Alfie - Crying At Teatime
Manchester's Alfie have always suffered from an identity crisis, whether it's stepping out from the shadows of performing as 'backing band for hire' for Badly Drawn Boy or the expectation from the music press to pick up the reins of the horse named 'Baggy' from The Stone Roses.
Alfie’s third album, Do You Imagine Things? - after two albums of odds and sods and fulfilment of contractual duties on the Twisted Nerve label - was regarded as a true debut. With major label backing and a big-time producer, they expanded their palette from the autumnal pastels of old into glorious Technicolor: with Beatles, Led Zeppelin and even ELO influences worn proudly on their cardigan sleeves. Commercially, the album flopped; the singles didn't chart, with even Xfm refusing airplay because they were slightly unwieldy for daytime tastes. As diverse and schizophrenic as the album was the band now see why it sat uncomfortably with others, "to us it sounds like pop, but to most people in the world it just sounds like f**king madness!" commented singer Lee Gorton.
So now we have Crying At Teatime, and with it a definite clear intention to distil and concentrate their previous work into a more accessible template. "It's a more intelligent album," commented Lee Gorton, "If you've got something important to say, there's no point saying it in Sanskrit." Certainly that rings true of the opening pair of tracks, Your Own Religion and Look At You Now. The former starts out by stamping its identity all over the listener with rousing power chords reminiscent of Brian May attempting the Flaming Lips’ 'Race for the Prize'. The Flaming Lips comparison doesn't end there as the themes of the song - being true to yourself and treasuring what you have whilst you have it - echoing those of the Lips’ Do You Realise?. Look At You Now, described by the band as "Pentangle riffs, crossed with Donovan and War of the Worlds weirdness" is a crestfallen remembrance of an old romance - the universal theme of regret given extra weight by the baroque folk-rock backdrop which it is set against. As a start to an album you can't help but admire the inventive focus being applied where once songs were bursting full of whimsy.
The vigour of the openers continues throughout the album. All Too Heavy Now steams along with a grunge-lite buzz and sandstorm of guitars, whilst Applecart's kaleidoscope of descending melodies and three part harmonies is this record's only concession to the cosy, mulled wine sound of old Alfie. Colours is a delight; a carousel of melody and starry-eyed wonder, marvelling at nature and the beauty in everything. Reminiscent of The Beatles' Across the Universe - only without the Maharishi mumbo jumbo - this understated gem is one that demands an immediate revisit.
Kitsune - the album's highlight - closes the set, underlining further the newfound songwriting maturity of the band. A gentle, sorrowful guitar line teases the attention accompanied by eerie howls: this David Axelrod-esque introduction immediately conjures up twilight sea shores, emphasizing the song's cosmic theme of the ocean's redemptive qualities. The song also signals the return of the themes of mortality and the celebration of life entangled around a swirling, disorientating arrangement, its effect both haunting and beautiful.
The album is not without its weaker moments: despite the fun Strokes-meets-Beach Boys fuzz pop of the album's title track, Crying At Teatime, it sounds like a band desperately trying to grab a hit - it should be, but resolutely on their terms. Elsewhere, the soul-bearing anthem of Where Did Our Loving Go? - all cliff-top yearning and tears in the rain - feels like just that, and whilst it is easily a cut above James Blunt et al, it does sound like a concession on the band's part.
Yet, in Crying At Teatime Alfie have stumbled upon the antidote to curb their attention disorder, but not their invention. Their qualities as individual songwriters and arrangers could never be questioned, but now the array of considerable musical talent has been harnessed into something more easily recognisable, the lyrics too are written from the heart rather than the bottom of a pint glass. Never knowingly too clever for its own good, songs of this quality arrive far too infrequently these days, so don't hide your love of pop away, open your arms and embrace it.