'The frantic pace comes at a debilitating price'
First things first – there’s something fantastic about the fact that a musician whose primary musical influence is Wham! can infiltrate both the ‘real’ charts and the hearts of the sixth form, squat party-touring Skins set like a Hawaiian shirt-clad ninja slipping through an open blind. That through some freakishly wonderful coincidence he resembles George Michael so closely he can’t stop his car at a set of traffic lights without being pulled over by the fuzz, is the icing on the cake.
Oh yes, there’s a lot to celebrate about the startlingly quick emergence of Jack Peñate, George Michael comparisons aside, not least because he’s clearly an intensely likeable bloke. See the way his pupils dilate when he recalls flipping through his parents’ old blues LPs, or the gigs he used to play at school with former bandmate Felix White – who left Peñate’s backing band to go on and form The Maccabees – and you know you’re dealing with a man besotted with making pop music. And that’s before he starts telling you about the nights he used to spend doing his trademark dance in cheesy London nightclubs.
Which brings us to the fact that Peñate, along with his former NME co-cover star Kate Nash, has proved that indie doesn’t have to covertly gatecrash the world of pop to succeed – it can actually be pop. And by “pop” we don’t mean just “popular” – we mean unashamed pop music: choruses so memorable a brain-dead goldfish could recall them, live shows that spawn their own nutty dance moves, and a steadfast belief that lo-fi is something you only do when you can’t afford a few weeks in a decent studio. And Jack Peñate can.
What you’ll already know, unless your radio is only used for football phone-ins or if you stole this copy of NME ‘by mistake’ (here’s looking at you, Winehouse), is that this also means songs so frenetically paced that they suggest Peñate’s heart is set to ‘hummingbird’ rather than ‘human’. ‘Torn On The Platform’, ‘Spit At Stars’, ‘Second, Minute Or Hour’… is this man’s studio spray-painted with Red Bull, or what? But as thrilling as these tuneful rockabilly-tastic floor-scorchers can be when they first crash into your eardrums, the frantic pace comes at a debilitating price. Combined with their ubiquity and the meteoric velocity of Peñate’s rise (plus those secret pub gigs he plays every other night when all we want is a bloody pint), these are songs that might as well have been written on a stick of dynamite with a fizzing fuse. In six months’ time you’ll want to hear them again like you’ll want to dig out Kula Shaker’s ‘Govinda’ for another spin. Their relentless chirpiness just gets really, really irritating really, really quickly, and being the centre pieces of Peñate’s debut album that makes for a record with a balsa wood spine.
While the likes of the aforementioned Supergrass-siphoned pulse-poppers burrow into your ears, many limply collapse on their jacksies in their attempts to keep the dance-party bobbing. ‘Have I Been A Fool?’ and ‘Made Of Codes’ are poor distant cousins of the likes of ‘Spit At Stars’, as Peñate sprints along on cruise control. Furthermore, many of the lyrics suck with leech-like vigour. ‘Run For Your Life’ is his stark warning about how mean and dangerous the streets can be, a lesson learned during an attempted mugging (“On city streets you need to be careful who you speak to” – thanks, Jack). Over a song that sounds like Wham!’s ‘Club Tropicana’ minus the chorus, the gritty message is somewhat diluted.
Still, as most of the album fizzes by, at least it’s easy enough to leave such nonsense in the wing mirrors. Things get more promising when, later in the album, Peñate suddenly slams on the handbrake and deploys the marshmallow airbag. The closing 15 minutes show an introspective soul that his relentless careering around a stage has so far masked, his
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Nick Drake obsession finally elbowing its way in front of his fixation with the accelerator pedal.
OK, he’s not exactly Elliott Smith when it comes to morbidly beautiful soul-scourers, but closer ‘When We Die’ – a sparse lament about his own funeral recorded in an Ealing church to maximise stony echo, deftly underpinned by a gospel choir – is a moment that tenderly strokes a heart still hyper-thumping from the indie dance storm that preceded it. ‘My Yvonne’, probably the only song on ‘Matinée’ you’ll ever play again after a month of owning it, similarly shows a tender side – that you could actually have a little sob into Jack’s shoulder after doing the Peñate Polka round the dancefloor with him.
So, while most of ‘Matinée’ will fade away into your brain faster than a pair of his danced-out Nikes, there is a shadow of a hint of a suggestion that there’s something more to Jack Peñate than rapidly-dissolving indie-pop sugar. When NME caught up with him minutes after he finished recording this album, he was already eager to get the next one out quick-sharp and establish himself as an ever-changing artist like David Bowie (oi, don’t laugh). Time for him to start wearing out the next pair of shoes speedily, then, because if ‘Matinée’ is all we’ve got to go by, the Peñate party is over before it’s even begun.