Review Summary: The debut album by the hottest pop-punk band at the moment, and an instant classic.
Before you read the following review, look at the rating I gave it: 5. Described as 'A Classic'. Not a word to be used lightly. ‘Pet Sounds’ is a classic. ‘Sgt Pepper’ is a classic. ‘Blonde on Blonde’ is a classic. So am I seriously suggesting that the debut album by a group of Birmingham-based pop-punksters is on a par with those albums? Of course not, not least because if I did, half the internet would immediately put together a petition to have me sectioned under the Mental Health Act of 1983. However, within the genre of pop-punk, name me any classic, and this album is on a par with it. ‘My Brain Hurts’? Definitely. ‘Love Songs For The Retarded’? Absolutely. ‘Milo Goes To College’? Yes, even that. This is an album that deserves to enter such a pantheon.
The Zatopeks’ strength lies in their ability to seamlessly blend a number of styles in with the standard pop-punk sound without it ever sounding forced. While this is the sort of cliché you hear bandied about over any band who can occasionally swap between electric and acoustic guitars, with the Zatopeks it is not only a remark of which they are genuinely deserving, but an impressive feat in a genre not well known for its musical diversity. And it’s not just ‘half the album’s hardcore thrashers, and the other half’s got Beach Boys-esque melodies’ – on here you’ll find countrified guitars, garage-y organs and even growled Tom Waits impressions. And they cover the length and breadth of punk, too, from the Chuck Berry/Jerry Lee Lewis rama-lama of ‘Quality Footwear’, to the Sham 69-with-a-little-more-heart of ‘The Boy Done Good’, not to mention tracks like the opening ‘The Summer I Fell In Love With Jimmy’s Girl’, which could happily sit on a Queers album without bothering anyone (besides, of course, the owner who now has a broken CD). Songs like ‘City Lights’ and ‘Another Night On The Divide’ could even impress fans of more recent and popular groups such as Alkaline Trio. But throughout, the diversity never sounds forced, nor does it ever sound awkward – instead, it flows perfectly and naturally.
The group also boasts a particularly strong lyricist in frontman Will De Niro, whose lyrics go above and beyond the ‘smart guys playing dumb’ schtick many bands in the genre stick to. These are songs with genuine heart, balls and, most importantly, brains. ‘Sophie Scholl’ is a love song to the leader of the anti-Nazi White Rose Movement, while ‘Jenny Kissed Me’ is a poem by romantic Leigh Hunt set to music. Elsewhere, the European Union is briefly discussed (but not commented on) in ‘Turkish Bread Chronicle’, while Charlton Athletic manage to make a cameo in ‘The Boy Done Good’. De Niro has an uncanny ability to, much like key influence Tom Waits in his early days, create a good impression of a well-read, well-travelled and well-lived man despite his lack of years. But it’s not all cerebral philosophising – it doesn’t take a diploma to enjoy the three songs relating to their (fictional) rival gang the Vipers, and the album’s best track (‘Quality Footwear’) is deliriously fun without ever flaunting it’s intelligence (unless you count having a line in French as being an example of that).
It’s very difficult to find anything to fault with this album. The production is perfect – clean enough to give it an accessible edge without every becoming too slick. All the musicians are fantastic. The lyrics are always genius. De Niro’s voice is one of the best to emerge on the scene in years, sometimes recalling Feargal Sharkey in his heyday, but remaining utterly distinct. The only complaint I can possibly muster up (and it’s a very weak one) is that a couple of the songs (particularly ‘Some Town In Northern France’ and ‘Turn To Gold Blues’) aren’t quite as startlingly strong as the rest. But on the other hand, on any other album they’d be among the highlights. Quite simply, one of the best pop-punk albums of recent years, and almost certainly of all time. Essential for any fan of the genre.