Popular Workshop - We’re Alive And We’re Not Alone

Ian Atherton 07/10/2008

Rating: 3.5/5

FACT: All albums would be improved by a minute-long intro consisting purely of aimless noise.

Things get even better when the following song, Alphabet, features a shouty man shouting “I'm insane and I've got no name and I've got no shame and I cannot tell a lie”. Except the shouty man is telling a lie - the shouty man does have a name, and the shouty man's name is Gypsy.

FACT: All bands would be improved by having a singer called Gypsy.

Having burbled just below the mainstream radar for what seems like forever, Popular Workshop's debut album is finally upon us, having been concocted in Chicago with legendary 'recording engineer' Steve Albini. The aforementioned Alphabet is followed by Her Birthday, which perfectly sets out the South London trio's stall - artfully barked vocals, chunky bass, sparsely awkward rhythms and guitars tumbling around like toddlers in a ball pool. The wonderfully titled Uh (Uh) Uh Uh is even better - barely a minute of tourette-like outbursts overlaying a jaunty Swell Maps-like cry of “I don't wanna fall in love”.

FACT: All albums would be improved by a riff like the riff on Reptilians.

It really is mightily addictive, and perhaps the best example of Gypsy's intuitively brisk playing on the record - never needlessly extravagant when a hefty groove will do the job just fine. The former single is impressively spiky stuff, featuring tricky math-rock time signatures, unexpected yelps and a simple yet strong chorus. The half-spoken verses channel the spirit of Jetplane Landing's classic This Is Not Revolution Rock, a summation which seems fitting - though the claustrophobic lyrics hint at potential hidden depths: “Every mistake is a little blessing”. As across the album, Albini's trademark brand of non-production captures proceedings startingly, with the kick-drum and lead guitar rendered razor-sharp and the the vocals tucked slightly behind the rest of the commotion.

FACT: All albums would be improved by a hissy fit like that at the climax of All About Vikki.

Let's face it - until the two-minute mark the song has lost its way, with random cries of “London! Epsom! London”, but suddenly it all goes a bit Black Francis, which is rarely a bad thing. Such primal screaming is part of what elevates this record above many other similarly arty post-punk-infused efforts - as mentioned, Albini's radio-unfriendly crunch enhances the aural assault, but there's genuine fervour in Gypsy's vocals and real fire in the rhythm section's clattering onslaught. Much the same applies to Get Up And Wait, which ebbs and flows its way to a vocal explosion via a furious call-and-response bridge which intones “I wish I was a virgin, I wish I was a whore”, fitted to a melody Radio 1 would otherwise love to add to the daytime playlist.

FACT: All albums would be improved by a closing song called Villains Who Twirl Their Moustaches Are Easy To Spot.

Or maybe it's just unnecessarily arch. But at least it's a blearily chugging, chiming end to a strong debut. Though the lyrics across much of the record are impossible to discern - and in many cases appear nonsensical - it's clear there's real passion here, as well as a reluctance to conform to what's expected of a reasonably saleable band with real melodic ability. Theirs is a tightrope between commercial appeal and alt-rock credibility, and for the most part their balance is sound - the album features enough quirks and breaks from the mainstream to leave their sincerity in no doubt. However, whether there's enough depth to maintain interest from hereon in remains to be seen. This isn't an album that will make you think, or make you cry, or make you slack-jawed in wonder, but it is an album that will make you pay attention, and make you dance, and make you smile.

FACT: This is not revolution rock you hear; revolution rock this is not. It's something much less complex.

But that doesn't mean it's not mighty enjoyable.