March 2021

by Anwen Crawford

‘For the first time’ by Black Country, New Road
The debut from the latest British Art School Band delivers perfect pop with arch lyrics that owe a debt to Jarvis Cocker

Black Country, New Road are a band of seven members, including a violinist, a saxophonist and a keyboard player, all of whom are about 22 years old, a fact that makes me regret not having formed the same band when I was young enough. The group comes from London but they’re better understood as having sprung from that metaphorical yet fertile soil that has yielded, over decades, varieties of the British Art School Band, some of whom (Pulp, Roxy Music) actually went to art school, while others (The Fall, Manic Street Preachers) fronted with the attitude, best articulated in 1977 by The Human League: “We’re The Human League; we’re much cleverer than you”.

I’m a sucker for the type: I love the drama and especially the comedy that can be both intentional and unwitting. Black Country, New Road have these qualities in abundance. “I met her accidentally / It was at the Cambridge Science Fair / And she was so impressed / I could make so many things / Catch on fire,” intones vocalist Isaac Wood on “Science Fair”, with an impeccably straight-faced delivery that owes a lot – and I mean a lot – to Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker. (It aids the comparison that both men are baritones.) Why aren’t there more songs of seduction set at science fairs, especially ones that have arrangements that go from spry to thumping, all seven members closing in at the end around a heavy, distorted guitar riff, as if the group were klezmer musicians who spend their downtime between wedding gigs listening to underground rock albums of the 1980s? Honestly, people can be so unimaginative.

Like Cocker before him, Wood exhibits both a taste for farcical sex stories and a sharp eye for the accoutrements of class, combining the two in mock-epic narratives of emotional and material resentment. On “Sunglasses”, he details a nightmare vision of morphing into a rich girlfriend’s parents, confessing his plight in a rush: “And in a wall of photographs / In the downstairs second living room’s TV area / I become her father / And complain of mediocre theatre in the daytime / And ice in single malt whisky at night.” But the song, which is nearly 10 minutes long – and is sometimes beset by a wailing saxophone and at other moments carried efficiently along by another crunching guitar riff – begins to turn against its narrator. “I’m more than adequate!” yells Wood, irritably; I picture him swatting at flies. “Leave my daddy’s job out of this!” In the world of Black Country, no one is virtuous.

For the first time (Ninja Tune) is a striking, accomplished debut, but even as I write those words I’m conscious of my faint dissatisfaction. There’s something just a little too competently handled about this complex music, a grain of perversity or element of risk that’s missing. A half-hour live set of the group on YouTube furthered my hunch: lined up across the front of the stage, each member was note perfect and none of them seemed to be having any fun. That’s a shame for a band that writes such funny, angry songs, but they’re very young, and they have plenty of time left to loosen.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

Cover of The Monthly, March 2021
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