Stealing Sheep

Not Real

Into The Diamond Sun, Stealing Sheep’s 2012 debut album, effortlessly picked a path through the kraut/psych/folk/indie hinterland, and was as dazzling as its title suggests. It had a refreshing, ramshackle charm to it, and tunes galore, without ever descending into kookiness or homespun cliché. Not Real is a significant sonic advance on that album, on the face of it adopting a cleaner, more modern sound, but scratch the polished surface, and you’ll hear that underneath it’s the same band still fizzing with mischief and invention.

First and foremost, it’s an album that unashamedly says, "come on in, the water’s great!" But unlike the depthless sheen of much contemporary pop, there’s something shark-shaped lurking in this pool. Opening track ‘Sequence’ is an airburst of shimmering funk guitars and a brilliantly on the nose electro bassline that recalls nothing so much as Reel 2 Real’s child-friendly crowd pleaser ‘I Like To Move It’. It’s the azure of summer skies and the feeling of sunlight on your face, the sing-song vocal melodies dream-like but never crass. What’s immediately clear, and impressively so, is the way in which Stealing Sheep have created a new soundworld for themselves, without sacrificing what makes them different.

‘Not Real’ itself is a great illustration of this. It starts with Lucy Mercer singing the puzzling line, "Don’t let the daylight fool you that you’re not real," the sleepy insouciance of her Scouse accent locating the song in a pop universe where such quirks aren’t ruthlessly auto-tuned away. Which makes perfect sense, because its fruity synths, insistent rhythms and steel guitar suggest an incursion into the alternate reality of Ghost Box, where the hit parade is full of non-existent stars. It also highlights their knack for arrangements that are playful but incredibly dense with detail.

‘Apparition’ captures the upbeat but off-kilter pulse of Stealing Sheep’s music, sounding like a darker version of The Cure’s ‘Close To Me’. There’s a catch in Becky Hawley’s vocal which is weirdly sexy, and the robot claps that drive the song along give it a slightly sinister edge. Elsewhere, there are echoes of their earlier, more folky material: ‘This Time’ has a west coast raga-swing feel to it, while ‘Evolve And Expand’ is a disquieting piece of acoustic whimsy, its opening line of, "They will cook you up and grind you down for glue and clay" sung with childlike glee.

But the centrepiece of the album is the magnificent ‘Greed’, its tuned percussion loop, droning vocal line, murmuring brass and theme of spiritual quest suggesting a holy alliance between The Dreaming-era Kate Bush and the psychedelic Beatles. It’s one of those special songs with in-built déjà vu that unfolds exactly as it should and gradually envelopes you in its woozy embrace. This stew of fourth world sounds is further reflected on the hypnagogic exotica of ‘Deadlock’ and the sensual, sub-aquatic reverie of ‘Sunk’.

Just like their debut, Not Real is an album to keep coming back to. Because like all great pop, it’s full of memorable lines and nagging hooks, but also the sense of something ungraspable, resistant to easy interpretation. The water’s great, but it’s spiked with something strange.

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