Shrag - Canines
A friend: “I don’t remember this...” And there you have it. Shrag are so in thrall to an alternative sub-genre forgotten by many but treasured by a clued-up few (that’s me and you, right?), that a casual playing of this, their third (and best by some distance) album has a been there/done that indie survivor presuming she missed it first time around. Sure, Canines could have had Melody Maker foaming at the mouth twenty years ago but it shines bright and new, and says so much more than any number of fey janglers ever managed. It doesn’t just breathe life into an arguably tired genre. It exhumes the grey corpse of indie pop, sneaks it into its underground lab, gets seriously into Frankenstein mode. It’s alive! And, boy, is it alive.
Saturated with melody, indie pop in 2012 may well have been as adventurous, but rarely so tuneful as this. And, now that I think about it, rarely so adventurous, either. Canines is many things: challenging, great fun and, above all else, beautifully expressionistic. Words, a multitude of them, spill out in wave after wave: acutely observed, lyrics become signposts. Documented in a quivering, hand-held close-up it hums with a brooding restlessness, takes note of the grainy ebb and flow of modern day urban Britain. It’s like Play For Today as re-imagined by a heaven-sent combo of The Fall and Voice of the Beehive.
Proffering neither inward reflection nor blustering polemic, Canines instead captures the (un)usual suspects (fatal attraction, athletic prowess, death) with an unflinching eye for detail and an assured, distinct mode of expression. Yes, ultimately, the lyric sheet is a mere string of verses and couplets tied to the strictures of verse/chorus/middle eight but its ambition carries it further. It’s like a free-form novel written in the second person, the observer neither behind nor in front of the camera but positioned awkwardly to the left: unexpected angles bring forth untypical tales.
And Canines is packed with them. But be prepared to work. Helen King’s lyrics are daring and accomplished. Talk about promise fulfilled. Not crafted for easy consumption, they play with and delight in the possibilities of language, a riot of metaphor. There is much to pick over and decode. In other words, prepare for deep, dark joy. The ringing guitars, punk-pop kinetics and (exceptional) boy-girl harmonies - these components are standard issue but the end result is far from off-the-shelf.
‘You’re the Shout’ boasts a descending, whip crack riff that recalls Dig Me Out era Sleater-Kinney, Helen and Stephanie Goodman trading lines like Corin and Carrie back in the day. And where it matches the Portland trio for muscle and thrust, Shrag can’t leave it (or any of the songs on here, for matter) unresolved and elementary like so many cheap Riot Grrl imitators would. So they get choon-greedy and demonstrate class by tagging on a middle eight that’s twice as catchy as the chorus. Compassion makes an appearance, delicate amidst the tumult: “The sadness that rears up in you; I’d like to rip its heart in two.”
‘Tendons in the Night’ gets its paws on The Strokes ‘Last Night’ and lets fly with a crunching 4/4 beat. Bob Brown does his best Fred Durst impression (that’s a compliment): it’s a sideways glance at the nature of athletic endeavour: “And as their limbs start to hurt / They shout their scorn for the earth!” (Oh, how Shrag peddle such lyrical clichés!)
‘Devastating Bones’ steps lightly with Belle and Sebastian jaunt before shaking the room with it’s own ‘let’s get physical’ manifesto, a blend of oddball desire (“…would you mind if I touched your ischium?”) and no messing raunch (“You’ve got devastating bones and I’d like to call them home…I think it’s my turn on your telescope…”) Ooh, matron. (Call the doctor.)
They’re melody freaks, clearly. Maintained over the course of an entire album, that’s something of a gift in itself. You could genuinely choose the singles at random – every track here is tailored for the radio and ripe for the indie disco. You prod for weak spots. There are none: eleven songs, exceptional song craft and cohesive to a fault. Canines avoids clever-clever fuck-about-ery. No acoustic laments, no jet-propelled wig-outs. The closing ‘Jane With Dumbbells’ slows the pace (and narrows focus to an unsettling intimacy), its chiming coda reminiscent of the spiralling guitars at the climax of Throwing Muses’ ‘Two Step’, but Shrag play smartly to their strengths. In how it captures both the guttural (the dizzy thrill of its hooks, the ringing guitars, the snare way up in the mix, the overwhelming sea of voices) and the cerebral (its graffiti narratives and their uncommonly heightened wordplay), it achieves a deep and lasting resonance. Awash with ideas, Canines speaks at length and with authority. Listen. And learn.