomness that is unsettling. As an aesthetic, the fuzzy goggles of hindsight may well lend a unified coherence to the music which came out of northern England two decades ago. It may even seem as if there was a shared consciousness and artistic ethos amongst the signees of Rough Trade, 4AD or Blanco y Negro as they worked together to overthrow the stranglehold of Stock, Aitken and Waterman-produced acts on the UK number one spot. Truth is though, there was no such thing. Dipping into the period, ignoring the very real rivalries and divisions between devotees of a particular label, city or guitar sound, seems tasteless and tawdry.
It's slightly reminiscent of early 90s psychobilly records, without being quite as irritating.
Or perhaps that's just a music writer's stock reaction. Maybe the record just sounds great, maybe it just doesn't matter that 'Anna' sounds like a cross between The Lightning Seeds, Echo and the Bunnymen and the Jesus and Mary Chain on a day when the drugs actually did work. Maybe it doesn't matter that 'Hairspray' brings Public Image Limited vocal histrionics to a synthbed which sounds like something Phil Oakey might have thought a bit too much of a self-parody to bother with. Hey, there's some discordant guitar drama on the outro, surely that is enough to forgive the pick 'n' mix approach to cultural inspiration?
The final track, 'Pleased to Know' is cringe-inducing. This time the tribute band could be called 'The Blue Mondays' or suchlike, because the goal of the track could quite easily have been: 'let's record something that sounds like the worst bits of middle-period New Order, but with lyrics that are even more self-consciously clunky than Barney's already clunky lyrics, and without any of Hooky's brilliant bass drops.' The tragic fact is that the band obviously stroked their chins, had a little think and actually went 'Yeah'.
There are some good tracks on the album. 'I Want to Know' has drive and lyrical ambition, along with some nicely harmonised female backing vocals. 'Moldy' too, has a rhythmic drive that bounces along via its simple bassline and snare beat, allowing the guitarist to go blues-rock rambling. It's slightly reminiscent of early 90s psychobilly records, without being quite as irritating.
On 'Picture of You', there is some discernible songwriting ambition. Malevolent guitars open the track, and there are some nicely precise female vocals on the duet verses, but the off-key delivery of the chorus (whilst true to the fey indie pop delivery of the Kristen Hersh/Kim Gordon school) is a bit too affected. In fact, the chorus is a bit of an over-postured dirge compared to the brightness of the verses, although the drive of the rhythm guitar/tambourine/lead guitar finale is very compelling.
Something of a curiosity then, Friends. The level of musical accomplishment in the album is undeniably high. As a soundtrack to a feature film set in Leeds in 1992, it would be eerily convincing. It's an inoffensive listen. At times it's even good. But doesn't music have to be exceptional now to inspire even the most cursory interest? Exceptional, unfortunately, this is not.
Available now on vinyl or download from Records Records Records records and selected retailers.
Sean Keenan used to write. Now he edits, and gets very annoyed about the word ‘ethereal’. Likely to bite anyone using the form ‘I’m loving….’. Don’t start him on the misuse of three-dot ellipses.
Divides his time between mid-Spain and South-West France, like one of those bucktoothed, fur-clad minor-aristocracy ogresses you see in Hello magazine, only without the naff chandeliers.