The “next big thing” is such a sorry cliché in the music press that it’s enough to make you suspicious of a band from the off – just how fresh and exciting can a new guitar band be, especially one comprised exclusively of young white males, in this day and age, with 60 years of outstanding rock music to compete with?
With great predictability, the debut album of Shame, a tuneful British post-punk band comprised exclusively of young white males, has been greeted with a chorus of feverishly exaggerated praise, particularly in British publications such as NME and Clash. This band really is the next big thing, they tell us. They’re the next Arctic Monkeys, a brand new Libertines, primed for a brave new decade! A reviewer for Clash calls this “one of the most thrilling, intoxicating, ludicrously entertaining British guitar records in an age”. Shame will be the saviours of British rock music, it’s implied.
Beware the hype, as always. But don’t let it put you off listening to Shame’s Songs of Praise, which is, whilst far from being a masterpiece, a good album and plenty of fun. It moves along at an admirably brisk pace, packs in plenty of memorable hooks and riffs, showcases several variations on their brittle sound, and then finishes a while before you’ve had your fill. So it does what any good album should do – it leaves you wanting more. Which is admirable not just in this day and age, but in any other. It could’ve been released in the early 80s, during the post-punk peak, and been not at all ashamed of itself.
The sound is recognisably that of a bunch of twenty-somethings, who have worked hard on honing their skills for years, beginning to cohere and come up with their own variations on the forms of guitar music that made them want to start a band in the first place. It’s an old story in rock: the five members of Shame came together over a shared love of certain bands, in this case The Fall, and practised for years in some dive, in this case a pub in London, until they had a vague sheen of professionalism about them, and through a series of lucky strikes landed a record deal. In this case it was with Dead Oceans, an indie label that allowed them the creative freedom to try out what they wanted to do on record. And what they wanted was to replicate the rough and ready sound of their reputedly energetic live shows. So they recorded it in a mere 10 days and began promoting it as soon as they could at gigs in various dives all around Europe.
The results on Songs of Praise are not exactly raucous – the rhythm section, particularly the bass, helps to keep things grounded in steady 4/4 structures, with never slow but never zip-fast tempos, whilst the guitar riffs are usually considered and not in a rush to get in your face. The music rarely flies off the wall, leaping bare-chested into the crowd like lead singer Charlie Steen at one of their gigs. Instead, it sounds impressively controlled, especially for an album recorded in just 10 days.
Highlights include the dirty bass lick of “The Lick” propping up Steen’s amusingly memorable pronunciation of gynaecologist (“guuuy-nooo-cologist!”), a track called “Tasteless” where the guitar parts are almost as catchy as the repeated chant of “I like you better when you’re not around”, which I suspect and hope is directed at the racists and homophobes all over the world, and a vicious little number called “Friction” which starts off with “Do you ever help the helpless?/Do you give them any time?” and leaves it as rhetorical, despite the sarcastic snarl of Steen’s voice betraying his own thoughts as to the answer.
Generally much better at writing music than lyrics, Shame stumble a few times in putting forward a snotty image that is rarely as convincing, and is certainly never as interesting as, say, The Rolling Stones. The tale of a rich married man sleeping with a greedy younger woman in “Gold Hole” just can’t seem to get past that old cliché of a no-good gold digger prostituting herself for wealth: “She feels so dirty/She knows that it’s wrong/But she feels so good in Louis Vuitton”. It’s not just unimaginative, it’s a rank sexist cliché. And because of this, other moments on the album make you shudder; it’s unclear whom “I’d like to pick you up/But I’d rather watch you crawl” is directed at, but the rest of the song “Donk” seems to imply it’s a vain woman, which makes for a rather unsettling listen.
The Rolling Stones managed to move past this snotty dissatisfaction with women and society in general to a kind of beautiful, if conflicted, maturity with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and beyond, and if Shame are to become a great band they will need to do the same. The Stones-referencing “Angie” that finishes their debut suggests that maybe they have it in them; it’s a 6-minute epic that unfortunately can’t resist the woman-as-angel opposite end of the sexist cliché spectrum, but contains some genuinely tender moments in its narrative of a young woman who’s hung herself and left a devastated lover behind. Steen’s voice rumbles in a low kind of pain, the guitars gently mourn, and the rhythm section respectfully keeps its distance. It’s the sound of a band coming together to paint a narrative picture. And it works.
Here’s hoping this particular “next big thing” can stay the course and paint many more such pictures in music.