Post War Glamour Girls – Swan Songs

Posted: 3 April 2017 in Albums
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Hide & Seek Records – 21st April 2017

Christopher Nosnibor

This being a Post War Glamour Girls album, there’s a lot to chew on, and I’ve played Swan Songs on the bus to and from work most days for the last month and a half in an attempt to really let the songs embed and to unravel. It’s not because Post War Glamour Girls make albums which are difficult or lack immediacy, but because there’s just so much to extract, and each listening reveals more. I’m still discovering new details and dimensions in their 2014 debut, Pink Fur, and suddenly, here we are at album number three.

And with album number three, they’ve made it a clean sweep of awesomeness: not a case of third time lucky, but a straight hat-trick. Few bands can claim such a record, although Post War Glamour Girls are unlikely to gloat, or even reflect on this achievement: chances are by the time the album tour is under way, they’ll have filled the set with new material which may or may not feature on album number four.

Swan Songs is by far their most commercial and accessible album to date, but it would be a chronic error align that in any way to them selling out, and in many ways, it’s equally their knottiest, thorniest release thus far. Yes, they’re contradictory and contrary, and that’s precisely their appeal. And while they always sound uniquely like Post War Glamour Girls – there really isn’t a band going – or, indeed, previous – who sound quite like them, they’re spectacularly varied in their style, and you never know what to expect from album to album. This is music born from restless energy and a drive to create something new, to challenge the band and their fans in equal measure. The one thing that is seemingly guaranteed is the quality of the material.

Swan Songs is most certainly their most eclectic-sounding album yet. The overall tone of the album is altogether less down than its predecessor, Feeling Strange. The downcast, brow-beaten self-loathing is replaced by a roaring defiance, at least in part. And, of course, it has all the band’s trademark qualities, honed to a new level of sharpness.

The album’s opener, ‘Guiding Light’ comes on like a cross between Big Country and The Wedding Present circa ’92 with its spiralling celtic guitar motif and stadium-fulling chorus – before making a 90-degree swerve only Post War Glamour Girls could pull off, with James Smith veering off into one of his densely-packed rants. You only catch snippets of the lyrics, but in the space of a minute he’s here, there and everywhere, pulling in what appears to be a reference to Gang of Four and macroeconomics with a line about ‘guns before butter’.

‘Chipper’ is more common PWGG terrain, and finds Smith in brawlingly nihilistic form, howling, bleating and hollering over a murky backing of guitars that jangle and warp and bend as the driving rhythm section powers on relentlessly. At the middle eight, it heads off on another trajectory, Smith coming on like a brutalised hybrid of Mark E Smith and JG Thirlwell on top of Alice Scott’s icily calm backing vocals. If ever a band knew how to work contrasts, it’s Post War Glamour Girls.

Conjuring a brilliantly visual image while working a dubby post-punk seam, the more understated ‘Gull Rips a Worm’ marks something of a departure, with Smith revealing a more soulful side in his melodic vocal delivery. Meanwhile, ‘Big Trip’, which recently found its way onto Radio 1 thanks to a shout-out from fellow Leeds legends Pulled Apart by Horses, is a brilliantly gruff and darkly grounded paean to escapism. It might not quite rank with the time the uncensored version of Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’ was spun at teatime on a Sunday during the Top 40, but it’s pretty subversive. It’s also indicative of the band’s mass-market potential, given the right exposure.

Awkward buggers that they are, the two sets I saw them perform following the release of Feeling Strange, showcased unreleased material in favour of either the latest album or their rapidly-expanding back-catalogue. These shows hinted squarely at a more direct pop sound, and while Swan Songs is a long way off this, being neither direct or upbeat and poppy, the second half of the album is the closest they’ve come to creating unadulterated pop in the studio.

‘Polyanna Cowgirl’, which featured on last year’s live album, is a big, reverby song that draws together elements of classic dreampop with vintage mid-80s postpunk and even more overtly charty music of the same era. Ah, such different times… And so, they manage to imbue the song with a certain nagging nostalgia, as well as a pining wistfulness. The hefty welter of drums and driving bass render it uniquely Post War Glamour Girls, but the multifaceted harmonies and chiming guitars, expansively produced, bring that cinematic slant to the finished product. The shimmering ‘Golden Time’ wafts and warps gently before ‘Sea of Rains’ drifts into I Like Trains territory, but Smith’s bleak lyrics render it a very different animal: ‘The lust you tried to drag from the soles of his shoes / is the worst excuse for loneliness I’ve ever had to use,’ he reflects, grimly.

 

 

The jarring, splintering, ‘Welfare by Prozac’ sees the band ploughing headlong into the Fall-like realms they stomp with aplomb, Smith duelling with Scott like vintage Mark E and Brix, a snarling, spitting inscrutability counterpointed by a melodic yet icy tone, while squalling guitars break over a thick, strolling bassline.

Now, I’m a huge sucker for a monster closing track. On past form, it seems Post War Glamour Girls are masters of the monster closing track (even if Feeling Strange perversely delivered said monster track as the penultimate song in the form of ‘Cannonball Villages) and Swan Songs proves no exception, with the seven-minute ‘Divine Decline’ building from nothing to a raging behemoth of a song. ‘Love and hate stem from the same cell,’ Smith croons, before the whole thing erupts. ‘All I ever wanted /as to be a better to better person / and I’m working on it constantly / working like a dawwwwwg!’ he growls. It’s a storming finale, and no mistake, as the band whip up a dense maelstrom of sound.

As is so often the case, Smith channels a vitriolic rage which one feels is largely directed toward himself. It’s a recurrent aspect of the album’s lyrical content: ‘My manners aren’t amazing / My poetry is pisspoor / My attitude’s an anathema,’ he snarls self-critically on ‘Chipper’. At the risk of too closely, or even mistakenly, aligning the art with the artist lyrics with lyricist and assuming the role or armchair analyst, one can’t help but wonder on the evidence his lyrics, coupled by his driving of the band’s relentless forward trajectory, if he isn’t fighting himself every moment of every day, and if Post War Glamour Girls aren’t some means of his justifying his existence to himself. If this is some kind of therapy, then – from a purely selfish perspective – our best hope is that it takes a good few more albums to purge himself yet, and that the title is more a reference to the conceptual contents of the album rather than an indication of the band’s final sign off. Because, not only is Swan Songs a killer album, but a cohesive and rich set which is the work of a band really hitting their stride and riding on the crest of a wave.*

 

Post War Glamour Girls - Swan Songs

 

*The success of this closing punchline is limited, not least of all on account of the fact that swans’ natural habitat is inland and on / by rivers, lakes, and ponds, and therefore unlikely to be tidal or otherwise, meaning that swans are rarely found in an environment where waves are common. But every review needs a punchline, right?

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Comments
  1. […] I’ve already frothed effusively about the album’s climactic closer, ‘Divine Decline,’ and sure enough, they more than do it justice on the night. And, as the stage is deluged in thousands upon thousands of white feathers, it feels like a fitting finale to a proper album launch. […]

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