As a Scot and a music journalist, I like things that are distilled. I particularly appreciate people with a eye and an ear for the barest and most primal vocabulary of rock’n’roll. The lyrical equivalents of ‘house’, ‘tree’, ‘stone’ and bread’ are words like ‘kiss’, ‘girl’, ‘night’, ‘fire’ and ‘soul’ (that’s half a Spiritualized album right there). So when I learned that Tribes’ debut album was called simply ‘Baby’, I knew they must be alright, even despite the ripped jeans.
They’re definitely grasping at the iconic, with their rush-inducing choruses and their snarly guitars and their impassioned vocals. They have a white van and scruffy clothes and dog-eaten leather jackets. They sleep on couches, they play grotty venues and they insisted on recording their debut album on tape. They’re doing it old-school, all right. But have they got anything new to teach us? Open your books and let’s begin…
Sticking a sleazy guitar lick right in your ear, the album immediately zings out, bright, alert and engaging. Unless you go back to the demos, the fact that they were ever tagged as grunge revivalists seems bizarre; under the wing of Razorlight, Arctic Monkeys and Foals producer Mike Crossey, they’re lush rather than scuzzy.
There’s a hint of Pixies in that sexy bassline and the ghostly whoo-ooos, but Johnny Lloyd’s defiantly overdone, cocky vocal reminds you more of the late period of Britpop when grungey US and glammy UK influences blended in a chunky, cheeky hybrid.
There’s a post-Libertines dissolute swagger to this that’s much too silly and sexy for plaid-shirt mopers. I mean the first lines are “Ice cream from Cali-for-nia/Making a mess on the shiny leather/Can’t say goodbye when I’m handcuffed to ya…”. It’s got that Vaccines knack for keeping it short, sweet, silly and dumb but with an extra Brett/Bowie-ish flamboyance that isn’t afraid to coquettishly croon “come on paradise, you’re losing me/Get on my knees and lick the streets clean”.
‘We Were Children’
“Down Hades in a shopping trolley with a magazine and a suitcase”? Yup, Johnny’s definitely a graduate of the School Of Brett Anderson lyric writing, via the Faculty Of Johnny Borrell Delivery. What could be a better double-major? The delicious, faintly mocking falsetto bit does little to undermine a sense of summer nostalgia that has bollocks all to do with chillwave and everything to do with sweetly awful small-hours in your mates’ livingrooms as the sound of birdsong starts drilling into the soft parts of your brain at dawn. The guitars are at first slowly, languously unwinding and then a rough, raw strop.
‘Corner Of An English Field’
Time for a slowie: warm, with a dreamily distorted twang and a romantic, Borrell-does-Bowie verse, this is the firstsong to make direct reference to the death of Johnny’s friend Charlie Haddon of Ou Est Le Swimming Pool, an event that overshadows many of these songs. Observe for example: “took a walk yesterday to the places we would play before childhood passed away”.
Begins in gentle pillow-talk lyrics and acoustic arpeggios before building through a succinct exploration of the self-disgust, relief and frustration of the last days of an affair on the rocks, with Johnny howling “I’m not in LOOOOOOVE with you/But I won’t let you tell… there’s not much left here anyway”.
“Met this girl last night / She’s a real life dancer. The kind that’ll change your life” yep, these guys have a way with a classic cliché for sure (NB: that is NOT an insult). Sappho was a Greek poet of the 7th century whose impassioned love poetry addressed to other women (well, possibly, but we’ll leave the classicists to argue about that one) gave rise to both the adjective “sapphic” and “lesbian” after the island Lesbos, on which she lived. Next to that linguistic legacy she can now hang a louche indie-disco romp about a loose-living femme fatale with a potent aroma: “Took her brand new tiara and lying it on the ground she said… / Are you healthy? Do my pheromones make you happy?”
See here. This song is colossal.
References the band’s feeling about the elegy read at the funeral of Charlie Haddon (“What use is God if you can’t see him / What use are friends if they don’t want in / Running around with my head in a spin”), this is partly a ‘No Surprises’ style twinkler, partly a swirling, angry, howl.
‘When My Day Comes’
Raising the mood by careering in with an ‘I Fought The Law’ style guitar intro, this is pure bratty powerpop, grungey and squally, like The Libertines seizing the day from The Replacements. “If nothing ever stays the same / Then why should we worry about acting our age?” poses Johnny philsophically over a big blind drunk dumb happy thrash. Suck on that, Heraclitus.
‘Walking In The Street’
Talk about gloriously simple lines; “All I wanna do is you” has to be up there, doesn’t it? This is the most ’90s American sounding thing here, with a lazy, Bellyish bass-driven grunge-pop feel. Also, Belly’s Tanya Donelly once sang “Baby I can’t fake it / I want to see you naked” so there’s a shared sassiness beyond the sweet melodies and raw scrappy, choppy guitars.
‘Alone Or With Friends’
A ghostly stranded-in-space strum leads into a lurching, skewed march, like a stoned ‘Hey Jude’ trembling on the verge of a whitey as sliding guitar reverberates round the skull and Johnny urges “Just let go and let your body do the work”.
A lot of this album reminds me of forgotten ’90s indies heroes The Longpigs, but this is the one where I really can’t avoid mentioning them even though it makes me sound old and tragic. The way the guitar lines unwind so deliciously into the amazing first line “A bathtub with a stranger / Made love to a Cajun dancer” and then a fuzzy, snarly chorus reminds me inescapably of their ‘Lost Myself’. As I said earlier, it’s the echo of that late Britpop sound that incorporates grungey elements and a sleazy English glamour. And Tribes have the advantage of not having a singer called Crispin Hunt. (PS The Longpigs were fucking amazing).
I’ve gone from thinking Tribes were enjoyably ridiculous to genuinely thinking they’re brilliant – the songs on this nicely concise debut are immediately lovable and they’ll get their hooks in you like a pop osprey. Is there depth to last beneath their stereotype shtick? Will we still love them in the New Year when we’re currently playing ‘Baby’ in the office at least once a day? Well – let’s wait and see, sugar.