Scottish indie titans Chvrches are set to release their second album in a couple of weeks, and are doing that thing where they dribble out a track a week to you if you pre-order the record. I’m sitting here listening to the third song they’ve dropped, ‘Clearest Blue,’ and, well… listen to this:
Now THAT is how you build up a song, folks. If you don’t start bouncing, dancing or at least head-bobbing when it fully kicks in at the 2:13 mark then you’re dead and can I have your leather jacket? No, the one with the collar. Thanks.
That also hits me, as a teenager of the 1980’s, right in the nostalgia bone. When I first got into music I identified as a metalhead/rocker, which was really a social declaration. I was identifying with an at least hypothetical clique (and I’ll write more about that in future posts). But I was always a pop-song lover at heart. More than albums, more than bands, a great 2 to 4 minute song was always the gem for me. And in the 80’s it was often the dreaded synth-pop bands – Depeche Mode, Erasure, and (my personal favorite) Book of Love – that cranked out the best singles.
ANYWAY, along with the nostalgia and head-bobbing, the track reminded me of something I wrote back when Chvrches first album, “The Bones of What You Believe,” came out and my fellow music-nerd wife was having a crisis-of-conscience for loving it so much. After listening to the album I wrote the following and then promptly forgot about it.
My wonderful wife recently mentioned a band called Chvrches to me after hearing them a few times on satellite radio. She said that they were a band she didn’t think she would (or should?) like, but she did. She mentioned them a couple times then they came up again at a party this weekend, a Scottish friend mentioning how they’re huge in their native Scotland. Seeing as their debut album came out this week I decided to give them a listen.
I could hear why my wife expressed surprise at her own appreciation of them from the first couple of seconds. Chvrches are what us 1980’s children would have called (sneeringly) a synthpop band, and she tends more towards big bashy guitars (think Pixies, REM, Nirvana). Then I realized pretty quickly that I was diggin’ them too. I generally try not to analyze why I like or dislike a piece of music, just go with the visceral reaction at least for the first few listens. But in this circumstance I started thinking about my reaction and what grabbed me and why:
1. They have good taste. I should state right off the bat that I have not read anything about this band – no interviews, no reviews. Aside from knowing that they’re from Scotland and that there’s at least one woman and one man in the band (based on their being both (mostly) female and (some) male vocals on the record), I don’t know anything about them. Purely from listening to the record a couple of times my initial reaction was that they have good musical taste. Their obvious antecedents are the holy trinity of 80’s synthpop – New Order, Depeche Mode, Erasure. But they don’t mimic any of them overtly, and they also evoke some of the (relatively) less popular but more interesting groups of that era – Book of Love, OMD, Yaz, and the kind of stuff that I heard on the mixtapes my cooler-than-me high school friends would cadge from the DJs at Industry or NRG or #’s (some of the underground dance clubs in Houston back in the day). I also recognize that they probably have a ton of less obvious (meaning non-synthpop) influences that will reveal themselves with more listens. All of this to say they listened deeply and have built a big, interesting sound that evokes all of these influences without ripping any of them off.
2. The record sounds great. Again, no idea who this band is or where they recorded this record, but it sounds HUGE. It sounds like they used real analog synths and 2” tape and a Neve board to record this thing. Maybe they used a laptop, a good microphone and a few grand worth of software to do it. Regardless it doesn’t have the compressed, too-loud feel of a lot of modern pop music that is mixed specifically for the radio. This is an album I would actually love to hear on vinyl because I think it would sound really damn good. It reminds me that well-recorded synthesizer music can sound just as huge as well-recorded guitar music. Don’t believe me? Go back and listen to the first couple of Eurythmics singles, preferably on vinyl or CD, and tell me they don’t sound big and fantastic. Chvrches learned the right lessons from their musical ancestors.
3. The songs are solid. Here’s a project for you guitar players out there: pick any Depeche Mode hit from the beginning of the band through, say, “Music for the Masses.” Get out your guitar and figure out the song, then crank up the distortion pedal and go full on punk (or metal, whatever) on it. Sounds really freaking good, huh? Same thing with the better songs by a lot of those bands. It’s not a big mystery – good songs are good songs regardless of the instruments on which they’re played. That is not to say that there are not hugely popular, wonderful, jammin’-ass songs that depend on certain sonic components to exist – most of Jane’s Addiction’s first two albums spring to mind – but that a genuinely well-written song will hold up, even under the torture of some college girl with an OK voice and a ukulele and a YouTube account. I will not claim that every track on the Chvrches album could be stripped down to vocals plus an acoustic guitar or a piano and remain something you want to hear over and over again; but I do feel comfortable asserting that a lot of these tracks could have been done with a bass-guitar-drums lineup, or acoustically, and would have been extremely effective.
So, yeah, I like this record. It sounds good cranked up in the car; it feeds my geekery by letting me imagine the tracks as played by The Moscow Rules, full volume. And it’s yet another reminder that my wife has good taste even when she doesn’t realize it.
I will note the following: turns out there are 3 members, and the two guys are close to my age (40’s) which explains something about their deep knowledge of 80’s sounds. Also they all came from more guitar-oriented bands, and they do use tons of vintage gear to get that huge sound. We did get the first album on vinyl and it sounds HUGE. Also The Moscow Rules is my band.