Picture the scene- you're a young band with a massive countrywide following. You're noted for your explosive live shows which people would literally sell their mothers to attend. You've been signed on a six-album deal by PolyGram, who've arranged for your band to fly out to the south of France to record your first record with Manic Street Preachers producer Mike Hedges- on them, of course. Now supposing just days before you're due to set off, your lead singer quits, citing label pressure as his only reason and goes off to live on a hill in Italy. It's a nightmare situation but not the end of the world, right?
Now imagine that singer was Damien Rice.
This is exactly the quandary Kildare-born, Dublin-based alt. rockers Juniper found themselves in at the beginning of 1999. Their lead singer, the man we now know as the fragile soul behind 2002's surprise worldwide hit O
, decided he couldn't produce an album without total creative freedom. PolyGram wanted radio hits and the band agreed, so Damo packed his favourite sheep and walked off beneath a Tuscan sun. With two huge hits ('Weatherman' and 'The World Is Dead') already under their belt, the band was in no mood to call it quits. The four remaining regrouped as Bell X1, named after the first aircraft to break the sound barrier, with guitarist Paul Noonan taking over vocal duties.
is the group's third effort and, tellingly, their first not to contain a visible trace of their reclusive ex-cohort. Their first two releases (2000's Neither Am I
and 2002's Music In Mouth
) captured a band in flux, still working on a mix of old and new material, all the while exorcising old ghosts. Some things never change: few Irish bands can claim to go without the influence of Gallic indie rock gods The Frames, and Bell X1 are no exception, while no effort is made to wipe away the greasy handprint of Thom Yorke whose sense of melancholic nuance is not lost on the foursome.
On the other hand, many things do change- Flock
is a noticeably more mainstream album but, curiously, not in a bad way. Bands like Bell X1, in a sense, are born singles bands. Nobody could suspect Radiohead of ever compromising their art, yet they remain one of Britain's most enduring producers of singles, though they rarely if ever produce a bona fide 'hit.' The same can be said for Oasis, Coldplay and dozens of other bands. Bell X1 may never become huge outside their homeland but I'm certain the same principle applies. Any number of singles could be pulled from Flocks
- already 'Bigger Than Me,' 'Flame' and 'Rocky Took A Lover' have hit Irish radio- yet the album never feels remotely commercial
Without dwelling on the point too long, Flock
sounds like a band finally hitting their curve. Oasis did it with What's The Story
and the Verve did with Urban Hymns
(though perhaps it's ten years too early for comparisons)- they created albums that were simultaneously creative, original and packed with potential hits. 'Bigger Than Me' borrows a leaf from Bloc Party's tab book, placing a stomping post-punk riff/rhythm combination alongside a laid-back vocal which at times recalls U2. New single 'Flame' utilises full, lush electric guitar chords and a funky verse to create an odd 1999-meets-American Pie vibe that can only yield positive results.
Lyrically, too, the album excels. Noonan's introspective wrangling contains neither the self-righteous projection Chris Martin is so fond of nor the blinkered self-debasement to which Thom Yorke is prone, yet his flourish for witty one-liners and stark real-life imagery exudes a charm all of its own. 'Rocky Took a Lover,' for instance, is a touching account of a real-life down-and-out who, for one day, finds himself a companion for the night. Despite itself, the song manages to include several tongue-in-cheek phrases as the pair share more words than fluids the morning after.
[She said] 'You're such an asshole when you're drunk'
He said 'At least I'm OK in the mornings'
She said 'I don't believe in any old Jesus
If there was a God, then why is my arse
The perfect height of kicking?'
Elsewhere, Noonan sees himself lashing out at the "cute hoors" who always take what they want and give nothing, 'makin' "V"s like Nixon'
always looking for the 'Reacharound.' On the superbly nuanced Coldplay-alike closer 'Lamposts' he can't bear to let go of his lover's hand though she's got her middle finger raised to him, while the light blues Natalie lingers on the repeated phrase 'history is written by the winners.'
Yeah, history is written by the winners and, truth be told, in twenty years (false prophet or not) history will be written by the likes of Chris Martin and not Paul Noonan. Nevertheless, Flock
is a superb option for those tired of Martin's quest for 'biggest sound in the world' and long for a time when Thom Yorke could reduce an audience to tears with little more than an acoustic guitar and his trademark mousy warble.
Rocky Took A Lover