Several months ago, when reviewing Boys School’s debut album, I asked “Why can’t there be more albums like Boys School’s Boys School?” That question has been answered with the arrival of 180, the debut album from British rock band Palma Violets. 180, like Boys School, is a refreshing take on 60s garage and psychedelic rock, bringing the sounds of the summer of love to spring 2013. Additionally, I hear the disc as taking listeners through an abbreviated history of Anglo-American underground rock music. These reasons alone make 180 a praiseworthy album.
So what does a tour of underground rock look like? In the Violets’ case, this tour involves incorporating sounds and themes from garage rock, some early alternative and art rock, British punk, and the Britpop movement. The band is able to create a sound that is -in a nutshell- a more psychedelic and organ driven version of Oasis, fronted by Joe Strummer. Bassist, and vocalist, Alex Jesson does a remarkable job channeling the Clash frontman, making his voice one of the standout features of the record.
This is not to say that Jesson’s voice is the only thing that makes the group—or the album—noteworthy. Palma Violets are a very good band with great players and great understanding of dynamics. A prime example of this talent comes is on the disc’s middle track, “Last of the Summer Wine.” The band shows their skill in dynamic control with a slow, organ-driven instrumental buildup before the guitar bursts in. The burst, however, is within appropriate volume level for the song and does not allow the guitar to overwhelm the other instruments. The music in the track proceeds to switch between more quiet, bass-driven sections in the verses with mid-range, guitar-driven sections for the chorus. “Summer Wine” is just a prime example, but the entire record demonstrates a strong sense of dynamic and instrumental cohesion. The volume level of each instrument—and of the vocals—remains at a level such that neither overpowers the other. This great sense of balance leads to musically pleasing songs, making the LP quite approachable.
As a note, one of the strongest elements with the instrumentation is the organ, which provides a much wider variety of sounds and breaks up the occasional monotony of standard vocals-guitar-bass-drums rock and roll. The guitar tone, too, is very important to the pleasing and unique sound of the band. The guitar is just distorted enough to give it sonic weight, but the echoing reverb effect gives it the key garage and psychedelic sound. The right blend of distortion and reverb allows the guitar a pleasant and universally accessible tone—distortion for the punks and reverb for the easy listeners.
One of the band’s occasional weaknesses is their lyrics. As the songs are very garage-inspired, I give a lot of leeway for more immature or nonsensical writing. The Violets also make this sort of songwriting work well for them, as with lead track and single “Best of Friends.” While capturing some of the best qualities of the band’s instrumentation, the lyrics hold a sort of classic immaturity and spirit of youth that exists within garage. The chorus is quite simple, repeating, “I wanna be your friend / I wanna be your best friend / I don’t want you to be my girl.” It is actually quite refreshing to hear a song about wanting to be friends in rock and roll—and in modern pop music—so I salute them for this. On “Best of Friends,” and other songs on the disc, especially closing track “14,” the band captures the adolescent spirit of rock and roll quite well. On the other hand, there are songs like “Rattlesnake Highway” and “Chicken Dippers” that just make no sense and are a bit too “out there.” Case and point, one of the lines to “Chicken Dippers” is, “Your hair is stone red gage / And you make me feel like I’m the only one.” I admit that I could be missing something, but I have no idea what that would be.
Overall, 180 is a great first album by Palma Violets. While the album stalls a bit between the second and sixth tracks, the rest of the album is rather solid and displays the band’s ability as musicians and songwriters. The album even ends in Oasis fashion with the eight-minute epic “14” (perhaps channeling a bit of “Champagne Supernova”). Hopefully 180 will force many rock bands of today, and of the future, to do a 180 and recall the glory of rock and roll’s rich history.
Key Tracks: “Best of Friends,” “Last of the Summer Wine,” “We Found Love,” and “14”
Originally Published on The Rotation, WGTB's Music Blog, on 05/06/13