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If you're going to be ambitious you better make damn sure it's an interesting ride, sister. It used to be that French psuedo-grungers Underground Railroad were happy with their lot, pumping out tritonal junky-pop as lightweight as it was refreshing, and needless to say about as 'grunge' as Phoenix in an airport. The gallic Subways wouldn't be too far off the mark and much like Manchester Orchestra the following year, 2008's Sticks and Stonesgot by on toothsome melodies, a colourful brio, and some brutalising wrath, as on 'NYC' and 'One More Kiss' - injecting some nihilistic chic into proceedings. Being French didn't hurt either - the way Marion Androu's vicious fuck-me / fuck you vocals met with her guitar would be considered a punishable offence in various sovereignties, and evoked every affectless euro art-skeeze you've never had the metal to approach. It could have be love, until you awoke to crisp notes on the night dress and a mini counterculture anthem in the shape of 'Poems For Freaks'. The end product packed the essence, if not technically the sonics, of old-time Seattle-grown glamour, made ever more glamourous by an (incandescent) immediacy, not despite of it.
So from a dumb, tasty kind of purity to White Night Stand their 'London' album and an attempt at earnest self-improvement, credibility, mystique, profundity and other lofty aspirations which often transform fundamentally average but hook-rich, lovable bands into mundane technicians (think Ignore The Ignorant; CSS's Donkey; cue soft textures, slight guitars and convoluted arrangements, cue completely throwing the baby out with the bath water. Poor little guy.
Come album three, just once it would be nice to see some ruthless refinement, as opposed to unsure over-complication. Evolve your concept not the execution. With little command of mood or tone, White Night Standstrains to capture an evaporating, dark beauty but instead descends into vulgar chaos; and a note to future adventurers - being 'more Radiohead-y' is not a valid artistic goal. The pointlessly long 'Seagull Attack' uses the vocal effect from 'Everything In Its Right Place' but drops a ribald pop punk chorus in anyway, before progressing vaguely and with perfunctory awkwardness into an extended middle suite. Equally, 'Ginko Bilabo' is bargain bin 'There There', matching a pin-balling bass with JB Ganivet's personality-devoid mewing, while rough-stitching Radiohead's itchy unbehagen to the same old scraggy guitar sound. At track two, their big play 'We Were Slumbering' could pass as a lost OK Computer B-side, but the refrain is again saggy and the composition mild, hollow and like the overall outcome, somewhat redundant. Appealing vocal melodies, formerly their strongest suite (and that of their Oxford patrons for the record) that could have saved these songs. But the well has run dry in that respect, it seems.
There are several grace notes of richness dotted about, which bear the fruits of nearly ten years as a band. Notably Androu's Twin Peaks-inspired tracks, like hungry striptease 'The Black Widow' and 'The Orchid's Curse', with the former riding the bastard-son blues a la PJ Harvey's Rid Of Me and the latter matching Howling Bells' faded glamour with Sisterworld's asphalt-choked paradise lost. Meanwhile 'Russian Doll's four-and-a-half minutes flies by on a Kraut-y insistency and 'Yellow Suit' is a pleasingly frenzied addendum to the swinging powder-puff grunge on Sticks And Stones. The Liars influence returns on album highlight - the subtly acerbic 'Lucky Duck'. While unashamedly pinching 'No Barrier Fun's guitar line, the double-kicked finale is inspired and the They Were Wrong...-style loops ably rendered by Paul Walton, veteran producer to both Massive Attack and Bjork. Another development is the continental bent the album hosts. A disquisition on long London nights it may be, nevertheless from opener '8 Millimetres' the Parisian xenophiles sound unmistakeably French, and Androu the perfect femme fatale.
Well produced and accomplished, with Androu's fork-tongued serenata finding a befitting home, regardless White Night Stand finds these subterranean homesick aliens in desperate need of some focus. But take 'Lucky Duck', slather with the tones of a kohl-eyed seraph, and raise a fucked off hate-letter to London, and they might just have something – they have the musical chops at any rate. For the time being, though, White Night Stand casts its net too widely, a pile of stage props when all they needed was a silhouette and lashings of red lippie.
- Underground Railroad - White Night Stand
- Underground Railroad - Sticks and Stones
- Underground Railroad - Sticks and Stones
- John & Jehn at Old Blue Last, London, South East England, Thu 17 Jul
- Singles Round-up (21/07/08)
- WIN! Silver Rocket 100 tickets and compilation CDs
- Silver Rocket at 100: special all-dayer this month
- The Thermals, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Underground Railroad at Monto Water Rats, Camde