Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Ten New Messages - The Rakes

One of the main problems with the post-2004 indie explosion is its decided lack of substance. The mix and match musical stylings of most of the genres progenitors are without suitable context or conceptual framework, thus leaving it open to accusations of vacuousness. While The View sing about wearing the same pair of jeans for four days in a row, which may have resonance for a large section of its fanbase, you have to ask yourself: WHERE ARE THE ISSUES? Which bands are railing against the injustices of the world, the social inequities? Many assign themselves with charities and fundraising events, which has to be applauded (although the cynic within us sees it as a purely self-serving exercise), yet which artist explores these issues within their music? Time and again we are told that our generation is the least politically aware, the most apathetic, yet no artist seems prepared to voice their concerns. If they do they are met with derision. It seems that we don’t want a statesman.
One of rock criticisms’ key aspects is its revisionistic tendency. Whilst seen in some quarters as a pitfall, others revel in its fluidity. This malleable characteristic means that popular opinion of an album is never fixed. It often transpires albums that are now much lauded and considered part of the musical canon weren’t well received when initially released. It is also often the case that albums released to (the hated term) “critical acclaim” are now vilified. The Rakes, whose debut Capture/Release was one of the keynote releases in the first wave of indie darlings and was well received on its release in 2005, are one such band. The last three years have been less kind, and the singles apart, it now leaves behind the impression of a band that weren’t yet ready for the studio. Having formed only a year beforehand this was hardly surprising.
This is why Ten New Messages is a welcome step forward, both sonically and thematically. Whilst still capturing the sensation of being a twentysomething living and working in the capital, the album has a heart and social conscience absent from their debut. True, the jerky rhythms of their debut were ready made for the indie disco, and in Alan Donohue they had a frontman who was an intriguing mix of Ian Curtis and David Brent. As with many bands that ploughed a similar musical furrow (identikit post-punk/art disco. Key influences: Wire, Joy Division, XTC, the Postcard bands, Buzzcocks/Magazine, The Strokes) it all felt too clearly demarcated – they wrote songs that ticked all the right boxes but were purely perfunctory. “22 Grand Job” and “Work, Work, Work (Pub. Club, Sleep)” were polite deferences to the cycle of working and drinking in the city that, whilst capturing the emptiness of this traditional working environment, lacked a wider appreciation of social issues.
Opener “The World Was A Mess But His Hair Was Perfect” is a less than veiled indictment of this scene and their dissatisfaction with it, though this is slightly tempered with the knowledge that it was originally conceived as a backing track for a Christian Dior fashion show. There is a melancholy air that shrouds the album, making it a more sombre affair than their debut. Perhaps it is a question of timing, because Donohue’s lyrics are particularly affected by the spectre of 7/7. The three bombs that detonated within 50 seconds of each other affected more than just the 52 victims and their loved ones. The lack of public inquiry affected public confidence; the economic impact was huge but more important to Donohue is the media response to the attacks. In the immediate aftermath of 7/7, as in 9/11, there was an outbreak of racist discourse in certain sections of the media that they obviously felt uncomfortable with, examined on “Suspicious Eyes”. The track uses many voices, a clever narrative device that allows them to investigate the racial tension that overshadows life in London these days from multiple perspectives. Laura Marling joins Phil Morais and Raxstar, plucked from MySpace obscurity, to provide backing vocals. On “When Tom Cruise Cries” they detail the anxiety of searching for a loved one in the immediate aftershock of the bombings. Since 9/11 this scene has entered the cultural lexicon, informed by images of faces on billboards, flowers on sidewalks, a cloud of dust billowing down a street, tear stained faces appealing for information, for anything, as the local newshound attempts to keep it together.
Where the album fails is where it leaves this narrative cycle; leadoff single “We Danced Together” is, as the title suggests, a knockabout song primarily designed to fill the dancefloor at your local indie night. It’s as if they’ve adopted Franz Ferdinand’s maxim of “music to make girls dance” and taken it too far – spiky guitars and disco drums combine on nearly every track, with little to break the uniformity. Admittedly they do try and disrupt this (Lethal Bizzle guesting on the reissue of “22 Grand Job”), but depressingly the songs feel more and more like artifice. The Rakes' endeavours to wrestle with various issues on this album is welcome, but as of yet they lack the songwriting craft to supplement Donohue’s lyrical preoccupations.

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