At the onset of the pandemic, I heard suggestions from some quarters that the lockdown would herald the end of some bands who, like Black Country New Road, were on the cusp of registering more deeply on the consciousness of the music-loving fraternity. I didn’t buy it then and as we continue to trudge through the angst and isolation of the pandemic I’m delighted to report there has been no evident damage to progress of this particular seven-strong ensemble.
Recorded in March last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, For the first time is less of a lockdown album, more a statement of the band’s progression and development. The result is a frankly unsurpassable debut album.
The only disappointment I can register is that following the release of latest single Track X, the six tunes only throw up two unheard pieces, though earlier releases Sunglasses and Athens, France have been tweaked both musically and lyrically, an indication of the restlessness the band feel coupled with a desire to replicate their live sound on record.
The band line-up is Lewis Evans (sax), May Kershaw (keys), Charlie Wayne (drums), Luke Mark (guitar), Isaac Wood (vocals/guitar), Tyler Hyde (bass) and Georgia Ellery (violin) - a mix of classically trained and self-taught musicians creating a unique concoction, combining precise technical skill with a raw, and often unpredictable primal essence. Most certainly more than the sum of their parts
Every compartment of their musical prowess is on show, on certain delicious occasions all at once but often-times it’s perm 3,4 or 5 from 7, creating wonderfully different diffusions of sound. And then the lyrics - on many levels obscure yet laced with pop culture references often with a hint of self-deprecation .
And so to the songs:
Instrumental – strong rhythmic drumbeat intro borne out of Evans and Ellery’s background performing klezmer music. The opening passage meanders into off-beat hi-hat before picking up the main sax/keys refrain which grows to a frenzy before taking us into a big band sound to finish. A perfect exemplar of BCNR replicating their live sound.
Athens, France – the first introduction to the band’s penchant for studied guitar riffs, on hypnotic repeat, overlaid here with melodic flute. Mark’s guitar work is arguably showcased at its very best on this track
Science Fair – The beating heart of this album. Places off-kilter strings against the main melody. Wood’s lyrics start to take full force amidst searing guitars combined with dream-like keyboard. Superb imagery in Woods lyrics as he describes a ‘red ribbon dropping slowly between your hands”. The vocal becomes increasingly visceral, reminding the listener in no uncertain terms that ‘It’s black country out there !”
Sunglasses – a longer intro on this version with an angrier guitar sound though the vocals
have a less angst-ridden feel with Woods singing more of the lyrics, a conscious development on his part “Some things lend themselves to being spoken but there's space for things to be sung - which feels more natural and less intense”
Track X – if a gentle introduction were needed to this band this is the song I’d recommend. A jaunty sax line with a dreamy female vocal. On first listen a straightforward song but with usual BCNR aplomb, every listen reveals hidden layers. And to show they’re not afraid to contrive a lyric we hear Wood telling us with heart-breaking innocence: “ Dancing to Justin, I got down on my knee; I told you I loved you in front of Black Midi”
Opus – A live favourite. Leaning heavily once again on Evans and Ellery’s routes, this could be BCNRs homage to Night Boat To Cairo. Untypically the sung melody is in harmony with the sax. Not a song to stand still to and acts as a perfect bookend for the album.
Yes it’s still Black Country out there. The priority for the world is to conquer the pandemic; then BCNR will conquer the world.
'For The First Time' is out on 5th February via Ninja Tune.