, February 1st, 2010 07:45
The debut album by Brighton's lo-fi avant-garage amateurs The Sticks comes as a double seven-inch single, with ten tracks spread across the two discs. For review purposes, I've been sent the CD version, which includes ten bonus songs- making up, the band insist, a veritable 'greatest hits' package- and brings the total running time up to just over thirty-eight minutes. High, trebly guitars jerk around rumbling basslines, eschewing distortion or any artificial effects other than the natural reverb of the Brighton community centre where they were recorded live onto reel-to-reel tape. Songs are short, urgent, lo-fi and resolutely danceable, with the three Sticks- Stuart, James and Iain- swapping guitar, bass and a stripped-down drum kit at regular intervals between them. The Sticks, in short, champion the analog, the home-made and the D.I.Y., drawing inspiration equally from mid-60s garage bands and late 70s post-punk. Theirs is the sound of the resolutely untrained (non) musician, all for improvisation and spontaneity, but wary of self-indulgence and pretension. Some may label them Luddites, but I suspect they'd wear that badge with pride, safety-pinned to a jumble-sale sweater with a hole in the elbow.
Opener 'On the Run' could almost be an outtake from Live at the Witch Trials, while 'Don't Sit on the Porch' and 'Bored!' are rough-and-ready neo-surf numbers, as ramshackle as Brighton's burnt out West Pier. If the likes of 'Messing Round' and 'Honkey Time' would sound at home on The Monks' Black Monk Time, then 'Radio Song,' 'On the Sea' and 'Live in a Town' borrow more from the Prefects, Fire Engines or early Mekons, incorporating scratchy funk stabs and unpredictable time changes. They recall too later devil-may-care roustabouts like Big Flame, The MacKenzies and Dandelion Adventure, the kind of groups unearthed and celebrated recently in John Robb's marvellous Death to Trad Rock book.
Those groups thrived of course under the patronage of John Peel, and it's fair to say that Peel would have loved The Sticks too, and would almost certainly have given them wider exposure. These days, alas, their chances seem greatly reduced. That's a shame, as while The Sticks' music is basically rhythmic, with songs immediately recognisable by their primitive-yet-complex drum patterns, there are also strong hooks and catchy melodies throughout. Those seeking raw punk noise may be disappointed: the Sticks are essentially a pop band, spindly and anti-macho beneath the thudding drums and overloaded microphones. Hence the brilliant upside-down guitar hook of 'Earshot,' and the irresistible chanted chorus of 'One and the Same.' 'I'm Wrong' is an almost perfect, chiming garage pop song with a bluebeat bounce, while 'Got Me' blasts a harmonica break that recalls mod favourite 'Groovin' with Mr Bloe,' leading into the clanging caveman foxtrot of 'Regal Like.' And if 'Interim' sounds like Clinic disembowelling Dr Feelgood's 'Roxette,' then 'Nothing Song' is a noir-ish spy theme for a down-at-heel private eye, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Mark E Smith.
The album closes uncharacteristically with the four minute-plus epic 'Giant Strides,' a darkly atmospheric piece that creeps to the CD's conclusion on spindly guitar lines and clumsy tip-toe bass, and may point towards where the Sticks will go next, when the self-imposed rules of their debut begin to chafe. Both 60s garage and late 70s post-punk created a space for the technically inept, untutored musician to join in and experiment, creating new approaches to songwriting and performing through sheer ignorance, as well as the overcoming of their limitations. And both scenes have been plundered and namechecked so often since by mainstream indie-rock bands as to have become almost bywords for clichéd, unimaginative trend-following. But it should go without saying that The Sticks are the furthest thing possible from some horrendous corporate cut-and-paste of say, The White Stripes with Franz Ferdinand. They recall the original sources, not the imitators, and somehow find fresh inspiration in these most overworked of seams. The Sticks' debut is a joyous racket indeed.