London band Absentee claim to have been bought up on the music of the Carpenters and his honourable Barry 'nose' Manilow. Yet it is little in evidence here, on their second album.
On album opener 'Shared' they channel the spirit of slow paced desert ballads, trying to do battle with the drizzle of English autumns. No 1970s pop here. Vocalist Dan Michaelson sings in a grizzled croon that rumbles and rolls, and sounds not unlike a decent impression of Mark Lanegan. Cooed female backing vocals entwine with the baritone, a contrast that works brilliantly with the lollop of the guitars.
The slow opening is quickly run over by the driving pop of 'Boy Did She Teach You Nothing?' on an album that varies its tone between indie and country, changing and shifting like sands in the desert. Gentle sandy moans are soon followed by the non more traditional rock of 'Pips'
When Michaelson croons “I'm willing you, to make mistakes that suit you, wouldn't have it any other way” the theme of the album emerges. Romance. Sometimes it's unrequited, as on the medical ward plod of 'The Nurses Don't Notice A Thing, where the simple poetry of lines like "the simplest feelings of love explode into the room like cowboys in saloons, I want to clap but it seems inappropriate” spills out like an old soak on too much whisky.
Sometimes it's loss, as on 'Love Has Had It's Way', where the exhaustion of the end of a relationship is captured in the lethargic feel of the track. All spectrums are covered, as the unholy practice thieving of girlfriends is covered on the aptly named 'Bitchstealer.' Sample lyric: “She wasn't yours to take, so just bring her back.”
The cowboy feel of 'Victory Shorts' continues on 'They Do It These Days', with the wobbly piano lines sounding like a saloon bar knees up. Trumpets and guitars climb onto the bar and add to the celebratory atmosphere. By the end of the song the band are proposing a rushed marriage.
One thing that grates like wire wool trousers is the need for Michaelson to sing in a southern baritone. Look at Kate Nash, Jamie Oliver, Jon Culshaw etc etc. Faking your voice annoys people, although an English baritone perhaps wouldn't fit the music so well.
The track most guilty of the crime is 'Spitting Feathers' which sounds like a washed up country singers attempt to win back his lover, with charming lines like: “Your face hasn't changed since the time I slurred.” It even has that twangy country guitar pedal effect so beloved of bootlace tie wearers everywhere.
However, it's a trivial issue, when the melodies tend to be of high quality. Apart from 'We Smash Plates', where the track drags and drags like a weary toddler, the countrified melodies and occasional brass flourished work well. Absentee have comfortably moved out of the shadow of their early Magic Numbers patronage.
The problem remains, however, of how special any of these songs are. Competence is not brilliance. As good as the songs are technically, and however well put together they are, it doesn't mean you'd choose to listen to them. Just cos you can buy flatpack, does it make it better than an antique? Would you choose Absentee, when their area of music has been covered before, and better? 3/5