As I've said many times in these pages, there aren't too many musical genres out there that can't hold up to dark, gloomy and sinister themes... as long as there's someone out there with the songwriting chops to take a conventional format and twist it into something grandly, shockingly dark, while never forgetting how to rock a good melodic hook or a solid, danceable beat. The rocky soil of alt-pop may not seem like fertile ground for sowing spooky themes, but again it all depends on who's working the till... and it turns out the Glasgow combo who (quite appropriately) call themselves The Cinematics have a solid grip on the handle.
So let's delve into the dark delights of this moody quartet's second full-length outing Love and Terror, the perfect sonic accompaniment for a gloomy, gray October afternoon...
The Cinematics first shook up the indie rock scene a couple years back with their brighter, poppier-sounding debut release A Strange Education, which not only garnered them a fair share of critical acclaim, but scored them some pretty sweet gigs touring with the likes of Interpol and The Bravery, growing them a cult reputation that managed to survive some pretty big career shake-ups – including the dissolution of their original label TVT Records and the loss of lead guitarist Ramsay Miller (Larry Reid currently assumes guitar duties). The band came through stronger than ever with the arrival of their masterful follow-up effort, and with Love and Terror it feels like the band has embraced their signature sound – a blend of vintage gloom-glam and the passionate, punk urgency of the best latter-day indie rock anti-heroes.
There's a lean, tight and economical style to these tracks that, to my thinking, is the result of the band's total artistic control this time around, as well as the penny-pinching necessity due to a lack of big-label money at their disposal. It's still a big-sounding record though – as epic as the band's name implies – but the grand canvas comes not from over-production, but from the same sweeping romanticism that characterized some of the greatest new wave acts of the '80s. Comparisons to Franz Ferdinand and The Editors have been inevitable, but there's something darker and more brooding at work here (which really couldn't have been said for their previous record).
I had some unfortunate personal delays which prevented me from listening to Love and Terror until the past weekend... but I'm actually glad for the postponement, because the weather gods finally brought me a perfectly gray, overcast sky: the ideal environment in which to experience the darker emotional shadings of these ten magical tunes.
The detuned riffs that open All These Things, followed by the plaintive wail of vocalist Scott Rinnings, establish the soaring but slightly bent emotional current that dominates the first part of the record. The mood lifts with the bouncy rhythms, “oh-uh-oh” breaks and backing vocals of She Talks to the Trees, and enters a dreamy, ethereal place with the heavy reverb, thrumming toms and cosmic synth washes of New Mexico, which recalls the big-show flash and sparkle of bands like Arcade Fire.
The title track – one of my personal faves – takes the narrative deeper and darker, with a catchy baritone riff and hard-hitting snares that allow an otherwise low-key tune to explore the melodic space a bit more, keeping just enough of a gritty '80s death-rock vibe to give it real menace. The following cut Lips Taste Like Tears slithers along in a similar mode, but with diminished energy, so it doesn't quite have the same stamina; still, the tremolo guitar work is seriously sexy in this one, making it a cool lights-out romantic track.
The mood gets rougher and meaner for the topical tunes Wish (When the Banks Collapse) and Hospital Bills, both of which carry the expected pessimism ('Lost my job and my band/To the laying of a hand' from the former is a pretty sweet lyric), propelled by coarser vocal delivery and punchy beats, as well as a slow build to doom in the latter, enhanced by some dreamy guitar/synth slides, climaxing in an overdriven guitar solo that burns through the mix like a lava stream.
The bounce of those opening tracks resurfaces in Moving to Berlin, which will really take you back to the late-'80s alt-rock golden era, but the subsequent You Can Dance falls a bit flat in the same attempt. All is recovered, however, amid the low synth buzz and twangy chords of closing cut Hard for Young Lovers, which draws the curtain on a melancholy note, but rendered with so much passion and sincerity that it takes on an level of absurdly beautiful tragedy, almost like something out of a Brecht opera.
Maybe it's the October climate, with rain pattering on the windows as this final track spins down, but I felt a distinct aftertaste of sweet sadness that was strangely uplifting... and that's probably the phrase that sums up this album best. Moody without succumbing to shoegazing, hooky without a trace of pop pablum, Love and Terror brings a lot more than the title emotions to the table, and manages to balance them nicely in an Autumn cocktail that appeals to the senses much like the smell of burning leaves.