Sam, Chilli, Pete and Will deliver enough scuzz and raw charm to ensure their debut will become the new soundtrack to your life
Back in October, a week or two after Palma Violets first appeared on the cover of NME, I found myself editing the Fanmail page, sifting through the missives debating Jake Bugg’s ‘realness’ and editing out all the gratuitous c-words. But it was the handful of letters about our newest cover stars that caught the eye: they were all from readers who had recently seen the band on tour, and they were all disgruntled by the lack of profound change in their lives thereafter. And who could really blame them? They’d bought tickets to a bragging right, an ‘I was there’ anecdote along the lines of The Strokes in ’01, The Libertines in ’02 or Arctic Monkeys in ’05. Faced with a bar set that high, Palma Violets could do nothing but disappoint.
It’s often assumed that ‘hype’ bands have it easy. In fact, the opposite tends to be the case: they’re the groups whose debut albums are approached not in the spirit of ‘show us how good you are’, but ‘prove to us how shit you’re not’. The margin of error is infinitesimal: anything less than greatness qualifies as little more than rubbish. Thankfully, if you separate ‘180’ from the silly, unrealistic hopes attached to it, it’s clear that Palma Violets have stayed well within theirs.
‘180’ isn’t a record of ideas, particularly; it takes one sound – the gothic, swirling psych-garage revelry of first single ‘Best Of Friends’ – and more or less runs with it. It’s also less concerned with thought than it is with feeling, namely the feeling of being young and naive and the universe seeming to revolve around you and your small coterie of mates. As a result, it’s like a 12-song snapshot of a time (last year) and a place (the dosshouse that serves as their base of operations) you’ll wish you’d been privy to. Knowing that their essence lies in the Lambeth hovel they first emerged from, producer Steve Mackey keeps things suitably raw and unrefined: ‘Johnny Bagga Donuts’ sounds so pissed to the marrow you’ll swear you can hear Chilli Jesson’s pubic lice singing rebel songs in the background, while ‘14’ is a sort of beleaguered anthem for those girls who can be found in broken heels and crying at the kerbside on a Saturday night. If you’re willing to let it, it seems very probable that ‘180’ will soundtrack the next 12 months of romantic entanglements, questionable life choices and room-temperature cans of Strongbow.
The ongoing bromance between Jesson and his co-frontman Sam Fryer might be what makes Palma Violets tick onstage, but on record it’s Pete Mayhew who is their unsung hero: his sepulchral organ underpins the songs, giving the likes of ‘Rattlesnake Highway’ and ‘Step Up For The Cool Cats’ their sense of driving, Modern Lovers momentum. Alongside Fryer’s tremulous surf-rock guitar and vocals that sound like they’re being bellowed down a scrappy tube of cardboard, it’s what defines their sound, lending ‘All The Garden Birds’ its whimsical, peculiarly English air of melancholy and elevating the slightly throwaway ‘Tom The Drum’ into something more than a spirited rabble.
In truth, however, ‘180’ doesn’t contain too many weak moments; only the tacked-on-at-the-end ‘Brand New Song’ feels properly superfluous, an in-joke they’ve run a little too far with. Otherwise, you’re struck by the strength of the songs, and the roguish, self-assured charm with which they’re delivered. Far from being burdened by expectation, this album sounds like it was recorded in a vacuum, deaf to both the jabbering of their advocates and the snark of their critics. You dearly hope they’re able to stay that way. It’s always hazardous to go carelessly placing your life in the hands of rock’n’roll bands, even if they are – in that uncertain way to which they’re prone – allegedly ‘back’. But this lot? Maybe, just maybe…