South London romantics mine their childhood memories for art-rock gold
Pills, speed, acid, crack… chlorine? Bands have been enhanced by all kinds of chemicals over the years on their quest for musical nirvana, but it’s probably safe to say that ‘Colour It In’ is the first album to be conceived under the eye-watering influence of high-grade municipal pool disinfectant. So, as their peers knock back the luminous rave juice inside their glowsticks and men old enough to be their grandparents flit around casually snorting human ashes, mild-mannered south London types The Maccabees are content getting a serious (natural) buzz off naming songs after their favourite swimming baths, Battersea’s glamorous Latchmere Leisure Centre and its automated wave machine. This is a unique band, for sure.
But a special one? Too artsy to be pop, too polite to rock (one webzine described them, inaccurately, as a cross between Joy Division and Cliff Richard), instead they occupy a place where televised cricket and ’80s kids’ TV artist Tony Hart are as important as any musical influences. One where cute handmade stop-motion videos and self-designed record sleeves co-exist with riotous shows, where felt tips are as significant as moshpits. Yet, since their first bedroom rehearsals in 2003, this Brighton-based quintet and their idiosyncratic way with a wonky hook and a lyric about steam trains has whipped up an increasingly devoted fanbase – so devoted, in fact, that in 2006, The Maccabees became the first band since the Sex Pistols to be threatened by police with a nationwide live ban after one particularly fervent hometown gig ended in a stage invasion that rapidly turned into a semi-riot.
Being Shut Down By The Man aside, they also released five singles, over the course of which we learned that they were a tight-knit bunch (friends since school, when singer Orlando Weeks moved from south London to the coast to study illustration the rest of the band all went with him) with a lovelorn romantic streak a mile wide. What no-one was really ready for was the way that their debut album would update the proud lineage of slightly off-kilter British art-rock (Wire, Blur, Magazine, Futureheads, XTC) with such exhilarating confidence.
Much like recent records by Bloc Party or The Rakes, this is an early-twenties crisis album – articulating that particular sense of ennui and struggle for identity that hits between the last day of school and the first proper paycheck. It’s about dancing and drinking and getting your heart broken for the first time, and looking back to childhood with a bittersweet wistfulness. Particularly about looking back to childhood: ‘Lego’ opens with the lines “Mum said no/To Disneyland” and complains how hard it is to build castles with chewed-up Lego bricks, while ‘Precious Time’ references pre-PlayStation kids’ racing game Scalextric. All this nostalgia is either heart-warmingly familiar and sweetly affecting or insufferably twee, depending on your point of view, but Weeks’ eye for detail is matched only by his honesty and the size of his heart – ‘About Your Dress’ details a nightmare first date, in which he is almost sick on the unfortunate object of his affections, while ‘O.A.V.I.P’ is a tender tribute to his ailing grandmother.
Still, even if you do find the lyrics a little grating, fact is, the music’s just plain great. It may now be practically a legal requirement for all slightly off-kilter British art-rock bands to rope in former Smiths producer Stephen Street, but here he transforms the coiled-spring guitars and staccato vocals of the band’s self-released debut single ‘X-Ray’, filling them with a genuine sense of tension. He also teases out sly choruses and buries nifty detail such as the harmonica at the start of ‘Latchmere’ under crisp, post-punk drum rumbling, making each listen a minor revelation.
It’s not all furrowed-brow guitars and sincere lyrics, though – closing track ‘Toothpaste Kisses’ is a sweet 1930s-sounding ballad played on a thousand tiny mandolins, while Hawaiian guitars waft gently and crickets rub their knees together in the background to keep time. It’s the kind of lovely, heart-shattering little song that makes us even more excited about what their next album’s going to be like.
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Mould-breakers, hopeless romantics, unlikeliest of riot-starters: we should all just be glad that albums like this are being made while the sun’s shining outside and we’re alive to enjoy them. Long may The Maccabees keep on swimming against the wave machine’s tide.