[Rough Trade, 2013]
ow often is a band declared the “Second (or third or nth) Coming of …” before they even have a full album on the street? Sure, there are singles released ahead of albums that get a lot of advance praise or scorn, but the level of hype in the UK surrounding the Palma Violets’ first single, “Best of Friends,” feels unprecedented. In this particular case, they were discussed as the new saviors of variously, indie rock, alt-rock, garage rock, and postpunk. The fact that the definitions and members of these genres are blurred and crossed notwithstanding, the Palma Violets did release a great single last year. “Best of Friends” made many year-end best song lists in England and that, combined with the reputation for their energetic live shows, had Palma Violets’ full-length, 180, positioned as one of the most anticipated debuts of the year.
Well the London quartet did the smart thing, and placed “Best of Friends” as the opener on 180. The song is still catchy, a guitar-infused earworm about the gentle breakup line to all the ladies who are good enough to be friends with, but not quite girlfriend material. “Best of Friends” is a great opening single, but it’s what comes after that is important now – that will answer the question “what have they done for us lately?” So as “Step Up for the Cool Cats” opens with an organ keeping rhythm, quickly joined by guitar and crescendoing cymbal, the excitement grows that the Palma Violets really may be on to something. But then the vocals come in with added reverb, and the song stops and starts so many times, it seems much longer than the actual three minute length. There’s an awful lot of “run runrun” and “dancin’ in the sun” for a short song.
There are bright spots in almost every song though. “Rattlesnake Highway” is filled with heavy organ, surf rock guitar, and a lo-fi garage sound. It’s an updated Ramones wannabe where we no longer wanna hitchhike to Rockaway Beach, but we do wanna go to Rattlesnake Highway. “Chicken Dippers” opens with a New Order-sounding bass line rolling over a drum beat with organ. Wait – are these guys trying to be New Order? Nope, now it’s 60’s fuzz. Okay, now we’re back to New Order. And repeat. But then “Last of the Summer Wine” – revs from organ heavy to a cowboy guitar jangle to something that has us waiting for the ska horn section to come in and turn the whole thing into an English Beat song. The frustrating thing is that when the song evolves into what it will be for the final two minutes, it’s a catchy song complete with a guitar hook and a sing-along chorus.
By the time 180 hits its final song “14,” there’s a weariness, a sense of being throttled around –it’s clear the Palma Violets don’t take themselves too seriously – a good thing for sure, but “14” literally has only eight words in the whole song. Ah, but persistence has paid off as there’s a “hidden” track at the end of “14.” It’s unnamed, but it’s a mocking, self-effacing song that’s probably called “Brand New Song” judging from the lyrics and tone. It’s actually a great album closer and probably would have been better as the listed song, with “14” as the hidden track.
These songs may all work live, where charisma, slick guitar work and a pounding drumbeat can be infectious, contagious and utterly enjoyable. Listening to them progressively on a full-length album, though, creates difficulty. It feels like they wanted to try so many different things and had so much to get out musically, that they chopped up full songs to fit all the disparate parts on this one album – perhaps fearful that this was their one shot to get it out there.
The questions that come to mind after listening to 180 repeated times all come back to the expectations and hype before the Palma Violets even had an album out. In reality, the hype started from videos of their live shows before they even had a single out. Regardless – did they just write a really, catchy first single, get lucky and have only bits and pieces left in their pockets? Or are the interesting, fun spotsthroughout 180 really an indication of what is to come as they refine their identity and sense of song? The smart money right now is to believe the latter, catch their live shows and give them time to develop without the weight of NME, the Guardian and the Observer on their shoulders.