I've been keeping an eye on Popular Workshop for a while now. No phone tapping, no telephoto lenses, no glasses against walls, or hiding in bushes. But I've been aware of them since the demise of the lead singer Gypsy's first band, Querelle. I'd heard their demos while doing work experience at a record company, and saw them live a couple of times. They were a band with enough quality to succeed. They had the attitude, the looks, and they were incredible live. I felt sure they'd 'make it'. But their brand of fiery yet articulate indie rock, with its roots in Sonic Youth and Q and not U, was sadly out of vogue at the time. Coldplay were selling all the records, and while all the big A&R had a sniff around Querelle, they were never going to put any money into something that wasn't going to have a chance of coffee table domination. Even though they managed to release a decent mini LP, which is more than some similar bands around that time did, it was too little, too late.
There are traces of the former bands sound in the debut Popular Workshop album. Gypsy's voice is the most obvious point of reference, and his guitar is brutally flayed in a similar way. The three piece band set up is the same, and as a result the song structures occasionally recall former works. But PopShop are a better band now than Querelle (last mention, I promise) were then for a few reasons.
1. The guitar sound has been tweaked to near perfection.
2. The band is less a battle of wills and more an organic mix of people fighting for each other.
3. They've a very distinct identity. Before I could listen to the stuff of old and pick out points where their influences overwhelmed the songs. Here they've carved out their own dynamic blend of razor-edged attack and release. The songs feel messy, but in a good way, like hair you've been working on with several types of product until it is just so.
4. The songs are uniformly excellent. It's a really good sign that the album feels short. The first time it finished, I actually did want more.
5. Lyrical highlights run throughout.
"Number One: I make friends with all my demons.
Number Two: I stab them in the back."
Great line that. I'm even thinking it has front/back t-shirt potential.
"Every mistake is a little blessing."
Delivered in a faux cockney accent. Very clever, very modern. I can't figure out why this track was brought out as a single though. It just isn't one.
"She said I'm gonna kill myself tomorrow because I'm turning 23,
And then she looked into my eyes and said 'You wanna die with me?"
Ah. Now THIS song is a single! Two minutes and a few seconds of nerve shredding indie magic.
5. They've gotten Steve Albini and Greg Norman to record them in a week at Albini's own studio, Electrical Audio in Chicago. That was absolutely the right choice, and recording quickly and live has kept the edge from their rapacious live performances. Another good move.
6. The sleeve is very good. I like the photo, and I like an aspect of it which I may (more likely) or may not be imagining. On the cover we see a destroyed room, maybe an art installation. You can see some yellow gaffa tape in the picture. I don't know if they're all going out like this, but mine came with a yellow gaffa tape seal. If they aren't, it's just a stroke of luck that's gotten my attention, if they are... it's a situationist device that makes you involved with part of the image. Clever stuff.
All in, this album has to be the best debut album this year. Expect to see it in a few of those endless best of 2008 lists. It'll definitely be in mine.