Black Country, New Road’s debut strikes gold
Just one album old, the young British band with an unexpectedly original sound has wowed critics
It might not be a great idea to go overboard with praise for a band that has released just one album but Black Country, New Road (BC, NR) are an exception. The British septet—yes, it’s a big band—is young in more than one sense. The seven members are astonishingly youthful, all of them barely in their early 20s, and the band itself was formed only in 2018. Besides, as I mentioned, they have just one album out. Titled For The First Time, it was released in the first week of February to so much critical acclaim that it might seem out of proportion for such a new band. Mojo hailed BC, NR as Britain’s “best new band”; another music website went even further to suggest it could be the best new band in the world.
That’s not all. Unbeknownst to the band, a British brewery decided to call a new sour ale “I Am Locked Away in a High-Tech, Wraparound, Translucent, Blue-Tinted Fortress”. Those happen to be lines from the lyrics of one of the septet’s most popular songs, Sunglasses. Before it featured on the debut full-length, Sunglasses was released as one of the band’s singles last year. And although Sunglasses features on For the First Time, it does so in a slightly abbreviated and somewhat sterilised form (some of the lyrics’ explicit parts have been cleansed). To really appreciate why BC, NR are a band that has got so much praise so quickly, you have to hear the live, non-sterilised version of this song.
To experience that, I would recommend watching them perform that song and a couple of others at the Keusgen Recording Studio, Haldern (Germany). The video is on YouTube and Sunglasses, nearly 10 minutes long, is performed at the end of the set. The other Sunglasses live performance that is an essential watch is the one from The Lexington in London in 2019 (that video is also on YouTube). In many ways, Sunglasses is the song that defines the band’s musical style. And the basis of that style is their chameleon-like ability to switch from one style to another. In Sunglasses, they go from the unalloyed punk variety of indie rock to free jazz, with interspersions of traditional Klezmer music that owes its origins to East European Ashkenazi Jews. But it is the lyrics, penned and sung by Isaac Wood, that really stand out.
Wood comes across as the de facto leader of a band that insists everyone in the band is equal. He writes most of the songs, including the lyrics, and delivers them more often than not in a style called sprechgesang in German. It’s a part spoken-word, part singing style and fits perfectly with Wood’s lyrics. They are often like stream-of-consciousness poetry, leaving you to make what you will of them (Example: In the downstairs second living room’s TV area/ I become her father/ And complain of mediocre theatre in the/ Daytime’ and ice in single malt whiskey at night/ Of rising skirt hems’ lowering IQs/ And things just aren’t built like they used to be/ The absolute pinnacle of British engineering).
Wood sings and plays the guitar. BC, NR’s other members include Tyler Hyde on bass, May Kershaw on keyboard, Lewis Evans on saxophone, Georgia Ellery on violin, Luke Mark on guitar and Charlie Wayne on drums. The solos can crop up unexpectedly and without warning, as can the surreptitious changes in style: Jewish wedding music can metamorphose into unfettered and fuzzy guitar-led punk, or complex math rock segments with unusual time signatures, and then, when you least expect it, they can move into modern, heavily improvised forms of jazz. The band members, many of them classically trained musicians, are quite obviously hugely versatile, with each solo providing a glimpse of their talent.
For The First Time demonstrates the band’s many faces. While Sunglasses is their angry, anguished and mammoth arclight-grabbing masterpiece, Track X (You’ve got great hips/ I’ve been shaking ever since/ You told me no love would live in this house/ Turn out the inside/ Inside out) is a sentimental, romantic composition where the string instruments and harmonies interweave delicately as the backdrop against which Wood sing-speaks his lyrics. The cinematic opening track, Instrumental, with its percussive beginning (drums and hi-hats), and sax and keyboard melodies, could be an apt soundtrack for a spy movie. Clocking in at a bit over 40 minutes and with just six songs, For The First Time is not a long album. Yet it is so diverse in its offerings that it is hard not to take immediate notice of this new band.
BC, NR are like a deep and joyous whiff of fresh air. Their sound generally seems ahead of their times, although the deep influences of bands such as Slint, an erstwhile American cult post-rock band which peaked in the 1990s, are unmistakable, and comparisons with the septet’s peers, such as the experimental guitar-led Black Midi, are inevitable. It might be premature to hail them as the “best new band” but BC, NR are certainly an exciting, energetic act to track, though their influences can sometimes appear to lead them all over the place and Wood’s lyrics, teeming with pop references, can seem over-wrought. What they follow up For The First Time with will be worth looking out for.
The Lounge List of tracks from ‘For The First Time’ to bookend your week
2. Track X
5. Science Fair
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FIRST PUBLISHED20.02.2021 | 09:00 AM IST