Wednesday, May 30, 2007

the cribs - men's needs, women's needs

There's a bit of a contradiction at the heart of Wakefield's indie rock trio The Cribs. They've carefully cultivated a reputation as unfocused and scruffy dissenters against the fashion-led UK indie scene. They deride 'scenesters' wherever possible, record their records with scant regard for production quality, and play blistering live shows calculated to make the likes of Bloc Party look tame and weedy. Although their music is identifiably British, undeniably a product of these post-punk referencing times, their influences are different - a recent podcast they assembled for Drowned In Sound contained punk-poetry by UK riot grrl noiseniks Huggy Bear, idiosyncratic pop courtesy of Daniel Johnston and several slices of awesome alternative rock by Comet Gain, Stephen Malkmus and Sleater-Kinney.

On the other hand, after several years making raucous records at the edge of the indie scene, looking scornfully in, they've never broken through and have made the decision to recruit fan Alex Kapranos (of Franz Ferdinand) to produce, in their new 'Men's Needs, Women's Needs', a much cleaner and more listenable effort than their previous albums. 'Men's Needs', the first single, is noticeably slower than their live take. They've called in their dues at the NME, got a proper marketing budget and, clearly, now is the time to make a concerted effort to storm the top 40. Will it happen? The Young Knives didn't quite manage it. But all the same, The Cribs do have the songs, bouncing around between the disparate poles of the stated contradiction.

'Men's Needs' is probably the best example. A furiously catchy and belligerent pop song which will doubtless tear up every hip indie disco in the country, it nevertheless starts with a typically cutting put-down. "Have you noticed", Ryan jabs, "I've never been impressed by your friends from New York and London"? The angular, dead simple riff could easily come from a Franz record, and yet Ryan's brother, Ross, handling the chorus, conjures up an impressive rasp more reminiscent of Kurt Cobain than Alex Kapranos. And although the latter has certainly smartened up the Cribs' sound, it's still agreeably rough and ready.

The song's flip, 'Woman's Needs', better showcases the band's versatility. Boasting a fat Pixies-style bassline and squelching synthesisers, it's both gorgeous and wilfully difficult, boasting an offbeat, chanted chorus that could easily have been penned by mid-period Pavement. Their debt to that band is, unsurprisingly, all over the record - tell me that a band which calls a song 'Major's Titling Victory' is not made up of Malkmus nuts. But on 'Moving Pictures' it's Scott Kannberg's melodic Pavement input, complimented by reverberations of noise that recall Echo and The Bunnymen, that the band evoke.

'I'm a Realist' is one of the catchiest songs; the brothers trading lines over commercial Britpop licks. "I'm a realist. I'm a romantic", they sing, "I'm an indecisive piece of shit". Despite the tuneful production, however, there's something endearingly sloppy about the vocal delivery - the effect is that they're singing along, rather than delivering a careful vocal take. It's to Kapronos's credit that he didn't force a more professional effort out of them.

Not everything works - they pack the better songs in the front end of the album, and 'I've Tried Everything' aims for a subtety which their rumbustious style doesn't suit - they can harmonise well, but I'm not sure I want them to. Again though, a Malkmus-esque guitar line rescues proceedings as the song progresses. Talking of indie icons, for 'Be Safe' they pull off the not inconsiderable feat of getting Lee Ranaldo (Lee Ranaldo!) into the studio. He recites some passable poetry over their churning guitars. The sheer impressiveness of having a member of the Sonic Youth carries the song, but there's nothing actually remarkable there, disappointingly. It's unclear whether he plays some guitar as well as sings, but I can't hear him in the mix.

Er, guys, you got probably one of the best five or six guitarists in the world into your studio. Make him pick up a fucking guitar next time. All the same, there's a nice moment at the end where Ryan notes, "that [take] were alright. Wasn't my best one but who cares?". Ranaldo laughs approvingly, concluding "that's the spirit".

That they don't quite pull off a completely consistent record is, though, a minor complaint, and the overall feel is of a band not so much comfortable with their sound as utterly self-confident to the point of belligerence. But while their music is often raucous, they never feel less than inventive and they're certainly intelligent, recalling at times the dry Northern wit of Mark E. Smith, Jarvis Cocker or the more youthful Arctic Monkeys.

It's a pleasure to hear a band drawing on a different palate of sounds without feeling obliged to replicate them directly - 'Ancient History' is a marvellous hotch-potch of Dinosaur Jr and Pavement repackaged into the format of an English new wave pop song, tuneful and thunderous by turn. It's not original, but the Cribs are moving towards the mainstream without sacrificing their instincts, and it's good to hear.

They're still annoyed, prickly and riotous, but they're turning towards their potential audience (dismissed quickly in the first song as 'our bovine public') with a bunch of songs that might elevate them to the status of the big league. Hope so - they're about a million times more interesting than the likes of The Rakes, The View or The Fratellis.


Blogger Ben said...

It all sounds a bit confused to me, touching bases all over the place without having one of their own - but worthy of investigation all the same.

5:15 pm  

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