TRACKLISTING:1. Tears Of A Landlord
2. Show Us Your Canines
3. Chasing Consummations
4. Tendons in the Night
5. On the Spines of Old Cathedrals
6. Devastating Bones
7. You're the Shout
8. That's Static
9. No More Memories
10. Flinching at Forever
A co-release with the ever excellent WIAIWYA Record, Shrag's third album Canines was recorded at Gargleblast Studios with producer Andy Miller (Life Without Buildings, Mogwai, Sons and Daughters). A visceral pop record bristling with urgency, melody, and danger, this is the sound of a band fully in their stride.
A fiercely idiosyncratic record which stalks new territory for Shrag; in its counter-intuitive journey from the feedback-drenched fury of album opener ‘Tears of a Landlord’ to the bittersweet lushness of closing paean ‘Jane with Dumbbells’, Canines interrogates structures, of the body, the mind, and the city.
Suffused with bones, skin, and inappropriate desires, the album’s first single ‘Tendons in the Night’ is a voyeuristic ode to the estimable pursuit of gymnastic perfection, whilst the second, ‘Show us your Canines’, is a blood-heavy exhortation against martyrdom and for movement, distilling the urgency and compulsion which lends the tone to the record as a whole.
The glam-rock nonchalance of sun-soaked stomper ‘Devastating Bones’ gives way to the claustrophobia and menace of the family curse threading its way through ‘That’s Static!’, and the heady impulsivity and rush of ‘On the Spines of Old Cathedrals’ and ‘You’re the Shout’ are offset against the elegant defiance of ‘Chasing Consummations’ and ‘Flinching at Forever’, where the band insist on a potent celebration of their own sense of awkwardness and fear.
Bucking the trend of many a fast-imploding lo-fi press darling, Shrag come out with fists swinging on their third LP. There’s some palpable songwriting muscle on show right from the off, with opener ‘Tears Of A Landlord’ delivering an unsettling, gothic footstomp underneath its disquieting refrain of “I think about death when you genuflect”. Beyond the album’s halfway mark, the one-two punch of ‘You’re The Shout’ and ‘That’s Static!’ have such direct, insistent hooks they could be mistaken for ’90s indie darlings Lush at their most buoyant. One thing’s for sure: Shrag may smile sweetly, but on ‘Canines’ they take no small pleasure in bearing their collective teeth. 8/10
Brighton/London five-piece Shrag have always possessed a darker edge than their indiepop/twee label suggested. As the title indicates, third album Canines sees them baring their teeth to produce a set that blends sweetness with something more menacing.
It would be easy to let the sheer joyous racket that the band creates fool you. Shouty sloganeering on Show Us Your Canines, Chasing Consummations and Devastating Bones, and the boy/girl sing-along vocals, create an initial impression of cheerful, lively naivety. Dig a little deeper, though, and a more serious, sometimes troubling, side comes through.
Often carried on a wave of aggression from post-punk guitars or with ominous basslines, there is a focus on the visceral – Devastating Bones’ protagonist posing “on your rib cage”, the prospect of the titular Jane With Dumbbells ripping out her teeth – and the carnal (Show Us Your Canines, Chasing Consummations).
One of this album’s delights lies in the band’s exuberant use of language. Lyrics clearly springing from an enjoyment of, and gift for, words abound, from …Canines’ “I’m enamoured of your feral sighs” to wonderfully economic yet descriptive couplets like “Synergies and simulations / Painted smiles and calculations” (Tears of a Landlord). Elsewhere Jane With Dumbbells offers “toxic mornings and saccharine days”, and Flinching at Forever “clean tired people who drink gin on the train”.
A skewed take on contemporary life in the UK seems to be a loose album theme, with a couple of songs – perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, in this Olympic year – focussing on sport. The bouncy Tendons in the Night is a fascinating take on the sometimes sadistic appeal of sports, training or spectating: “Something blossoms in the soul when the gymnast cries (…) Through that chrysalis and rebirth / We understand our own worth.”
Throw a few more lushly instrumented segments into the basic see-saw-guitars-and-drums formula (the strings of On the Spines of Old Cathedrals, the brass of the closer) and it is clear that, musically, thematically and stylistically, this is a band that subverts expectations. And, in doing so, bring us something altogether more complex and interesting.
I know – I did say that I wasn’t going to be able write many (if any) ‘reviews’ as such, on LOUD HORIZON any more. But I really must make an exception and give a brief mention of the new album from Brighton’s off-kilter artrockers, SHRAG.
‘Canines,’ is the third album from the band and those who have heard and loved the first two will know what to expect here. Guitarist / vocalist Bob Brown is quoted as saying he wanted to make an album that was ‘musically, a bit deranged.’ Isn’t that what SHRAG always do?
The dual boy-girl vocal attack is still as fresh and quirky as it was on their debut offering, with Helen and Stephanie’s delivery at times sounding like a primary-school choir!
But – all sweet and innocent? You’ve got to be kidding! From the swirling Hawkwind-esque intro to opening track ‘Tears Of A Landlord,’ to the Beatles-esque final bars of album closer, ‘Jane With Dumbbells,’ SHRAG give the listener ample doses of sexual innuendo, dark moods and menace. Of course, there’s plenty of bounce and frivolity as well – and some more laid back moments such as on the excellent ‘Chasing Consummations,’ which factors in some lovely, moody strings.
Then there is the pulsing drone and Strokes-like beat of ‘Tendons In The Night’ throughout which the short sharp vocal stanzas make me think (weirdly perhaps) of early Devo, with the keyboard break sounding like You Say Party, and Bob’s deep voice reminding me of Sons and Daughters! All within the space of four minutes! (In fact – I take all that back ….. check out ‘Fight’ by Sons and Daughters – it’s on their early ‘Love The Cup’ mini-album!)
You could also perhaps make a case for the following track ‘On The Spines Of Old Cathedrals’ taking on a New Order form, what with (what sounds like ) programmed beats and prominent bass-line. Next again, and ‘Devastating Bones’ takes another turn in direction, this one a resounding Glam stomper!
But what I love most about SHRAG is that while they may occasionally remind me of other bands, they sound simply like ….. SHRAG.
They can do no wrong! Is this any better than their previous releases? It’s hard to say, since they too were so strong. It’s hard to improve on perfection!
A friend: “I don’t remember this...” And there you have it. Shrag are so in thrall to an alternative sub-genre forgotten by many but treasured by a clued-up few (that’s me and you, right?), that a casual playing of this, their third (and best by some distance) album has a been there/done that indie survivor presuming she missed it first time around. Sure, Canines could have had Melody Maker foaming at the mouth twenty years ago but it shines bright and new, and says so much more than any number of fey janglers ever managed. It doesn’t just breathe life into an arguably tired genre. It exhumes the grey corpse of indie pop, sneaks it into its underground lab, gets seriously into Frankenstein mode. It’s alive! And, boy, is it alive.
Saturated with melody, indie pop in 2012 may well have been as adventurous, but rarely so tuneful as this. And, now that I think about it, rarely so adventurous, either. Canines is many things: challenging, great fun and, above all else, beautifully expressionistic. Words, a multitude of them, spill out in wave after wave: acutely observed, lyrics become signposts. Documented in a quivering, hand-held close-up it hums with a brooding restlessness, takes note of the grainy ebb and flow of modern day urban Britain. It’s like Play For Today as re-imagined by a heaven-sent combo of The Fall and Voice of the Beehive.
Proffering neither inward reflection nor blustering polemic, Canines instead captures the (un)usual suspects (fatal attraction, athletic prowess, death) with an unflinching eye for detail and an assured, distinct mode of expression. Yes, ultimately, the lyric sheet is a mere string of verses and couplets tied to the strictures of verse/chorus/middle eight but its ambition carries it further. It’s like a free-form novel written in the second person, the observer neither behind nor in front of the camera but positioned awkwardly to the left: unexpected angles bring forth untypical tales.
And Canines is packed with them. But be prepared to work. Helen King’s lyrics are daring and accomplished. Talk about promise fulfilled. Not crafted for easy consumption, they play with and delight in the possibilities of language, a riot of metaphor. There is much to pick over and decode. In other words, prepare for deep, dark joy. The ringing guitars, punk-pop kinetics and (exceptional) boy-girl harmonies - these components are standard issue but the end result is far from off-the-shelf.
‘You’re the Shout’ boasts a descending, whip crack riff that recalls Dig Me Out era Sleater-Kinney, Helen and Stephanie Goodman trading lines like Corin and Carrie back in the day. And where it matches the Portland trio for muscle and thrust, Shrag can’t leave it (or any of the songs on here, for matter) unresolved and elementary like so many cheap Riot Grrl imitators would. So they get choon-greedy and demonstrate class by tagging on a middle eight that’s twice as catchy as the chorus. Compassion makes an appearance, delicate amidst the tumult: “The sadness that rears up in you; I’d like to rip its heart in two.”
‘Tendons in the Night’ gets its paws on The Strokes ‘Last Night’ and lets fly with a crunching 4/4 beat. Bob Brown does his best Fred Durst impression (that’s a compliment): it’s a sideways glance at the nature of athletic endeavour: “And as their limbs start to hurt / They shout their scorn for the earth!” (Oh, how Shrag peddle such lyrical clichés!)
‘Devastating Bones’ steps lightly with Belle and Sebastian jaunt before shaking the room with it’s own ‘let’s get physical’ manifesto, a blend of oddball desire (“…would you mind if I touched your ischium?”) and no messing raunch (“You’ve got devastating bones and I’d like to call them home…I think it’s my turn on your telescope…”) Ooh, matron. (Call the doctor.)
They’re melody freaks, clearly. Maintained over the course of an entire album, that’s something of a gift in itself. You could genuinely choose the singles at random – every track here is tailored for the radio and ripe for the indie disco. You prod for weak spots. There are none: eleven songs, exceptional song craft and cohesive to a fault. Canines avoids clever-clever fuck-about-ery. No acoustic laments, no jet-propelled wig-outs. The closing ‘Jane With Dumbbells’ slows the pace (and narrows focus to an unsettling intimacy), its chiming coda reminiscent of the spiralling guitars at the climax of Throwing Muses’ ‘Two Step’, but Shrag play smartly to their strengths. In how it captures both the guttural (the dizzy thrill of its hooks, the ringing guitars, the snare way up in the mix, the overwhelming sea of voices) and the cerebral (its graffiti narratives and their uncommonly heightened wordplay), it achieves a deep and lasting resonance. Awash with ideas, Canines speaks at length and with authority. Listen. And learn. 9/10
(The Music Fix)
In a tired, post-recessionary UK, it's easy to understand why people stick their head under their duvets and weep themselves slowly to sleep. Times is hard, alright, but times are also fantastic. In love with these times in spite of these times, indeed.
Shrag embody the exact opposite of Cameron's drab, bitter Britain. The world isn't "broken" for Shrag - and if there's anything around to be smashed to bits, then they'll do it ta very much. 'Canines' is a manifesto for the hard times, but also a clarion call that we can still have good times. We don't have to do what we're told, and we don't have to be told what to do. Shrag make you feel you can do anything.
'Canines', the band's third and best album, is like a greatest hits collection. Remember rushing out and buying 'The Head on the Door' by The Cure and wondering which song they'd release as a single next (just me?); well this record is just like that.
Those who saw Shrag tear across the UK with Tunabunny a few months back will recognise many of these songs, and so 'Tears of a Landlord', 'Chasing Consumations', the wonderfully New Order-ish 'On the Spines of Old Cathedrals' (a song they'll look back at in years to come as a four minutes of perfection to be deeply proud of) and the barking threatpop of 'Tendons in the Night' will all give you that warm glow of familiarity.
Then there's the glam sex-stomp of 'Devastating Bones', in which Helen King sings: "You've got devastating bones, and I'd like to call them home", whilst the rest of the band add, saucily: "I think you might need those knees for kneeling." Open the window and loosen your collar when that comes on. And send the in-laws out to walk the dog.
Don't think for one moment that Shrag all are sex perverts - oh no. There are tender moments here too, such as the twitching, insecure lines of 'Flinching at Forever' and fairytale closer 'Jane With Dumbbells', which is genuinely moving.
Real, instant pop albums like this only come along once every three or four years. This time it's Shrag's turn. Still in love with these times.
(A Layer Of Chips)
If we had to describe the genre of music Shrag made, we would call it "dance-indie-sexy-funny-pop-music". If we had to compare Shrag to a handful of other bands, it would be a mix of the best British pop of from 1989-2005 mixed with equal parts post-punk. If we had to awkwardly insert Shrag into the lyrics of a Queen song it would go: "Shrag! Aa-aa! Saviours of indie-pop!"
Now part of the Fortuna Pop! lineage along with the likes of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Allo Darlin - but with more in common with the better (less patriotic) side of Britpop, Pulp pre-'Different Class' and the like - the band have dealt with that DSA (difficult second album) and come out with fists flying and feet stomping. 'Canines' is a taut, exhilarating, if a little short, tour-de-force.
Shrag have gotten to that exciting stage of being a band where they don't sound like quite so much like a mish-mash of their favourite bands; they simply sound like Shrag. The Pulp comparison was for your benefit, readers, and while it's not unfounded, the danceability and occasional flashes of sexual perversion (most explicit on 'Closing Bones', a thunderous clatter of a ditty with the refrain "I think you might need those knees for kneeling") are entirely the band's own.
The songs swerve through the sexy to the sublime, fronted by Helen King's bratty vocals, and travelling via some riot grrl-esque speed and noise. But, like, if riot grrl was as interested in writing hooks as it was espousing the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe. The "sublime" comes in the form of closing track 'Jane With Dumbbells' (they know how to sneak a little emotional gut punch in at the end of their LPs; 'Hopelessly Wasted' from their debut is a fantastic little gem of a bitter sweet love song) where King's vocals are far less affected, far more understated, and fade in and out of an - can we say? - epic ballad backing. Epic in the sense of 'Battery In Your Leg' as opposed to Game of Thrones.
But, as often in life, there are exceptions. The stand-out track on the album, 'On The Spines Of Old Cathedrals', is the best pop song New Order haven't written in years, speedy Stephen Morris drums and low-slung Hooky bass included.
As King herself puts it: "It's a pop record about bones and skin and cities and compulsions and love and confusion. It's a bit strange, but you can dance to some of it, and it makes a particular kind of sense to us, which feels very exciting." It does to us, and is, to us, too.
(This Is Fake DIY)
Since Britpop, the term “indie” has been corrupted to mean “generic guitar band”. So it’s refreshing to be reminded on Canines of proper indie music, the sort of songs that skid by with scuzzy guitars, peppy drums and riot grrrl-influenced shouty vocals. Brighton quintet Shrag’s third album presses these echt-indie buttons very effectively, setting up a fine student-union stomp on “Devastating Bones” and neatly satirising the scourge of the renting classes on “Tears of a Landord”.
(The Financial Times)
With an existence that spans nearly a decade and a list of releases as long as both arms put together, Brighton's Shrag are entering the stage where folks might describe them as veterans of the DIY/lo-fi indie circuit. Although such talk paints a wholly false picture of a band whose members have barely passed their mid-twenties, Shrag do seem to have been around forever.
Not that we're complaining, of course. Since being proverbially slapped around the face by their live show in the summer of 2008 at Indietracks Festival, DiS has kept its ear to the ground on Shrag's activities ever since. Whereas 2009's self-titled debut sparked with youthful exuberance and uncontrollable angst, the follow-up 18 months later hinted at a band under development yet making significant inroads as both songwriters and arrangers. Fusing their trademark ramshackle pop with lavish strings in places, it represented a marked departure from Shrag's earlier output, while laying the foundations for its successor.
Having spent the best part of last year writing then recording album number three, Canines is finally upon us. It was recorded at the Gargleblast Studios in Hamilton with producer Andy Miller, whose previous credits including Life Without Buildings' Any Other City and Mogwai's The Hawk Is Howling. While no trace of any grandiose post rock leanings exist throughout the 11 songs that make up Canines, there's little evidence of the frantic, happy-go-lucky dissonance that permeates Shrag's live performances either. Instead the band have delivered a more mature record here than either of its predecessors, even though some of the song titles may be a little misleading on that front ('Show Us Your Canines', 'Jane With Dumbbells').
"We all look good in black and white!" declares Helen King on the haughty 'Chasing Consummations', arguably the standout moment here. Vocally caught somewhere between a rap and a rant, its an infectious call-to-arms that links the band's riotous past with a more widescreen vision mapped out for the future. 'On The Spines Of Old Cathedrals' takes its structural blueprint from Le Tigre's 'Decepticon', engulfing it in a poppier sheen that wouldn't sound out of place on a daytime radio schedule. Seriously.
Parts of Canines recall the Shrag of old. 'Show Us Your Canines' doffs its cap to the likes of Heavens To Betsy and Henry's Dress, while recent single 'Tendons In The Night' combines bucketloads of raucous energy with a sassy veneer that occasionally resembles The Fall in their studious rockabilly phase if re-imagined by The B-52s. 'Devastating Bones' too dares to tread where few have gone since 1973; glam rock; and even though we'd rather not reference The Glitter Band in our appraisal, one can't help picturing the 'Leader Of The Gang' stomping around in a silver jumpsuit to its infectious, rabble-rousing chorus.
Most of Canines second half finds Shrag in a more reflective, and somewhat pensive mood. 'That's Static!' and 'Flinching At Forever' reference things that keep you warm and people who drink gin on trains respectively, while both keeping their intuitive cards close to one another's chests. The closing 'Jane With Dumbbells' might just be the most maudlin piece of music Shrag have ever recorded. Laying their souls bare for all to say, its a gorgeous strings-soaked lament clocking in at 13 seconds short of five minutes, maybe setting the tone for the next venture in the process.
Minor flaws aside, largely due to the record's slightly adventurous identity crisis, Canines is two-thirds the record Shrag have been hinting at making for the best part of five years now. With a bit more TLC and fine tuning around the edges, their piece de resistance may well be just around the corner. Promisingly steadfast.