Strawberry Whiplash "Hits In The Car" (Matinée Recordings)
We tend to have little truck with "concept" LPs. For our money, most groups find it a difficult enough concept to make an album that's any good, so attempts to render proceedings any more complex are doomed to failure. Having said that, if the band is good enough, the concept might just work: witness Sarandon's set last year, MJ Hibbett's recent opus and even Rotten Sound's visceral suite, "Cursed". Any road, the concept behind "Hits In The Car" (should you have wondered where we were going with this) is that it charts over 13 tunes the rise, decline and fall of a relationship, and it does so with all the sweetness, intensity and sadness required. Not only does the conceit come off, but as the album progresses it sheds its layers to reveal no end of individually stonking pop songs: in any order, "Hits In The Car" could just as well be a 'greatest hits' as a concept album.
While this is Sandra and Laz's first long-player, it's now nearly six years since the duo first seduced our ears with "Boy In The Bubble Car", and four since they catapulted onto the Matinée roster with their rattling "Who's In Your Dreams ?" single ("a happy, gargling stream of revivalist ba-ba-ba's, of gargantuan guitar melodies, of Bubblegum Splash-style thudding drum n' bass"). And from the compact, citrus opener "Do You Crash Here Often ?", which neatly marks an X where Baby Lemonade and the Mary Chain intersect, "Hits In The Car" is a honeyed tangle of sunny jangle, Rickenbacker glory and spry Glaswegian indie-pop zeal epitomised by the singles "Picture Perfect" and "Stop, Look, And Listen" and the zippy harmonies that lift "Looking Out For Summer" to completeness. There's also plenty of Laz's easy way with everyday observation ("everybody's texting / nobody talks") as well as his unshakeable love of the pun: try "Dining Out In Paris And London" for, er, starters. One of us (OK then, me) detected just a twinge of cloying sixtiesness on occasion (I'd cite "What Do They Say About Me ?" in this regard), but another thought the same song rang with the bright chimes of early Flatmates. Which just goes to show that one man's meat (whiplash) is another man's (this) poison.
There are unexpected stylistic twists, too. So the duet "You Make Me Shine" is not so much Jim Reid / Sister Vanilla, as you might expect, but uncannily recalls Lazy-era Primitives, in the days when both Tracy and PJ took on vocal duties. "Now I Know It's You" is a singularly appetising slab of miasmic two-chord shoegaze, closer to Air Formation than any of Strawberry Whiplash's obvious contemporaries. The two minutes of "It Came To Nothing" flaunt an irresistible punk-pop flavour, all flailing limbs and "Billy's Third". And when we first heard it, we genuinely thought that "Sleepy Head", with its lurching MBV-isms and detuned girl/boy ache, was the undervalued Spraydog. As if all this wasn't enough, you can put a good case for the thoughtful, reflective, end-of-the-affair "First Light Of Dawn" (which even passes the three-minute mark) as being the best song Strawberry Whiplash have ever recorded.
So, showing off songwriting nous, dashes of musical variety and an effortlessly-harboured story arc, "Hits In The Car" makes for a truly impressive first album. They've come a long way from "Boy In The Bubble Car", you know: they might have been Isetta then, but they're Isotta-Fraschini now.