Given that the music business has spent most of the last two years in a kind of suspended animation, there’s something quite startling about the rise of Leeds quartet Yard Act. They appeared to come out of nowhere – they released their first single, the attention-grabbing Fixer Upper, at the height of the first national lockdown – and swiftly rocket to the forefront of the strain of alt-rock that eschews singing for sprechstimme vocals. Eighteen months on, they find themselves on a major label, touting a debut album that some observers think is going to enter the charts at No 1 (admittedly, not a rarity for indie acts in an era of diminishing sales).
Their default musical setting is skittery-but-muscular post-punk funk: punchy disco drums, stabbing guitar, the melodies driven by the bass. That it tends to resolve pleasingly into memorable choruses, during which frontman James Smith sometimes drops into a bruised, untutored croon, has clearly aided their speedy progress. So too, one suspects, has the fact that their lyrics bluntly confront post-Brexit Britain – “the age of the gentrified savage … the overload of discontent,” as the title track puts it. They specialise in waspish pen portraits: of ghastly alpha male businessmen (The Incident), defiant embezzlers (“I’m the victim here,” protests the protagonist of Quarantine the Sticks), middle-class foodies “growing your own lettuces in the potholes on the road”. It’s on-the-nose but it’s also incisive and funny – Dead Horse skewers the far-right’s notion of British culture as “knobheads Morris dancing to Sham 69”.
For all the expectation that surrounds The Overload, it’s sometimes clear that it’s the work of a band that’s barely been together two years. Yard Act are sporadically consumed by their own influences, particularly on Rich which, with its hypnotic two-note bassline, percussive clatter and distinctly Mark E Smith-ish vocal intonation – “skilled lay-BUUH in the private sec-TUUH” – sounds so much like the Fall circa Perverted By Language you start wondering if it’s actually a knowing double bluff, a wry comment on the media’s eagerness to bring up the Fall whenever a band with a vocalist who speaks rather than sings appears.
At other points, however, the sense of a band not yet fully developed feels oddly exciting. The Overload is a starting point for a number of routes, rather than a perfectly formed end in itself. Certainly, there are flashes of a smartness and depth to Smith’s writing that go beyond scabrous one-liners. Tall Poppies retells the saga of a provincial David Watts figure – confident, handsome, a skilled footballer – who decides to stay put in his home town, become an estate agent and settle down. Initially, it sounds perilously close to sneering at “little world” ambitions, as though there’s something unconscionable about wanting to own your own home and have kids. But the music slows, then collapses entirely, and Smith flips the script, in a way that recalls Arctic Monkeys’ A Certain Romance. The protagonist dies young, of cancer, and the narrator attends his funeral. “He wasn’t perfect but he was my friend / He wasn’t perfect but he was one of us,” offers Smith, before noting that the friend wouldn’t have liked the inscription on a commemorative bench, “because he wasn’t too bothered about long songs with loads of words”: Tall Poppies lasts nearly seven minutes and its lyrics cover two sides of A4 paper. It isn’t the most complicated message – we’re all different, we can all theoretically get along – but it feels genuinely affecting and powerful in the context of an album so obsessed with divisions and spitting bile at the other side.
It’s a theme picked up – albeit with the winning caveat “it’s hippy bullshit, but it’s true” – on the closing 100% Endurance, both the album’s best moment and its most atypical. Decorated with gentle electric piano, it’s a song that seems to have its musical roots less in the post-punk era than an aspect of Pulp’s oeuvre, long buried in the popular imagination beneath the radio-friendly anthemics of Common People and Do You Remember the First Time?: the lengthy, conversational storytelling of Inside Susan and David’s Last Summer. Its narrator is hungover after a night digesting the news that sentient life had been discovered on other planets: rather than teaching humanity anything about the universe or the meaning of life, “not one of them had any clue what they’re doing here either”. This development doesn’t bring about an existential crisis, but a glorious, warm crescendo about the power of the human spirit: “Grab anybody that needs to hear it … scream in their face: / death is coming for us but not today … all that you ever needed to exist has always been within you.” It’s a sharp U-turn from the preceding track’s suggestion that everything is “so bleak that giving your two pence on anything isn’t worth a fucking thing”: a sudden, infectious blast of optimism, from a band who currently have a lot to be optimistic about.
This week Alexis listened to
Nilüfer Yanya – Midnight Sun
Building stealthily from a hypnotic acoustic guitar riff to a fuzzed-out climax, another appetite-whetting taster for Yanya’s second album, Painless.