Friday, January 31, 2014

Coming Back to Johnny Foreigner

My first exposure to Brummie indie band Johnny Foreigner came in December 2008, when I saw them support The Futureheads in Cardiff. I thoroughly enjoyed their set and wasted little time in ordering their album from, but in all honesty, the CD didn't grip me like the live show did. Waited Up 'til It Was Light felt messy where the gig had been fun and energetic, and while quite a few of those songs were pretty good on their own - check out Lea Room, below - I found the album in its entirety to be rather exhausting.

I haven't really returned to JoFo in the years since then. They do come to Cardiff every so often, but though I always tell myself I'll go, that Futureheads gig remains the only time I've actually seen 'em in the flesh. My Waited Up 'til It Was Light CD, meanwhile, has scarcely left its case since early '09.

So why, more than five years on from that first encounter, am I writing a blog about Johnny Foreigner? Well, a few days ago, I received an email containing a link to the band's latest set of tracks, You Can Do Better. I sort of ignored it at first, but I eventually decided that it was high time to give JoFo another gogo and see how the new album hangs together.

If you're ready, then, here's my first listen to You Can Do Better, presented in a digestible track-by-track format:
  1. Shipping
    My, this is a noisy start. They seem to have gotten somewhat heavier since I last heard from them. I like this - it's frantic, and more straightforwardly punky than I remember. Bonus points for the reference to shipping (as opposed to shipping).

  2. Le Sigh
    So Le Sigh doesn't explode out of the gate like Shipping did, but the horse soon regains its gallop. This one has some of the same ADD tendencies as the songs on Waited Up 'til It Was Light, which is troubling - I feel like JoFo may be stitching too many ideas into one (pretty short) track. My favourite part is the bit where boy vocalist and girl vocalist trade quickfire lines that sound like "I'm a coffee" or something like that.

  3. In Capitals
    This is a nice change of pace...or at least it is, until the swaying torch song rhythm mighty-morphs back into JF's signature breakneck punk pace. This one is really great, actually; that sudden change of pace is very effective, and while this band have always reminded me of Los Campesinos! to some extent, the shouty bits and choice of guitar tone make this one particularly, joyously LC!-esque.

  4. Riff Glitchard
    Here's another one that starts quietly, but this time it doesn't seem to be a fake-out. The gentle, reverb-heavy guitar line is married to a tight, clicky drumbeat that slots in really, really well, and the whole workout feels a lot more edifying than the scattergun likes of Le Sigh. It does descend into chaos at the end, but this time, it feels earned. My favourite so far (and with a great title!)

  5. The Last Queens of Scotland
    Back to noisier ways, then. This one kicks off with a gloriously dissonant shower of electric guitar, and the more straightforward indie-pop into which it eventually resolves is actually somewhat less interesting than the evil-sounding intro. Another one that brings early Los Camps to mind, although TLQoS feels less euphoric than In Capitals.

  6. Stop Talking About Ghosts
    Ngh, these tracks are starting to blur by a little, sounding less like songs and more like flashes of shouty, squealy, indie noise that don't make any particular impression. The best thing about Riff Glitchard was the way in which the band stopped, took a breath, and concentrated on building up one really good musical idea for a few minutes; it was a veritable Mona Lisa in a gallery full of paint-splattered Pollocks, and I hope it doesn't prove to be the only track like that on this album.

  7. WiFi Beach
    Wow, this one sounds a bit like The Hold Steady to begin with - it has this celebratory, swaggering tempo that's quite different to everything we've heard so far. This is a bit more sanely-structured than its teammates, what with the quiet verses and the loud choruses and the, er, bit in the middle. Pretty good, on the whole.

  8. To The Death
    Ooh, this sounds promising. It regains some of the focus that made Riff Glitchard so good, and the various girl/boy vocal parts are a little more strategically laid out this time. Yes, this is one that I can get behind - it rises, it falls, it goes quiet, it starts to build up again, it throws the odd smudge of random noise in for good measure. And since it always comes back to the same propulsive, shoulder-shaking beat, the flowery deviations are fun, rather than irritating.

  9. Le Schwing
    Another strong moment - this album might just be a good'un after all! Packing lots of syllables into each bar is a good way to win my heart, and the verses of Le Schwing certainly do that, with boy singer sounding like some kind of indie-pop Jesse Lacey. The chorus is great, too; girl singer pops up to add a bit of extra heft, and it makes you want to jump around every time it comes back.

  10. Devestator
    "Nothing scares me like I scare myself." We're ending on an introspective note, apparently, and the instrumental backing has gone all warm and gentle again. The boy gets a verse, the girl gets a verse, and then the track changes (without sacrificing the aforementioned gentle warmth), becoming from that point on a slow build to the finish. Everything swells up, the guitar riff becomes more and more pronounced, and eventually we end up in the moshpit as the drummer goes crazy and electronic noises squeak and fizz around us. Then, bizarrely, we get a heartbeat sound, because apparently this album is now The Dark Side of the Moon.

  11. To The Deaf
    Secret track! When that hearbeat eventually subsides, the two singers break into a lovely duet that's far softer than the song's name would suggest (I was expecting a sudden, deafening blast of "ha, you forgot to turn the stereo off" noise, a la Bite Me by "Weird Al" Yankovic). It's a lovely, sleepy closing track with a great keep-singing moral for musician types ("my throat may be wrecked, but I don't think I'll stop 'til I'm deaf"), and while the rousing, brass-assisted finale may ruin the track's bedtime credentials, it does round off the album in a rather brilliant way.
So there are still traces of the album I abandoned back in '09 (perhaps I'd be more interested in those parts if I wasn't writing this blog first thing in the morning), but there's also evidence that Johnny Foreigner have matured, even if they never really grew up. I really like Riff Glitchard and To The Death in particular.

Incidentally, this is the first album I've heard that's officially eligible for an 'Albums of 2014' list. You'll have to wait until December to find out if it makes the grade, but rest assured that this definitely won't be my last listen.

Johnny Foreigner's new album, You Can Do Better, is out on the 10th of March via the ever-exciting Alcopop! Records. Here are some links that may prove useful:

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