Friday, May 11, 2012

Band Of Skulls Plays Sweet And Sour

In 2009, Band Of Skulls broke out with a blistering mix of howling blues-rock with their debut album Baby Darling Doll Face Honey. The album was a decent debut from the U.K. trio, but their latest release is more striking with several tracks that everyone goes back to.

Sweet Sour is an excellent progression with dirtier, heavier riffs and the experience of tireless touring. In fact, most of the songs off the 11-track album fire things up, making the convincing case that the band was thinking about their next tour while they were in the studio.

To produce it, Russell Marsden (guitar/vocals), Emma Richardson (bass/vocals), and Matthew Hayward (drums) stole away to a remote area in rural Norfolk with nothing but each other and their instruments. Well, that's not exactly true. To hear the band tell it, they had plenty of strong red wine too.

“It seemed like a good way of decompressing everything that had happened to us, all the adventures we’d had, but it was like a big, dramatic therapy session,” says Marsden. “It was desolate, lonely and bitterly cold. We were on our own in a room playing the same four chords at each other.”

They didn't produce the album there, they merely composed it while contemplating desolation as the snow kept falling and threatened to strand them there, snowed in and over. That's when they decided to write the rest of it in the same tiny home studio where they pulled their first record together.

While the album has seen plenty of airplay since its early introduction in the U.K. and eventual migration to the United States, Sweet Sour and The Devil Takes Care Of His Own typically get the most attention. The first is sharp for balancing vocal harmonies with heavy-handed sludgy instruments (despite struggling when it was initially released as a single). The second because it is considerably fiercer, a blazing rocker with a lot more crunch.

The downside is that some of the other standout songs don't get enough attention. Notably, Wanderluster adds in a striking vintage guitar with laid back vocals. You're Not Pretty But You Got It Going On carries some of the best biting lyrics on the album. And Bruises, despite some immediate familiarity, alternates between bruising guitars and soothing vocals. It's the song I find myself going back to most often.

Band Of Skulls can also dial it way down for their folk-tinged meditative ballads. The atmosphere they create around those slow and meandering tracks like Hometowns, Close To Nowhere, and Lay My Head Down are pretty but never really deliver enough emotion to match their more fiery work. Played on their own, most of them would drift into each other and eventually be forgotten all together.

The song selection plays well enough live, but practically splits the album in two.

While the slower numbers probably provide a chance for everyone to catch their breath and add some beauty when they play live, they don't feel needed on the album next to their heavier material. Among the quieter pieces, Such A Fool can manage well enough on its own. It is understated like a whisper, forcing people to listen.

That doesn't mean every slowdown needs to be dumped, but it does mean you could probably settle for just one if you want to. You won't really need Lies either. It's the one song that wanted to be something else but never really made it past the middle ground.

Where Band Of Skulls makes up for it is in how good the songs sound when they nail them (Devil, Pretty, Bruises, and Wanderluster especially). You have to admire their determination too. Richardson is responsible for all of the art. And all three worked on developing Club Skull at Southampton's Talking Heads venue, which helped other bands get exposure too. That's cool.

Sweet Sour By Band Of Skulls Mixes Up 3.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Dividing up the tracks into sweet and sour piles would significantly elevate the overall rating (our scale weighs differently), but it's a harder listen in entirety. If Band Of Skulls can put as emotion into their listless drifters like they do their edgier numbers, their third album will be hotly anticipated. In the meantime, most of Sweet Sour was too good to pass up.

You can listen to the tracks off Sweet Sour on iTunes. The album is also available at Barnes & Noble and you can find it on Amazon. Band Of Skulls is currently touring in Europe with plans to play a few cities in the United States in August. They also have an addictive Instagram feed worth checking out.
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