The Sunshine Underground - Raise The Alarm Review
Posted by Stephen Mogan on 08.22.2006
Difficult-to-pigeonhole Brit rockers head straight for the dancefloor, but do they deliver?
The Sunshine Underground is the latest in a long line of British indie bands with designs on the dancefloor (“Influenced by the Happy Mondays, grew up with the rave scene etc. etc. etc.”). So what separates this lot from BoyKillBoy, The Automatic and all the others that have already rolled off the conveyer belt this year? Well, you’re just gonna have to read on to find out, aren’t you? (Or you could look at the big red score at the bottom. But don’t do that, you’ll ruin the tension. Look, forget I said anything, alright?).
I’ve been following this band since last August and I’ve been impressed with their ability to craft 3-minute pop singles, but the prospect of a full-length album daunted me slightly, for two main reasons. First of all, the singles themselves all sounded remarkably different to one another, and I found it difficult to see how the band was going to be able to build a cohesive album around them. Secondly, news on the record has been thin on the ground for the last couple of months, leading me to believe something disastrous had happened. So, was my apprehension justified? Well…
The album opens with “Wake Up”, a track which sets the tone for the rest of the record with its grumbling bassline and angst-ridden lyrics ("They try to pull the wool over our eyes/and tell us everything's alright/why don't you keep it in the background/you've got nothing to worry about tonight"). It’s short and to the point, but nothing particularly special. It certainly wouldn’t have been my choice for the album opener, but each to their own I guess. Thankfully, the next track (and debut single) “Put You In Your Place” immediately grabs you by the neck and jigs you around like a moron, more than making up for the flat opening. With its funky guitars and wailing vocals, it’s the first sign that these guys could be more than just the next bunch of poseurs. A great choice of single, I dare anyone to listen to it and sit still. This is followed up by “Dead Scene”, which furthers the dancefloor vibe with its loose bassline and squealing guitars. It also boasts a massive chorus, making it a definite future single.
“The Way It Is” is a slice of melancholy disco; still danceable, but one of the more downbeat tracks on the album. I’m not a huge fan of the yelped lyrics on this one, but the musicianship is top-class. Full credit for creating something that sounds bummed out and optimistic at the same time. Next up is the former single “Commercial Breakdown”. This is a fantastic track, one of my favourites of the year. The guitar-hook is instantly memorable and the vocals may the best on the album. Unfortunately, they’re followed by perhaps the worst vocals on the record. “Somebody’s Always Getting In The Way” is probably the only song here that has absolutely no dancefloor pretensions. It’s an acoustic guitar and drum machine deal that is more interesting than the lame acoustic tracks that most bands put on their albums (Jet springs to mind for some reason). However, singer Craig Wellington sounds like he’s doing an Ian Brown impression here, taking the track down a notch or two. It’s still decent, but less of the karaoke next time, eh?
“Borders” is next, another great track that would be a perfect fit as a single. Less geared towards the indie disco than the other tracks here, but with some great vocals (especially on the verses) and another top bassline, it’s a winner. The lyrics here come off as being political without being too angry or preachy, which is a perfect fit for the band. “Panic Attack” follows, which I was ready to dismiss as merely decent before I found myself singing its chorus incessantly at inopportune points during my day. It really worms its way into your head, and the song is suitably different to everything else here (we even get some faux-U2 guitars thrown in on the intro) to warrant another thumbs up. I picked up “I Ain’t Losing Any Sleep” when it was released as a single earlier this year, and thought it sounded a bit flat and sparse compared to the band’s other early efforts. Thankfully, that’s been rectified here, with the verse/chorus/verse structure of the original version thrown out of the window and the whole track generally beefed up. The insistent riff still underpins everything, but the band appears to be a playing a lot more freely on this version, and there’s a bigger and better guitar freakout at the end, too. Top stuff.
“My Army” is a ridiculously good track I can’t really do justice to in words. The best way that I can describe it is to say that it feels like the whole song flies by at breakneck speed, but there’s so much going on at all points that its tough to take it all in in one listen. It’s like the band have gone out of their way to squeeze a 10-minute epic into 4 minutes, with the best possible results. Finally, “Raise The Alarm” finishes things off in mindblowing style. The track starts off innocently enough, with a nice riff, some nice touches here and there and a functional chorus (“Well you know what you want/ but you don’t know how to get it/ well raise the alarm”). Halfway through, however, the whole world gets flipped upside down and the track descends into what sounds like Azzido Da Bass’ “Doom’s Night” having a fight with Run DMC. One that’s over, the guitar hero histrionics start, and the track finishes in a whirlwind of frantic sound that appears to swallow up the band, if not the entire earth. It’s that good. Oh and if you keep listening for 4 or so minutes you get a mid-paced hidden track with some nice, heavy drums, but it does little to draw attention from the jaw-dropping finale of the title track, and probably should have just been left off altogether.
So, in summary then: these guys have a huge amount of potential. This album is a triumph in a number of ways: it mixes fantastically skilled musicianship with a pop sensibility and a knack for keeping things short and catchy. Not one song here goes any longer than it should, and that’s quite a feat in itself. The album also manages to fuse a number of different sounds without becoming disjointed, and the fact that most of the tracks are aimed towards the dancefloor never gets dull (I’m looking at you, BoyKillBoy). Finally, the originality is off the charts when compared to most of their contemporaries, and the potential for future albums is significant.
It’s not all great, however, but most quibbles I have are minor. First, the opening track is really dull in comparison to what follows it, and the band could have done with a track with a bit more life to kick off their debut album. The hidden track is also a bit unnecessary, but it doesn’t exactly make much of a difference to the album as a whole since you’ll probably be too busy repeatedly rewinding the title track to notice its there. The lyrical content of the album doesn’t exactly set the world on fire either, but the band is pretty young and they certainly display a lot more maturity than their peers (I’m looking at you, The Automatic). Most of the songs feature the same sort of angst-laden ranting, and it doesn’t feel like the subject matter changes a whole lot over the course of the record. Also, the album may not be challenging enough for some, but when 4-minute guitar-pop sounds this good, who cares? So, it’s not perfect then, but it’s as good a debut as you’ll hear all year, and album number two should be spectacular.
The 411: A great debut from a British band that has the musical skill and ambition to become one of the best the country has produced in a long time. Almost every track is a dancefloor gem, and there’s barely a note wasted on the whole album. The lyrics also show a yearning for something more: something bigger and better that bodes well for the future. In short, it’s a party album with enough variety to keep listeners interested long after the DJ’s buggered off home. Keep an eye on these guys.