John Vanderslice is not the kind of artist that you’ll find gracing the front cover of Q magazine. A media hooked on hyperbole and the shock of the new is probably not going to pin any hopes on a new album from a tried and tested over 40year old singer songwriter and I doubt his record company will reach the FTSE 100 on the back of him. Roman Names could possibly end up camouflaged amongst the masses of CDs in you local charity shop, before finding itself unsought in the 50p bargain bucket and eventually becoming asphalt in a the A127 between Bedford and Luton. If this were the fate that beholds Romananian Names it would be a little unfair, because the album stand up incredibly well to repeated listening.
Romanian Names could have been easy to dislike, it could have been classically ordinary ‘singer/songwriter by numbers’ material, the kind of catchy but empty nonsense that often appears on Radio 2 and is loved by those who own ‘Friends’ box sets and are slowly losing the will to live. All the classic ingredients are there, it’s mid-paced, melodic and it has light fluffy Jose Gonzalez-esque vocals. What really redeems Roman names from AOR graveyard is the subtle experimentation, the strange overdubbed vocals, the electronic landscape lurking quietly behind many tracks. All this happens without ever coming close to indulgence, in fact one of the highlights of the album is its lack of fat; the longest track weighs in at 3min 57 and after 12 song you’ve only invested just over 37 minutes. The album doesn’t suffer from over-reach, it doesn’t suffer the pretence that it’s going to be a classic album, and while there are some pretty ordinary tracks here, Vanderslice has the confidence to keep the songs short and so maximises their impact. The better tracks are also the most quirky, ‘Oblivion’ and ‘Sunken Union Boat’ wouldn’t feel out of place on an Of Montreal album - although they do lack OM’s camp weirdness. Best song on the album is ‘D.I.A.L.O.’, which sound like reigned in and cleaned up ‘Soft Bulletin’ era ‘Flaming Lips’. Worst is ‘C and O Canal”, a song so sickly melodic it sound as if it was made with the intention of appearing in an Apple Nano advert - the irony being, if this album is to eventually sell shed loads, this track will probably be the reason.
I doubt Romanian Names is going to set the world alight, but nor does it fall into the trap of being the only thing worse than being bad - which is being ordinary. It has enough confidence and invention to be well worth a listen and if you do happen to find it in the at your local charity shop. I implore you to rescue it.
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What The Horrors first album Strange House alluded to and what Primary Colours only serves to confirm is that The Horrors are in essence a pastiche band - begging, borrowing and stealing from rock n roll’s history and then repackaging and re-releasing. Re-invention should not be considered a criticism, but you could easily have expected Primary Colours to be more of the same, a method Oasis have been executing for well over 15 years. In fact, Primary Colours is very different to its predecessor, slower, measured - and where Strange House took the Goth punk of The Cramps and blended it with the sixties psychedelic weirdness of acts such as Screaming Lord Such, the influences running through this LP are altogether different.
On hearing the introduction of opening track Mirror Image, your first reaction may be that you’ve been given the wrong album. Where are the gothic organ sounds and sixties surf bass-lines? Here you’ll hear phasing, pitch-bending distortion; and may assume you have been handed a lost My Bloody Valentine album in error. Vocalist Farris Badawan’s first appearance confirms it’s the right record - but even then his performance resembles Brett Anderson with slightly larger testicles; gone is the aggressive scowl that dominates Strange House. Unfortunately this doesn’t end with the first track and while the My Bloody Valentine motif runs through most of the album, this is unfortunately no Loveless. More like a cheap market version of MBV, doing remixes of other bands: The Cure on Mirror Image, The Psychedelic Furs on Primary Colours, or Siouxsie and the Banshees on I Can’t Control Myself.
What is lacking from Primary Colours is the energy, the aggression, the uncontained vocals and the simple but effective musicianship of Strange House. No band has an obligation to be defined by genre and it would be wrong to demand it (although I‘m tempted to say any band employing the Madchester drum break employed in Do You Remember has no right to call themselves The Horrors, EMF yes, The Charlatans maybe, The Horrors no). What disappoints most is, while they were never going to be the most original band, they were at least unique. Strange House wasn’t perfect, but it was different and refreshing, best of all it sounded like the antithesis to the entire rolling basslined, high-keyed anthems that were and are still dominating the current music scene. If Strange House was The Horrors as mavericks, this is The Horrors falling back into line - if Brandon Flowers sung Scarlet Fields, it could easily be a Killers track (remixed by the counterfeit My Bloody Valentine of course).
This is not to make Primary Colours sound like an obituary, because there are some undoubted highlights. New Ice Age, despite the over production retains its energy, I Only Think Of You is strong enough to survive the Boards Of Canada treatment and the production on I Can’t Control Myself works well. Best of all is Sea Within A Sea, the epic 8 minute closer which starts like Joy Division’s No Love Lost and ends like Portisheads The Rip (unsurprising, as Portishead’s Geoff Barrow co-produces the album).
Where Strange House compelled you to throw yourself into the mosh pit, Primary Colours encourages you to stand at the back and listen with your arms firmly folded. Some may consider this progress but it could easily alienate many existing fans. It will probably get 9/10 from the NME and be described as The Horrors ‘maturing’, if that’s true it’s them reaching adolescence, talented but unsure, full of doubt and overly influenced by their friends. Somewhere there’s a great band trying to get out, but this album leaves you confused as to whether they’re a studio or live band. At some point they’re going to have to make that decision.
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