Thursday, 14 May 2009

Wall Of Arms

The Maccabees - Wall Of Arms
released 4 May 2009 on Fiction

The Maccabees’ début album, 2007’s Colour It In, closed with the track Toothpaste Kisses - a gorgeous, tender pop song that deserved huge success. Unfortunately, it didn’t even chart and so joined the legions of great lost singles.

Undeterred, The Maccabees are back and have roped in Midas-fingered producer Markus Dravs (Bjork, Coldplay, Arcade Fire) for Wall of Arms. Dravs’ influence is all over the record, specifically the touches he brought to Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible; in fact, frontman Orlando Weeks has more than a touch of Win Butler in his startled yelp of a voice.

As well as Arcade Fire flourishes, The Maccabees draw their influences from far and wide. It’s just unfortunate that each band member has a completely different influence and that leads to a rather confused band identity. The drums are straight out of the Bloc Party school of hi-hat battering, basslines appear to have been lifted from Franz Ferdinand’s first album, there are Shins-style guitar licks all over the show and as well as Win Butler, Weeks seems to be doing his best to channel the spirit of Justin Vernon and - at times - Antony Hegarty too (unsuccessfully, it must be said).

So, sounds like you won’t be getting Toothpaste Kisses II then. Actually, what you will get is an overwhelming sensation that you’ve heard everything here before. For the majority of Wall of Arms, The Maccabees resolutely stick to the guitar/bass/drums/vocals template, which may not be headline news but it’d be nice to let them loose on a high-school musical instrument trolley now and again. Keeping it simple is a trick that only works if you’re really, really good - remember you’re up against early Lennon and McCartney if that’s the route you pursue. Just ask Weezer, who got the simple stuff spot-on for a while but have faltered since 2002’s confused Maladroit. The Maccabees do not possess a McCartney, a Lennon or even a Cuomo and it’s all too obvious.

Wall of Arms certainly has its moments though: the harmonies of opening track and recent single Love You Better being the most obvious example. Their plain approach pays dividends on Can You Give It but it’s on the title track that The Maccabees really shine. Wall of Arms begins with a funk bassline before a wall of crunching guitars is introduced which is given room to breathe thanks to joyful trumpet stabs. This sets the scene for a near-perfect future radio classic before the bass, layer upon layer of guitar and horns close the whole thing out, leaving you exhausted.

It’s a shame that these high points are so few and far between because so often, The Maccabees seem content to settle for mediocrity. Even Weeks himself sounds bored as the album begins its stagger to the finishing line, his voice only has two setting: impassioned longing and “can’t be bothered.” Closing track Bag of Bones is so lethargic it needs a litre of Red Bull just to get out of bed in the morning.

There have been so many great artists and albums in the past that it’s far too much to expect a quintet of early-twenties London kids to reinvent the wheel, but is it really too much to ask that they try doing something interesting? Each track in its own right has nothing inherently wrong with it, but put eleven of them together and it’s all a little one-dimensional. It’s difficult to fathom how a producer who has worked with an artists as diverse and inventive as Bjork could put his name to something so vanilla, yet there are enough flashes of inspiration here to suggest The Maccabees could have a bright future. If only they stop trying to be everybody else for a while and learn to be content to be themselves.

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