Yard Act review – spiky chroniclers of sour times

Portland Arms, Cambridge
Letting rip in the backroom of a pub, post-punk Leeds band skewer Brexit Britain with wit, bile – and a broken wrist

“It’s a never-ending cycle of abuse!” snarls Yard Act frontman James Smith at his bass player, eking out a funk rhythm. “I got the blues and I can’t shake them loose!” The song is Dark Days – a sinuous banger in which Smith, spittle-flecked, works a botched arrest, some mink carcasses and the reinvention of the wheel into a snapshot of contemporary Britain.

Despite its title, Dark Days is actually a lot of fun: across the stage, mustachioed guitarist Sam Shipstone lets rip a surf-guitar solo. His wrist is strapped up; Smith later reveals it’s broken in two places. Unperturbed, Shipstone coaxes wayward blizzards out of his instrument all night, inspiring a bijou but committed moshpit in this pub backroom.

It might be a Monday night in Cambridge, but there is an air of undeniable momentum around Yard Act, a four-piece from Leeds. Barely 18 months old, on their debut headlining tour of the UK, they’ve just won a prize, the Anchor, at a Dutch music festival, judged by Tony Visconti among others. BBC 6 Music have been hammering their songs for months. Most of this tour is sold out, as are swathes of their next jaunt, around larger venues, this coming February.

Yard Act’s debut album, The Overload, is due in early January. When it was announced, it immediately racked up 2,000 preorders, a giddy-making number these days for a guitar band still technically in embryo. They’re also on the soundtrack for Fifa 2022 (out this week), which means millions of people not just outside, but entirely unaware of, our domestic indie rock bubble will hear their music.

The pandemic dealt a heavy blow to scores of artists last year. Not so Yard Act, who had only just graduated from the status of idle threat to the rehearsal room when lockdown hit. A handful of acerbic, oblique tracks – The Trapper’s Pelts, Peanuts, Fixer Upper, Dark Days, all of which sound tremendous live – introduced not just the latest in a fertile line of promising new British post-punk acts, but one whose wit and bile arrived with sprung heels and an air of mischief.

Although Smith shares a surname and a love of barking non sequiturs with the venerable Mark E Smith of the Fall, the first iteration of Yard Act involved a drum machine. As a result, the Act have more than a little in common tonight with Nottingham’s rave-rant kings Sleaford Mods than some of their more dour no wave fellow travellers. There are echoes here, too, of another Yorkshire band who made everyday indignities danceable: Pulp. Featuring lengthy spoken-word passages, there’s also shared territory with peers such as Dry Cleaning and Black Country, New Road – two more names from 2021’s wordy, angular roll of honour.

Key to all these bands is granular detail, and guitar music that refuses to stay in its lane. The parallels with the first post-punk era, when a hegemonic Conservative government presided over dark days, is hard to ignore.

Perhaps Yard Act’s best-known song, Fixer Upper, is unleashed early in the set – a dissonant disco stomper with a guitar line that could remove dental plaque at 30 paces. If many of Smith’s lyrics are short stories (a novella version of their early singles is apparently in the works), Fixer Upper is their most fleshed-out character study. “Graham” has just moved into the neighbourhood. Quick to call builders cowboys, quick to eye-roll at hard-to-pronounce surnames, overly proud of his status as a “two-home owner”, Graham is Brexit Bloke; about one-third of the audience know his every word. Smith’s takedown is nuanced and wry, rather than vitriolic. “We’re gonna put pound-shop terracotta frogs everywhere!” beams “Graham”.

Watch Yard Act perform Fixer Upper at this year’s Reading festival.

This is the sort of venue where repartee is inevitable, even if Smith didn’t call for requests from the very start. Inspired, he confides, by the Goosebumps choose-your-own-adventure children’s books, the set list on the floor is largely blank, save for Strip, Yard Act’s instrumental opener, and three as-yet-unreleased album tracks.

The most immediate is Dead Horse, a sweary examination of core British values – the nation’s sense of humour, our music, the conversation – that might not survive these trying times. Or that might not be what it’s about at all – there is a messy open-endedness to Smith’s verbiage, one where lettuces grow in potholes (Payday, on its live debut), or where “the palms greased are never on the ends of the elbows digging the graves of the recently deceased” (Land of the Blind).

At the end of Land of the Blind, the song’s character offers to make a 50p piece – and himself – disappear. Smith does just that, picking up his coat and wading through the crowd as the other three-quarters of Yard Act provide pumping exit music.

Watch a video for The Overload by Yard Act.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Fat White Family review – growing up disgracefully
The disreputable Brixton art rockers are touting their new album as a rebirth. It’s bound to be gory

Kitty Empire

02, Feb, 2019 @2:00 PM

Article image
Phoebe Bridgers review – a truth-telling phenomenon
The adored LA singer-songwriter pairs references to the male rock pantheon with Roe v Wade in a magnetic set that cries out for festival headline billing

Kitty Empire

30, Jul, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Idles review – shout their name from the rooftops
The Bristol band’s politically charged rock strikes a powerful chord on the messy, celebratory final night of their sold-out tour

Kitty Empire

03, Nov, 2018 @2:00 PM

Article image
Wet Leg review – an irresistible, stop-start blast
Two songs turned this absurdist duo into an indie sensation, and it seems their reckless commitment to fun has only just begun

Kitty Empire

30, Oct, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
Black Country, New Road live stream review – young, free and singular
This protean seven-piece confound once more, this time with an improvised gig of completely new material…

Kitty Empire

13, Feb, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
Mitski review – an emotional Tough Mudder of indie rock
The Japanese-American singer-songwriter gives a conceptual art performance and full body workout along with her compelling laments of lust, loneliness and death

Kitty Empire

29, Sep, 2018 @4:00 PM

Article image
Jenny Lewis review – darkly among the rhinestones
With her fourth album, Jenny Lewis’s moment has come – and she’s seizing it with country-pop hooks and disarming honesty

Kitty Empire

27, Jul, 2019 @1:00 PM

Article image
Black Country, New Road review – truly a sound less travelled
Cerebral, eclectic and occasionally wordy, the gnarly rock of Black Country, New Road is an intensely Generation Z experience

Kitty Empire

25, Jan, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
Sharon Van Etten review – from heartbreak to heroine
The American indie star’s synth-rock transformation is thrilling

Kitty Empire

06, Jul, 2019 @1:00 PM

Article image
Cat Power: Wanderer, in-depth review – staying true to her own weird way
After her record label rejected her album, singer-songwriter Chan Marshall found a new home for her singular sound

Kitty Empire

07, Oct, 2018 @7:59 AM