January Music Review – Maccabees, Tribes and Howler

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The first big rock album of the year is the Maccabees with Given to the Wild, which features perhaps the most boring album cover in history.  This band started out as youthful indie merchants, but on 2009’s Wall of Arms they showed a deeper side, with some yearning Arcade Fire touches allied to strong tunes, making them a real favourite at festivals over  the last 2 summers.

This album looks likely to take them to another level as they show more maturity and complexity in their songs, which often go in directions you’re not expecting either  in terms of use of different instruments (horns, keyboards) or song structure. More than once I was left crying “where’s the chorus”? But confounding expectations is not a bad thing particularly when you’re trying to prove you’re not “landfill indie”.

Pelican, the single, already sounds like a stone-cold classic, and is one of the most upbeat on the album although the lyrics (about growing old) are not exactly Happy Talk.  And as well as its more obvious  influences, Went Away in its instrumental moments takes me back to classic Joshua Tree U2.

If I have one criticism,  it’s that the whole album, which weighs in at 53 minutes, has periods where the mood seems a little downbeat. There aren’t too many tracks that I can see the crowd getting fully behind at Reading Festival , where they will surely headline the NME tent this year. But it is a grower, and consistently draws comparison with the best, mainly North American, intelligent indie-rock around (Arcade Fire, Shins, The National, Animal Collective) – so a very strong album, and an 8.5/10 from us.

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Is there room for another band made up of confident young men with guitars, energy, a Pixies-type way with the loud / soft thing, a Razorlight or Killers facility with sing-along choruses and hummable melodies, and pretty mundane lyrics?

Well, in the Smith household (that’s me, Jane and the tame fox family in the garden), the answer is a unanimous “yes”.  And when they’re as good live as Tribes are, having impressed us at Reading festival and supporting the Kooks, well, that’s an added bonus. But our fear is they could be this year’s Red Light Company, a tuneful indie bunch who made a great impact in 2009 then.. disappeared.

Anyway, their debut album is “Baby”, which is not frankly the greatest title ever.  But at their best (We Were Children), there are intriguing touches of classic glam rock - Bowie or Mott the Hoople - as well as more recent bands; and the vocalist has a nice Ian Hunter / Joe Strummer sneer in his voice. At their worst, it’s a little plodding, but still pleasant enough. They’ve split critical opinion with most newspapers and serious websites giving them 2-stars, perhaps because they’re pretentious critics who have lost any real feeling for the joy of simple rock music. Whilst the NME have decided they are 2012’s big thing and went with a 9/10 “album of the year” type rating.

Well, they’re not as good as that, and at times (Sappho) it gets somewhat formulaic, but if you like good, tuneful guitar indie-rock, you’ll enjoy this, as we do. 8/10 I think.

Howler are another bunch of young guys with guitars who have been given the NME seal of approval. They’re from Brooklyn, which automatically gives them a little more street cred with the serious music press than Tribes.

Think of a slightly less up-themselves Strokes with a touch of Ramones song-writing directness (that’s a compliment by the way). It’s hard to know what else to say - America Give Up is their first album, and there’s no great depth or originality but they sound like they’re enjoying themselves, and have the knack of translating that to the listener, which is an under-rated talent. It’s very jolly, and caused movement of the upper body as I sat typing this, but will it change the world? Nah.  But an acceptable 7/10.

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