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Black Country, New Road were victims of themselves. The hype for their first two singles, especially the fever-dream bloodletting "Sunglasses", was eclipsed only by the acclaim over their manic, highly regarded live shows. Gems seemed to pour from their fists at an alarming rate, provided you were up-to-date with the bootleg circuit; here a gnarly post-punk banger about Kendall Jenner or blowing things up at the Cambridge Science Fair, there a 15-minute behemoth about a Charli XCX dream which is as funny as it is oddly moving. It seemed like Black Country, New Road could do no wrong - which is, of course, the worst position for any band to be in. The weight of expectation must have been crushing.
The fact that For the first time
is still pretty good – great, actually, but not critical-discourse first-album-knockout-great
– is something to be toasted. The British seven-piece bar band/free jazz enthusiasts/Slint tribute act simply took a selection from their live repertoire and laid it on a 6-track, 40-minute record. It's almost shockingly straightforward, from the folks who debuted with "Sunglasses", but at the same time it's the only debut album they could have made. Their live shows may be constantly mutating, pushing into stranger and thornier and sometimes more tender territory, but they needed something on record to show the world where they started. To wit: the album title, the short runtime, the safe tracklist with re-recordings of their now iconic singles.
Okay, so the new versions aren't good. Particularly "Sunglasses", boasting a powerful new droning guitar intro which quickly gives way to the exact same song
recorded slightly faster, but with far less passion and intensity. "Athens, France" fares a little better: the new lyrics are actually interesting enough to beg for more than just a redo of the old instrumental. Seemingly musing on the same relationship with the benefit of hindsight, the change from the stunningly nasty "she tries to fuck me, I pretend that I'm asleep instead" to a self-reflective "I write the words I'll one day wish that I had never said" creates a fascinating dialogue between the new song and the original. Still, it says a lot that the best cut here is the only one not extensively previewed live. "Track X", a truly lovely orchestrated spin on the "Sunglasses" melody, takes the band's irony-soaked, sometimes suffocatingly sardonic humour into a place refreshingly vulnerable and honest. The warped carnivalesque "Instrumental" and "Opus" bookend the album with a Mr. Bungle-style ridiculousness, while the plain but excellent "Science Fair" packs everything people love and/or hate about this band – lyrics too clever by half, spindly Slint-esque guitars creating a background for manic horns to rise in a frenzy – into six minutes and change. If you came into this album with no concept of the band's history but a taste for their kind of insanity, you'd likely think For the first time
was a slam dunk.
Truth is, Black Country, New Road defied the blogosphere/indiehead/Pitchfork-lead bullshit craving for easily dismissed black-and-white content. They delivered neither a classic nor an embarrassing flop that revealed them as a flavour-of-the-week fancy, but just a pretty good album with room to improve. It's all there in "Track X", in its simplicity and humble dynamics and naked emotionality; it's there in the song which could act as a link to the band's future rather than just a document of their beginning. If For the first time
truly is the singular text on their first 18 months as a band, then hearing how tantalisingly close it is to greatness, and how often it gets lost in the weeds instead? I cannot fucking wait to hear the next 18.