Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Hermit Crabs "Time Relentless" (Matinée Recordings): Bart and Friends "It's Not The Words That You Say" (Shelflife)

Tempus fugit (um, we're just trying to reclaim all things Latinate from that pompous fool Mayor). We're struggling to believe it's really more than three years since the previous release by the Hermit Crabs - the splendid "Correspondence Course" - but apparently it is, which even before you've torn the disc from its sleeve makes this new EP a tremendously welcome event. The band have resisted the temptation to emerge from this hibernation (and yes, before you question our carcinological credentials, hermit crabs *do* hibernate) sporting a dramatic new sound - so no Damascene conversion to the wonders of cross-genre pollination, or sudden discovery of the latest bandwagon (which may be just as well, given that the latest bandwagons in town include djent and brostep)- but that doesn't mean the Crabs haven't made a few refinements to the glorious, melody-strewn folk-pop leanings of their previous releases.

The opening song here, "On The Spectrum", resumes the Glaswegians' discography perfectly. It intertwines winningly-observed lyrics (it's boy vs. boy, with a twist in the tail) with rolling organ, an easy, assured indie-pop twang and guitars that could have garlanded the first Butcher Boy album: a grand instrumental passage shines particularly brightly. It's then the turn of the title track to cement the new record's credentials, and it does so with style: after announcing itself with *that* drumbeat (clue: from New York City, by way of East Kilbride), "Time Relentless" uses poetry by the brilliant if iconoclastic former sprint cyclist Graeme Obree as the key ingredient in a warm cooking-pot of simmeringly jangling guitars: there are some confident, Smiths-like brush strokes, as well as an extra helping of keyboards.

The third number, "Stop This Now" (despite the "Down With That Sort Of Thing" ring of its title) is another song with its roots in the way that relationships repeat themselves, but singer Melanie Whittle makes no bones that she's intent on nipping this one in the bud: once more the guitars find themselves plucked with a particular gusto (a breezy instrumental section contains some of the most intricately upbeat jangle this side of the Chesterf!elds' "Kettle"), and the song rattles along at Ski Sunday pace before the inevitable stone-cold ending. 

The EP's parting shot is the affecting and very personal "So Blue": intimate from the opening lines ("we had a gig in Aberdeen / I invited all our friends..."), and throwing into sharp relief the faster pace of earlier songs, it's a musical trinket wrapped up in bittersweet memories, as Melanie turns her attention to a friend who has been assaulted, and thence to the nature of friendship itself. It's not an easy subject to tackle, and there are certainly groups out there who might struggle to get the tone right, but "So Blue" is naked enough ("I secretly said a prayer") that it makes a compelling, if lyrically somewhat sombre, end to the EP. If truth be told, we were beginning to think that we might not hear from the Hermit Crabs again, so it's lovely for this record to appear and put those doubts to rest.

In stark contrast to the Hermit Crabs' fairly leisurely new release schedule, the last time we heard from Bart and Friends wasn't even three months ago, let alone three years ago. "It's Not The Words That You Say" is their second EP of summer 2012, following "There May Come A Time" (on the Hermit Crabs' label home, Matinée), and means they've posted a round dozen new tracks on the board even since the late-blooming flowers appeared. The release also gives us our second chance to review new Shelflife product (always a pleasure, never a chore) in the matter of a month or so, after that Hobbes Fanclub 7" fair blew our little ears away.

The most obvious difference between the two Bart and Friends EPs is that this time around it's Scott Stevens of Summer Cats (the ensemble responsible for the likes of the delectable "Your Timetable"), rather than muse n' chanteuse Pam Berry, who assumes chief vocal duties: yet again though, we get the benefit of a formidable supporting cast which includes Pam, Mark Monnone, Louis Richter and Jeremy Cole. In the few short weeks since our last B&F review, we still haven't found an original way to capture the music they make: trying to describe it without repeating the same adjectives and adverbs ad infinitum is, as Mr Monnone's former band once had it, like trying to catch sunlight in a jar. So here come those usual adjectives (we used at least four of them last time): this is gently fuzzy, reverb-cloaked, classic post-Sarah melodic jangle, with one foot dangled in some of indie-pop's alleged pre-punk antecedents. It's a sound so bound up with Melbourne in our little heads that it makes us think instantly of Summershine, Au-Go-Go and Albert Park.

"It's Not The Words..." thus flies by, of course, in a tangle of sweet strumming and Scott's plaintive, yelped vocals: each song is studiously arranged, but compact enough not to outstay its welcome. The opening "Everything Goes Quiet In The End" may just be our favourite (it pedals along at a bristling enough pace, but still strikes just the right note of mournfulness); "Hierarchy Of Sorrows" is a beauteous thing, with Scott's lonely voice and the austere guitar helping to give a hint of Galaxie 500's delicate highs; the sterling "I Was" is all about the chorus harmonies; and in the finishing straight, the perfectly-weighted "I'm Sure We Haven't Met Before", adorned with the tiniest hints of guitar noise, comes closest to matching the more feral qualities of "Your Timetable". It's tempting to finish by eulogising Bart Cummings' seeming "conveyor belt" of addictive, accessible pop songs, but we don't want to use language which might devalue or mechanise his songwriting. Instead, let's just say that Bart's creative purple patch is one which has so far spanned decades, and which shows no obvious sign of abating just yet.

These are two EPs, then, that make for soothing comedown listening as summer fades inexorably into autumn (time *is* relentless): still ripe with the wonder of the indie-pop melodies we grew up on, they should provide the perfect foil to any September blues.

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