If you’re tired of your favourite bands bemoaning the ‘difficult second album’ on the eve of phoning in substandard sophomore efforts, spare a thought for The Subways. Enduring Billy Lunn’s potentially voicebox-curtailing surgery, then the in-studio break-up of the guitarist and his bass-playing childhood sweetheart Charlotte Cooper, the trio’s difficulties cut deeper than the drummer getting into jazz or the singer preferring multipacks of Monster Munch to writing good tunes. It’s astonishing to consider then that, with their second record, the Welwyn Garden City band have somehow made the best British rock album of the year so far.
It’d be easy to spend the rest of this review exploring the impact both these events have had on the record, and there are, of course, timely reminders of what they’ve been through. Consider the title track’s soggy-eyed utterance of “Those days are dead and gone/And in time we all move on” or ‘I Wont Let You Down’ and Lunn’s admission, “I scream and shout/I’m lost for words”. But in understanding what makes the follow-up to their patchy 2005 debut ‘Young For Eternity’ great, it’s not so much what The Subways have been through that provides the clues, but rather where it suggests they’re going.See, here’s a record that gives a shot of endorphins into the arm of indie rock (we’re talking Sebadoh and Mudhoney rather than Kaiser Chiefs and The Pigeon Detectives here) and positions its creators as heirs to the throne of fuzz. ‘Alright’ recalls Bob Mould’s great post-Hüsker Dü outfit Sugar, ‘Kalifornia’ makes us want to dig out Therapy?’s 1994 bubblegum punk masterpiece ‘Troublegum’, ‘Shake! Shake!’ recalls sporadically fun Scot-rock dweebs Urusei Yatsura, while lead off single ‘Girls & Boys’ bridges the gap between Josh Homme’s work with Kyuss and Queens Of The Stone Age with anvil-heavy, skunk-scented riffing.
It’s worth considering the input of producer Butch Vig, who – as the man who added sonic sugar to Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ and refined Smashing Pumpkins art-metal on their defining moment ‘Siamese Dream’ – has fine previous at this sort of thing, helping the band succeed second time out where their peers have so often failed. Yet the bigger picture is this: while 2008 will be remembered as the year where music searched for a zeitgeist-defining sound and had to make do with fragmented hipster bullshit, ‘All Or Nothing’ suggests that when the age-old union of melody and stomp-box combine, it sounds as thrilling as it has done at any point in the history of rock’n’roll. See, in ‘All Or Nothing’, The Subways haven’t just made a great record – they’ve vindicated everyone who still believes in the power and the glory of three chords and distortion pedals.