Review Summary: Birmingham-based pop-punkers return with their sophomore effort, a more downbeat affair than their first.
As you may have guessed if you’ve read my review of it already, I am something of a fan of the Zatopeks’ debut, ‘Ain’t Nobody Left But Us’. Clearly it caught the eye of Household Name Records too, because that’s the band’s new home – one of the most powerful indies on the British punk scene. And so we are treated to the band’s sophomore album, ‘Damn Fool Music’.
On first impressions, not much seems different. Much like ‘Ain’t Nobody…’, it comes in a package more lavish than many of their UK pop-punk contemporaries are able to boast, while the slightly 60s-retro font in which the tracklisting is written on the back recalls the similar style used for its predecessor’s artwork. The lyrics are written in the same handwriting (presumably one of the band member’s) as on that album. The band is still hairy and oddly reminiscent of a cheerily approachable gang (although on the back, bassist Sammie the Giant looks alarmingly like Bert from Sesame Street). You could be forgiven for thinking this is going to be ‘Ain’t Nobody Left But Us Mark II’.
Thankfully (because one of the best things about the band is their ability to avoid the obvious), it isn’t. It’s a fairly natural progression, for the most part, feeling like that old cliché, a ‘transitional record’. While there are some songs that could have happily fit in on the last album, the overall tone here is more downbeat, sombre and reflective. The only songs that feel particularly upbeat are the country-fied ‘Picture Postcards’ (and even that is tinged with a certain sadness) and the closer ‘Death and the Hobo’, which evokes the image of lead singer Will De Niro as something of a wanderer, a theme also used on the previous album. While it works, there are a few hangovers from it that don’t quite, particularly ‘Drive-By Love’, which, while boasting a killer melody and riff, feels a little forced at times, being the only album to really make any extensive usage of the greaser image that was more prevalent on songs such as ‘The Summer I Fell In Love With Jimmy’s Girl’ and ‘De Niro Come On’.
Fortunately, there are other themes that feel more natural. There’s a fair amount of politics in here, especially on ‘Radio Maryja’, ‘Daily Mail’ and ‘Culture of Control’, three of the album’s strongest tracks. The first of the three deals with an anti-Semitic Polish radio station, the death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya and manages to make a reference to Back to the Future – not bad for a song that’s only 1:19 long. The second is almost punk-free, instead being a jazz song, and an effective one at that. The third, meanwhile, manages to trump most political songs by acknowledging that it isn’t providing much in the way of a solution, by having bassist Sammie the Giant sing ‘Well, Will, do you want revolution?/What’s your bloody great solution?’ The reply? ‘Well Sam/I don’t know/Are we just playing fancy dress?/Or is an honest world a realistic goal?’
Elsewhere, there’s a chance for De Niro to reflect on his past (‘Jumble Sale’, ‘747’), pay tribute to musical influences (‘I Don’t Want The Airwaves’, ‘Song For Nina Simone’) and tell the tale of a married couple’s first and final meetings (’15 Ta Life’, ‘Ship To Go Down With’). The latter two songs are particularly good examples of the album’s gloomier side, with the ‘ship to go down with’ being the partner that the narrator has just chosen to spend his life with (or not, as the other song indicates).
Musically, it’s not quite so much doom and gloom – as lacking in good cheer as the likes of ‘Radio Maryja’ or ‘Jumble Sale’ are, they’re backed by poppy, colourful punk bound to put a smile on even the biggest curmudgeon’s face. Generally, though, the music matches the lyrical sentiment, with songs such as ‘Courtyard Blues’ and ‘Song For Nina Simone’ both being particularly unsuited to pogoing or moshing. Indeed, it’s rather telling that the album features overt lyrical references to, besides the obvious Nina Simone, Thelonius Monk and Edith Piaf. On the other hand, there’s nary a reference to the Ramones or Screeching Weasel or the expected references from a pop-punk band.
There are a few criticisms that can be levelled at the album. On the whole, the songs are less memorable than on the debut; while ‘Song For Nina Simone’, no matter how heartfelt it is, and no matter how deserving of tribute she is, is just plain dull. While just about every song on ‘Ain’t Nobody…’ I could at the very least sing you a hook from, I’m hard-pressed to remember much of ‘Courtyard Blues’ or ‘Don’t Let The Night Get You Down’. While it’s still as clever as ever (what other punk band requires footnotes in their lyrics to explain that they’re referencing Czech dramatist Vaclav Havel?), at times it feels like they’ve sacrificed their memorable tunes for this. But for every weaker song, there are songs such as ‘Radio Maryja’, ‘747’, ‘Culture Of Control’ or ‘Daily Mail’ to make up for it.
On the whole, it’s a very strong record – not as strong as their debut, but then not many pop-punk albums are. If you liked that album, you’ll find plenty to love here, but if you’re new to the band, you might be better off starting with their debut. With all the buzz they’re generating, and the power of Household Name behind them, the future could well be bright for the band. Now all that remains to be seen is if this record is a hint toward their future path, or just a quick paddle in the deeper end of the swimming pool.