Sophomore LP from London-based quartet is an accomplished slab of angular, wry indie-pop wonderfulness. Opening with the archly humourous Out Of Nothing, with Simon Kobayashi snarling ‘Home is where the cheap shit is’ over twirling, whirling guitar lines that clatter towards pounding, explosive choruses with an assured swagger and confidence that practically demands a sea of moshing, waving arms. It veers into scruffy pop singalongs a la Electric Soft Parade before elegantly spring-boarding into the surfy uptempo guitar licks of Wrong Side, propelled by Ruth Atkins’ slinky bassline. Simon hollering, ‘It doesn’t get any better’, which fortunately is a complete misnomer as the band have barely hit their stride.
By the end of the second track Smallgang are already standing proudly at the crest of indie-pop perfection, it is from here that they trampoline into the stratosphere, coming proudly off of the anarchic guitar riffs that close Wrong Side and lurching into the dry-witted Cockpit. Simon telling the tale of a crashing plane with a Neil Hannon-esque tongue-in-cheek, but married to the kind of woozy lo-fi pop hooks that made Pavement‘s Crooked Rain Crooked Rain such a triumph.
It’s almost inevitable that whatever follows falters, Leaves is a lively and moody track, with Toshi Kobayashi’s vocal contrasting richly against the jangling guitars like Bill Callahan guesting on a Nada Surf tune. The title track is a evocative and atmospheric tune, full of the art-rock juxtapositions that made – for me – Blur‘s 13 their strongest record; Toshi’s voice is soft and fragile, carrying a tender weight on its back and bringing depth to the instrumentation’s fluctuating flurries of noise and then the gentle verses. It builds towards a peculiarly rousing conclusion, vocals draped at angles over the arrangment, almost masking the bittersweet sentiments they contain.
Made In China is an erratic and frantically barked angsty rant with dream-pop backing vocals, racing towards a feverish conclusion, it’s no less fun than anything else on the record but feels a little disposable. Lost in the Post fares far better, lyrically dismissively grumbled by Toshi that slowly latch onto the words ‘The bond is between us’ and fly with them deliciously, the music wrapped around his ever more harried delivery with a mix of claustrophobia and excitement and when it lets fly it’s exhilirating.
Elsewhere Arrows is a beautifully elegant tune, Ruth Atkin’s bassline sliding up and down with a raised eyebrow, and the triple-barrelled vocals both comforting and sinister. Meanwhile Matthew Atkins drumming flits from stuttering punctuation marks and jazzy scuffles, whilst Simon’s descending, twinkling guitar is a glittering treat, that all fits so snugly up against Toshi’s malevolent delivery. It’s the kind of song you could gladly swim in for hours and it’s like someone abruptly pulls the plug leaving you cold when it ends (in a good way).
Kindness has all the urban seedy pomp of Pulp at their peak; ‘Meet me there toight and I will sort you out,’ Simon burbles warmly; ‘And I’ll buy you a pint of whatever suits your tongue.’ The whole things barrels towards a stumbling, drunken wall of noise that collapses into a sorry heap on the floor before the twittering and lively guitars of Like A Velvet Glove gather the momentum propelling the record towards its final moments, Matthew’s drums an ominous, relentless roll of bundled energy on the giddily grimy choruses.
Final track 1532 opens with Matthew’s grin inducing cowbell-rolls and duellingly sleazy guitar lines dancing merrily around Ruth’s laidback, soothing bassline, whilst Toshi turns sweetly funny lyrics about swallowing various birds into a haunting and terrifying nursery rhyme. It has the free-wheeling Lewis Carroll inspired madness of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks holding hands with the raucous and unkempt sound of Sonic Youth and its a toweringly glorious way to draw this dazzling LP to a close.
A hugely enjoyable record peppered with melodies, lyrics, riffs, ideas that will rattle around your brain for weeks, months on end. A masterful record by a talented bunch who, in a kinder world, would be absolutely huge. One of the finest art-rock records you will hear this year.