The South London band's second record is loud, abrasive and anxious. Can it follow last years success of their post-punk peers IDLES and Fontaines D.C.?
Like many bands in early 2020, Shame were putting the finishing touches to their new album at exactly the wrong time. On 26 January 2020, the band announced that album two was finished and incoming. Yet here we are almost a year later, it's only just been released.
Now, when a band announces that an album is finished, you often have to take such news with a pinch of salt and give a band a few months leeway. You see, many of these artists are insecure perfectionists, needing very little encouragement to tweak their work before it's sent out to the world for enjoyment (and judgement).
Unfortunately for the South London post-punk band, they didn't foresee how, a month and a half later, the world was about to change. Suddenly the music industry - and life in general - was put on hold thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Naturally, they found themselves in limbo.
Shame's 2018 debut Songs of Praise (very far removed from the BBC worship show of the same name, it must be said!) was a fantastic punk record which felt familiar yet also fresh. I recall hearing the punchy 'Concrete' for the first time on BBC 6Music, frantically stopping the car take note for that evenings listening consumption. It was super loud, angsty and anthemic, a punchy bassline at its heart. It's a sound I simply can't get enough of!
That year, the band also benefited greatly from the breakthrough of post-punk peers IDLES and the success of their second record Joy as an Act of Resistance. Whilst IDLES went on to be nominated for Mercury Prizes, Brit Awards and gather a large Stateside following, Shame weren't too far behind. Through their Bristol contemporaries success, they were able to at least view the lengths of success to which they could aspire.
The familiarity resulted in association and it was soon rare to read an article about the growing popularity of IDLES without Shame being mentioned in the print also. Then, in 2019, Irish post-punkers Fontaines D.C. broke onto the scene and the music press began to speak of the three bands in unison. The indie scene was being redefined and the post-punk, Sprechgesang vocal-led bands were taking over.
After a great year for Fontaines D.C. and IDLES in 2020, it's now time for Shame to shine in their own right. A year after it was initially announced, Drunk Tank Pink is finally upon us!
'Alphabet' kicks off where the band left things three years prior, a proper boot-stomping, energetic punk opener. As it opens, the feedback merges into pounding bass and drums, before singer Charlie Steen channels his inner Mark E. Smith speak-sing style to declare, "now what you see is what you get, I still don't know the alphabet, don't forget your P's and Q's, please smile when we tell you to".
Next up is the Talking Heads-inspired ‘Nigel Hitter’. With lyrics like “change the sheets on my bed, I wanna smell fresh linen, will this day ever end?, I need a new beginning”, it provides humour from the mundane. There's a definite early-Parquet Courts vibe here, which is no bad thing at all. Frontman Charlie Steen spoke about the track earlier in January ahead of the album’s release.
“A necessary pulse. Focused on daily routine, repetition, and how extraordinary any ordinary task seemed to me after coming home from touring. A world of percussion and joy lies within.”
It’s such dry humour which Steen excels at across this album, making light of the isolation he and many others have been facing over the past few months. Likewise, the jangly, and seemingly cheery ‘March Day’, which was one of my favourites on the album, opens with the frontman confessing “You said, "Please, get up!", I said, "Can't get up!", You said, "Please, get up!", I said, "Can't get up!" before repeatedly declaring in the chorus “I can't get up, I won't get up”. Here’s a man who loves his bed, I hear you mate!
That feeling of claustrophobia and isolation are felt throughout, even recognised in lead single, ‘Water in the Well’, and the unpredictability of ‘Snow Day’, a song which twists and turns it’s in abrasiveness.
'Great Dog' is another favourite on the album, with frantic, frenzied vocals and guitars. It's just an incredible, raw, wall of noise and largely inaudible singing, making the aforementioned IDLES and Fontaines D.C. sound polished in comparison. I particularly liked the line "a good writer writes, a great writer steals, a good dog sits, but a great dog heels". A simply irresistible track.
Closer 'Station Wagon', apparently inspired by Elton John, reveals the band's progress and ambition. Over 6 and half minutes. there's a melodrama you wouldn't have imagined from this band three years prior. It's dark, claustrophobic and an absolutely captivating ending to this slow-burning record.
The slow build-up has you on edge, the pianos then slowly overtaken by a minute and half of fuzzy guitar noise. With that the record's finale is complete and you're left with a ringing in your ears reminding you of happier gig-going times (it's impossible play this album album quiet).
What’s the verdict then?
I’ll be honest and admit I really wasn’t feeling this album on first listen but on the second it began to warm on me, wearing me down after each listen. That’s a good sign of an album, right? Slow burners have long term value and I genuinely believe this is the case here.
Though let’s be clear, this isn't an album for everyone. The similarities to IDLES and Fontaines D.C. are apt at points, but it would be lazy to make a direct comparison and leave it at that. Whilst sharing the deadpan vocal delivery of those bands, it perhaps lacks the political, anthemic qualities of IDLES' Ultra Mono or the poetic, morbidity of Fontaines D.C's A Hero's Death.
Can they go on to have the same success of those bands? Honestly, probably not based on this album alone. It lacks the accessibility and hooks that have taken the abovementioned acts to the edges of the British music mainstream. What they will gather, however, is a large indie cult following and best-kept-secret status. Who needs a load of scenesters jumping on the bandwagon anyway?
The band take more risks and are certainly more on the unconventional side of things, which is not a bad thing at all in an age of formulaic indie acts. In the past year, IDLES and Fontaines D.C. have both had singles picked up by the daytime Radio 1 playlist, and if Shame wish to seek that glamour they’re still young to get there (the band members are still in their early twenties). It's just this record is too marmite and claustrophobic sounding to get that far for now.
Still, it’s a fantastic effort and even several listens in I don’t feel I’ve fully explored it yet. The indie critics love it, it’ll please the fans of Songs of Praise and, for me, it’s an impressive start to 2021’s album deliveries. If interesting and ambitious post-punk is your thing, give it a whirl.
Rating - 8/10