The Cribs should, according to 99 per cent of the NME office, their crazily loyal fanbase and Forseti the Norse god of justice, be absolutely stonking massive by now. They should be playing residencies at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, gracing every known magazine cover and knocking off songs for Beyoncé in their lunch break. They should not, repeat NOT, be lurking in the mid-league indie circuit, while Johnny Borrell gets to strip off and hump a Harley Davidson.
Having said all that, it’s hardly a mystery why The Cribs remain a permanent ‘next big thing’ kinda band. They’re not exactly marketable, are they? This is a group, remember, who used to bleed onstage on a nightly basis. A group who refused to release records until they’d made them all sound like they were recorded in a rusty baked bean tin. A group with a singer who, after finally getting the TV camera’s attention at the Shockwaves NME Awards 2006, used his chance to address the nation by leaping across a table, slicing open his back and avoiding death by a few centimetres. Yeah, if we worked in marketing we’d probably prefer The Feeling too.
But in the run-up to this, the band’s third album, there’s been something weird happening – a buzz, a sense of occasion, a feeling that this is to be their make-or-break moment. The news that Alex Kapranos would man production duties got the hype machine rolling, leading many a punter to do some simple indie arithmetic: Cribs + Franz = Pop Genius. And so for all those awaiting an album of clean-cut pop nuggets, an open declaration that The Cribs want to join the Kaisers and Razorlight on the big stage, we’ve some potentially disappointing news for you: this ain’t the shiny, happy indie package you were expecting. Far from being their ‘Razorlight’ – the rough edges smoothed off for simple stadium consumption – this is an animal too angry, too dissatisfied and too damn noisy to flog to the X Factor massive. Admittedly, Kapranos has tamed the beast by making things vaguely radio playable, but there’s only so much taming you can do with ‘Our Bovine Public’’s deranged urgency, the gleefully sick feedback meltdown of ‘Women’s Needs’ or ‘Be Safe’’s larynx-ruining choruses.
The good news, though, is that the tunes are all there. It may not be any great departure musically, but when your aim is to marry Pavement with The Shirelles, the last thing you need is departure. Unlike the instantly anthemic ‘Hey Scenesters!’, these are songs to be played a dozen times, songs to be given time to breathe so the subtle hooks can worm inside your head and allow tracks you presumed to be duff on first play crawl their way on to your repeat function. Take the gorgeous ‘Women’s Needs’, which starts out with the same cavernous bass rumble as The Stone Roses’ ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ before breaking into a less po-faced Sonic Youth – all “whooh-oh-ah”s and slightly off-kilter tuning. Or ‘I’ve Tried Everything’ and the spoken-word ‘Be Safe’ – featuring Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, no less – which builds the bridge between studious art-rock and chest-beating stadium anthems. To those for whom feedback is a thrill, not a signal to run cowering to Radio 2, there’s a treasure-trove of perfectly-crafted pop songs to be discovered here – you just need to dig a little. In fact, the grungey dirge of ‘Major’s Titling Victory’ aside, there isn’t a melody on this record that Abba, The Beatles or Sugababes would have turned down.
As with previous Cribs records, though, there’s more than melody and noise at work. The Cribs have always lived in turmoil – whether walking on the wild side with London scenesters, crack smokers, groupies or themselves. It’s the fact they wear their messed-up lives on their sleeves that makes them extra special. This time they’ve got sex – and the emotional tangles it causes – on the brain. As Arctic Monkeys have already told us with their ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’, touring in a band is the breeding ground for a one-track mind.
This is an honest world where “man’s needs are found on greed” (‘Men’s Needs’), where people “drag up ancient history” (‘Ancient History’) and you can “fall in love so hard you wish you were dead” (‘Be Safe’). “They said they’d love me ’til the end/Now they just see me as a friend” goes ‘Girls Like Mystery’, effortlessly displaying the art of the tortured teen anthem.
They’ve made this record, not for their bank balances, but for the emo kids, disillusioned Libs fans and alt.rock obsessives who’ve held them close to their hearts since day one. They’ve delivered the tunes, alright, but they can’t help but fill them with angst, confusion and lashings of amp fuzz. Safe, predictable and packaged for the mainstream? This album is anything but. Just listen to Ryan’s muttered assessment of his guitar part at the end of ‘Be Safe’: “It weren’t my best one, but who cares?” “That’s the spirit,” laughs Lee Ranaldo.
Too much spirit, not enough polish, some might say. Give some clueless, cash-crazed marketing execs the task of flogging this snarling, wired-eyed, lust-fuelled beast of a pop record to the Robbie Williams fans and they’d have a collective coronary. Forseti the Norse god of justice, though, will join the rest of us pogoing on their graves.