And the good news is, the ’Heads’ second album is a winner
Bands that survive beyond the ecstatic whoosh of novelty fall into two categories: there are those who make a brilliant debut album who then lure their fanbase with endless promises that, “Our next one is our best since (insert brilliant debut here).” Scientists call this The Oasis Protocol. Then there are those who make flawed debut albums who use their second as a statement of intent as if to say, “This is what we can really do.” Scientists call this The Radiohead Principle. And follow-up albums can easily become blighted by Second Album Syndrome, a term invented not by scientists, but by music critics – and what do they know? Take a look at NME’s list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever. Loads of second albums there.
The Futureheads’ eponymous debut wasn’t bad. It was a calling card. It told you they sang in Mackem accents, they could go shouty, they could go quiet, they could stop things. And start them up again. They were arty punks and they had a wry sense of humour. It was a good album, no doubt, but it was troubling that the two best songs in their musical canon at the time were a cover version of Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’ and their alternate take of The Streets’ ‘Fit But You Know It’.
But this new Futureheads album is causing quite a hubbub among the scientific community. Some are already talking about The Futureheads Quantum Phenomenon, others are nervously whispering about “cold fusion” while giving a conspiratorial wink before vanishing into the dark night. Music critics are ripping up the Book Of Rock Clichés. Sonic cathedrals are being dismantled, nave by apse. ‘News And Tributes’ is not just better than their first album, it’s a fabulous record from a band with an exciting forward catalogue ahead of them.
It starts with the familiar. ‘Yes/No’ is clearly The Futureheads. Barking vocals, bursts of guitar and dog-like yelping. But then the quantum effect kicks in. Second track ‘Cope’ should come with a citation index. It’s knowingly clever (in the 1990s people might have called it “postmodern” but, fortunately all postmodernists are now either dead or keeping quiet about it). Musically, it cites Blur’s ‘Starshaped’, from 1993’s ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’, another second album and one that made subtle musical and lyrical references to cult singer Julian Cope to annoy Blur’s label boss (who was a former bandmate of Cope’s). But, lyrically, ‘Cope’ here is definitely a verb and not a surname.
Latest single ‘Skip To The End’ is similarly playful. It starts with a power-pop riff akin to The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’ before sprouting into a different genre entirely: skewed English pop with a stroke of XTC. So far, so clever, but the album’s eureka moment comes with ‘Burnt’. It’s beautiful, poignant and cinematic; a broken-heart story with an interlude as sumptuous as a Bond soundtrack – the personal told as the epic, the micro as the macro.
Title track ‘News And Tributes’ continues the reflective mood. The disjointedness of the first album is used to much subtler effect. Syllables rise and pop, as individual bubbles of harmony release their fragrance. It has in abundance precisely what their debut album lacked: dynamics. They aren’t going to bore you by putting yet another sensitive song after two in a row. So they follow it with the album’s screamiest fit, ‘Return Of The Beserker’.
There’s an understanding of space, pace and texture. “It’s not what you put in, but what you take away”, they sing on ‘Back To The Sea’, and that’s true of this album. In an effort to emphasise their “maturity as artists”, they could have put on a string quartet, horn stabs and a kazoo solo. But they haven’t. They have actually held back, particularly on their habit of singing in unison, which they now do more sparingly.
‘Worry About It Later’, a future single-contender, is four minutes of everything that makes music great and contains genuine Futureheads DNA. Future generations will be able to clone whole albums from this single strand. Not that they aren’t influenced by others, of course. There are traces of Pixies, Talking Heads and Gang Of Four. ‘Thursday’ splices Cocteau Twins guitars to Beach Boys harmonies, but, because they are The Futureheads, they don’t create the Frankenstein’s monster that might have been the result of this particular hybrid in the hands of lesser practitioners. The album closes with ‘Face’, which shows a use of language as inventive as the music. There are few accents with which you can rhyme “faith” and “face” and get
away with it.
It’s catchy, it’s warm, it changes mood mid-song, and they get away with the rhyme. It’s what scientists might call a conclusion. And given the satisfactory results of the preceding 11 experiments, a watertight conclusion it is.