I had the definite High Fidelity moment 6 or 7 years ago, this was before I had even heard of the book or seen the movie. There I was, sorting my fathers LP’s alphabetically, getting a rare glimpse into the world of a long-haired youth in the late 70’s lucky enough to be traveling in England in a time of great music. Sure, there were the obvious “dad” records in the sorting pile: Black and Blue, London Calling, Avalon… that sort of thing. But there were also some hidden gems. I was drawn to the cover of No More Heroes by The Stranglers, simply because it looked so good. A slightly misanthropic, angry card gently placed on a bed of red flowers. It is not only great on the outside, when I played it several songs stuck to my mind. Especially the title track and the wonderful “Something Better Change”.
It is not a bad idea to ride in on the comeback wave in 2012. The bands that emerged after the first wave of punk rock in the mid 70’s continue to draw listeners as the dad generation get increasingly nostalgic and the young punks start taking history lessons beyond The Exploited. The Stranglers were never a pure-cut punk band in sound, both the Clash and the Sex Pistols were sharper, but they possessed a certain kind of black humour and fuck-off attitude that certainly embodied punk. If you read the stories about the clashes with local politicians and raggare (do a Google Image search) in Sweden you can draw lines from The Stranglers to Black Flag and Fear. Even if the music seems quite poppy, the will to provoke and fight was strong. Then the band scored surprise hits with the drug pastiche of “Golden Brown” and “Always The Sun”. They lost some old rock fans and gained several new pop fans. It is the story of most of the rock bands of the 70’s. The 80’s and 90’s are histories of ventures into the charts, mostly remembered for unconciously holding up posters that scream: We try too hard. The Stranglers got away with it, they have stayed semi-popular in mainland.
How do the Stranglers sound in 2012? Laidback is the first word that comes to mind. They claim that several song ideas for this album have been brewing in the creative pot for almost 10 years. Maybe the exit of two singers over the last two decades have brougth the core of the band more together. There is less of the provocateur up front, more of the collaborative effort where a bunch of middle-aged men get together and prove that they still have it. The aim seem to be clever mid-paced rock songs, no “Golden Brown” revival or attempt to be more punk than you are/were. Which seems like the sensible thing to do.
Points of praise:
Jean still has an amazing bass sound. I guess, when you do most of the songwriting and singing you can turn your own instrument up a little. The heavy, clear tone packs a punch and reminds me of the walking bass lines of NoMeansNo and Elvis Costello. As other critics have mentioned before me, Jean-Jaques Burnel is somewhat of an innovator when it comes to melodic bass lines. It just sounds so easy when he gets going, but a great melody churning in the background adds to the catchy factor.
The single, “Time was once on my side”, seems to hit the mark for the Stranglers current situation, everyone tends to get a little more bitter when they are still playing music in their 50’s. If I should give you the mental musical image it would be: Picture Morrissey going down to the pub to complain to his mates. There is a sarcastic undertone to the lyrics and vocals on this album that counts in the bands favor. A bit of bitterness never hurt a good album, it tends to enhance them if it is done cleverly.
There certainly are several clever tracks on Giants.The title track, sung by guitarist Baz, is smalltown Engling, driving on slow cruise control, hanging out the window, watching everyday business. It is a cool rock number that gives me faith in old heroes. Lowlands follows with the closest effort to old punk on the record, amplified by the very strange addition of Yes-like keyboard riffs. I guess this is what made the Stranglers stand out back in the day and analogue still suit them. Hear these tracks back to back and start to realize where the idea of Pulp was born. The more you listen, the more you see patterns in British music history, with the Stranglers emerging as an important piece of the puzzle.
Out of 10 tracks there are surprisingly few dull ones, which is somewhat of a miracle in the world of the music critic. I could certainly do without the lounge blues jam of “My Fickle Resolve”. The awkward “Spanish of Adios” just gives me unpleasant shivers. These two misses aside, Giants is a ood musical document that can serve several purposes. It can give you and your dad something to bond over, it can bring new fans back to the wonders of the first two albums, and it can provide a confident soundtrack for driving long halls through the countryside from city to city.
Giants grows (pun intended). It sounds mature in a confident way, the band stay clear of musty clichés. It won’t be remembered as a classic or a breakthrough comeback, but The Stranglers play it safe and keep a rock steady course. A wholesome effort from clever men.