(SXSW 2014 flavoured!) Album Review: The Crookes – Soapbox

By on Thursday, 20th February 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

The Crookes Soapbox cover smLast May in Sheffield after the Crookes‘ 90 person-capacity show at the Shakespeare, I was trying to help a fellow fan who wasn’t sure if she should buy the band’s debut album ‘Chasing After Ghosts’ or the newer ‘Hold Fast’. As she held them in her hands, I tried to explain that I viewed them as “the winter album” and “the summer album”, respectively. When I considered how I was going to describe the group’s latest effort, I decided that the best season to associate with it would be autumn, which coincidentally is both when this third album was recorded (October 2013 in an isolated, abandoned church in the mountains of Northern Italy) and my favourite time of year of all. Autumn is when the winds begin to change and the leaves change colour to follow suit, only to fall as the trees go bare in anticipation of winter. If winter is cold, hard and unyielding, autumn is then the last hurrah, the last chance to grasp the warmth before the world falls into a lonely, desolate slumber.

The title ‘Soapbox’ is very appropriate because it represents the band’s raison d’être well. You can imagine them stood at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park with their jean turn-ups and New Pop attitude, trying to persuade the masses that their way – of making music the way they want to, DIY and without compromise – is best. Their label’s press release for the album supports this, with guitarist and lyricist Daniel Hopewell saying of the album, “The most obvious theme that runs through the entire album is the idea of The Outsider. As a band that seems to suit us…never invited inside, but never wanting to be. I can empathise more with the madman standing on his soapbox, slowly gaining an audience by speaking with passion and honesty”. Going on from Hopewell’s words, it stands to reason then that track ‘Outsiders’, serving as a pep talk in song form to remind all listeners of the Crookes that we’re all outsiders in some way and that doesn’t matter as long as we take life by the horns and live life to the fullest (finishing with the words “oh ‘cos even if we die, we’ll still be / oh, nothing but outsiders, baby, you and me”), should be the centrepiece of the album, with a stellar guitar solo as well. However, this one theme of not belonging isn’t the be all and end all take home message of the LP as a whole; there is much more to discover here.

‘Soapbox’ has its jauntier, in your face moments; first single ‘Play Dumb’ as I reviewed here revealed in early January exemplifies this. But it’d be a mistake to only focus on the poppier moments. From the harder ‘Bear’s Blood’ single of May 2013, it was clear the Crookes were making a concerted effort to move away from their indie pop beginnings. Moving away from what we used to think was standard Crookes fare might have been a huge risk, but the album’s impressive fullness of sound, achieved on limited budget as the band have done for all of their releases, is a testament to their talent, as are the beautiful melodies paired with evocative lyrics, both of which have become the band’s trademarks. For this album, the group worked again with long time collaborator and Leeds-based producer Matt Peel, and I’m wondering too how much credit we should give him for making lead singer George Waite’s voice sound better than it’s ever been.

But what else will hit you hard – either through your heart or as if socked in the stomach – on this album are the heartbreak and the dysfunctional nature of relationships on display here. It sneaks up on you, all the while as your ears can’t help but be taken in by the majestic guitar chords and lines working their magic, while the driving drums don’t seem to care. Or do they? Notable number ‘When You’re Fragile’ has huge, epic chords in the chorus, as well as interesting minor, then major guitar note progressions, the former as memorable as those in the choruses of ‘Maybe in the Dark’. What is most striking about the song is the vulnerability of a man’s emotions in the lyrics, visible for all the world to see, as he admits to his lover that it’s their shared sorrow and how they bond while they try and negotiate the more difficult parts of life together that he treasures most about their relationship. “Once again, we come undone / fools like us, we don’t belong / if it don’t hurt, it ain’t worthwhile / I love you most when you’re fragile”, emotes frontman Waite in the chorus. In the bridge, it’s admitted through the deepest honesty, “but I keep what I think about truly inside my head / ‘cos if I spoke my mind, I’d have an empty bed / I lie through my teeth to get what I need”, while the song finishes with an unexpected reversal of roles, “you play the boy, I’ll play the girl / we’ll go and take on half the world”. In a somewhat heavier rock leather jacket, ‘Don’t Put Your Faith in Me’ is brutally sincere: its anti-hero insists that he’s fine as a friend but as anything more, he’s a repeat offender of perpetual disappointment. The chord changes in the bridge and the intense stompathon at the end will restore your faith in the band though, no pun intended.

On album standout ‘Echolalia’, the overall cool coming off from the vibrations of the finger snaps and the mesmerising bass notes seem to be odds with the song’s shining moment of clarity: “I feel half sane, ’til someone goes and whispers your name”. The spare, twangy guitar notes sound pretty mournful, until the song is saved by its ever deceptively cheerful chorus and well placed, crashing guitar chords. (Hearing the whole album, you wonder if maybe the band listening to all that Springsteen in the van on the way to Italy had an effect?) ‘Echolalia’ seems to be one of many clues that the ghost of ‘Maybe in the Dark’ fame appears to be alive and well in Hopewell’s imagination.

‘She’ contributes further to both the softer, contemplative, gently gliding along ‘Howl’ nearer to the end of the album (“please leave me with my imagination, I’m talking to the mirror / staring at my own reflection / it breaks just like a fever…I heard the howl, I love you but you keep me down”), a study in abject loneliness despite being surrounded by a crowd, and the mostly acoustic instrumentally but wholly (hmm…) whispered ‘Holy Innocents’ rounding out side A of the album. ‘Holy Innocents’ is ‘The I Love You Bridge’ of ‘Soapbox’, except that instead of being a narrative, it seems like an intensely personal torch song, which would explain why the Crookes chose to release it to the public last week on Valentine’s Day. Along with guitarist Tom Dakin’s forlorn piano chords, Waite’s audible sighs provide further nonspoken emotion and his closing resignation feels quite painful: “I’ve got an awful problem, you see / you’ve ruined everyone else for me / do you remember when we were holy innocents?” In my review of ‘Play Dumb’, I mused if being in a band and the trappings of fame had affected them. Does this track also represent longing for the way things once were, for simpler times? Some food for thought.

Two songs linked by a theme of evening-timed affairs are ‘Before the Night Falls’ and ‘Marcy’, both winningly upbeat. The former sounds just like the kind of song that will have punters’ fists in the air, heads bopping to the rhythm, with Waite’s rapid-fire vocal delivery and its admirable guitar solo likely to cause mayhem at festivals this year. It’s a very carpe diem kind of song, with a driving rhythm akin to a runaway locomotive, while the lyrics speak to living in the moment and doing what you want, “just for tonight, we’ll be what we wanna be” and “let’s live out scenes on movie screens, from our cheap seats to the dance floor / we’ll hotbox old cars, drive ’em as far as we can before the night falls to its knees”. It also features the soon to be iconic lines “let me go / I’d rather drown than just float”. Seriously, expect the phrase to appear on a t-shirt worn by a hipster near you.

‘Marcy’, on the other hand, seems on the surface a more conventional love song, which strikes me rather unusual for the Crookes. That can’t be it, then; there must be something more that my hopeless romantic ears are missing about the pretty girl with her life all figured out, her “million best friends”, her good looks being compared to the ’60s American Midwest film beauty Jean Seberg (“she acts just like the girl from Breathless / her hair cut short just like a boy”), and her acting as the protagonist’s muse while he maintains crippling self-doubt in the bridge (“yeah, you’ve always been my inspiration, so please be good to me / I’ve nothing but a charm that quickly wears thin, and I’m worn out on my knees”). The protagonist’s longing for her is causing him to go crazy, with Waite wailing repeatedly in the unforgettable chorus, “Marcy, my dear, you’ve got me strung out now”, a line I expect to be shouted at his general direction all summer. And that is how it should be. It’s the corker of the album.

It would have been enough for most music fans that this album sounds great. And it does. How the Crookes managed it on such a tight budget and so quickly in the middle of nowhere will remain one of life’s mysteries. But taken together with the emotional lyric content that transcends average ‘pop music’, you’ve got yourself a winner of an album on multiple levels. After a couple listens of ‘Soapbox’, you will begin to wonder why other bands even bother.

9/10

‘Soapbox’, the Crookes’ third album, is out on the 14th of April on Fierce Panda Records and is available for preorder from iTunes now; the trailer for the album is below and features snippets of ‘Outsiders’, ‘Marcy’ and ‘Howl’. The band begin a UK tour the day after, the 15th of April, in Nottingham, and they will also play a homecoming show at Sheffield Leadmill on the 31st of May following an extensive European tour. Before all of this though, they will be showcasing in Austin next month at this year’s SXSW 2014. Yesterday, they answered the TGTF Quickfire Questions for us ahead of the event.

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9 Responses

[…] would be offering up new tunes from their forthcoming album out in April ‘Soapbox’ (reviewed by me here) mixed in with old favourites from their back catalogue. It seems a little strange to be using the […]

[…] and left the pop moniker behind. ‘Echolalia’, my favourite from their forthcoming third album ‘Soapbox’, was the bass epiphany I was waiting for, sounding […]

[…] was like to be playing shows in America again, the making and recording of their forthcoming album ‘Soapbox’ due out on the 14th of April, and what’s next for them. Read […]

[…] ‘Sofie’ – The Crookes (read my review of their 2014 album ‘Soapbox’ here) 6. ‘Breaking Into Cars’ – The Raveonettes 7. ‘Good Enough’ – […]

[…] Read more: There Goes The Fear − Album Review: The Crookes – Soapbox […]

12:51 pm
18th April 2014

Soapbox is the crookes fourth album…dreams of another day is their first of four superb albums..get them all 🙂

12:14 am
21st April 2014

If you count EPs as albums, yes. I generally don’t.

[…] is in direct contrast to the Crookes’ ‘When You’re Fragile’ (from April 2014’s ‘Soapbox’), another song in which both people in a relationship have bonded over depression, but writer […]

[…] and friend of theirs. I came across this one, which seems like such a huge departure from their current album ‘Soapbox’. It seems to fit my current mindset; I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately and came up with a […]

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