Various Cruelties, a four-piece from west London, describe what they do as “shabby Motown pop” – and there are indeed times on this, their debut album, when they sound like a pub soul covers band allowed to let rip on a few originals.
They might be named after a painting by US pop artist Edward Ruscha, but there isn’t much that’s particularly leftfield about their faithful take on 60s R&B and northern soul. It’s deeply old-fashioned and trad. And when they do make concessions towards the relatively modern, when they’re not coming on like a latter-day Commitments, all they manage is jangling, anthemic indie/rock with elements of both Arctic Monkeys and Coldplay.
At all times, the sound is dominated by Liam O'Donnell’s scenery-chewing vocals. He’s one of those singers who masticates every word, as though he’s afraid every song is his last chance to prove himself. It’s a voice that will either appeal or annoy, depending on how you feel about his passionate exhortations to variously “let it all go” or “burn like the sun”, delivered in a tone that suggests Sting’s more mannered spawn, or Alex Turner on steroids.
And yet there are moments on Various Cruelties, produced in Los Angeles by Tony Hoffer (Beck, Phoenix, Goldfrapp), when the band – who only formed a year or so ago and have already supported The Vaccines, Kasabian and Mumford & Sons, and appeared on Later… with Jools Holland – make something great out of the grotty bluster. Wade past the jumping new-wave jive of Cold as You or She Is the One, a sweaty ballad that aims for the soul transcendence of a Try a Little Tenderness, and there are a few tracks here that make investigation of this album worthwhile.
On Capsize, for example, the band keep things light and shimmery, and stop straining for a moment, even O'Donnell. Best of all is closing number Neon Truth, which even given its litany of clichés, including one about setting the night on fire, alchemises all the huffing and panting into pop gold. And the strings-enhanced "I still love you I love you I love you I love you I do" coda is keening and thrilling, in that order. It's at moments such as these that one feels warmly towards Various Cruelties’ overheated rock’n’soul.
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