The rise of most indie bands, whatever their own influences may be, has become almost quotable in recent years. A few years playing live and building a fan base, some singles here and there, perhaps an EP that gains traction, then Reading Festival, Maida Vale session, debut album, followed by a tour so vast that you’re saying ‘check, check, one-two’ in your sleep. Granted it’s not a perfect formula, in fact more bands seem to be taking their time with their first full-length projects now, (Black Honey, The Magic Gang etc.) but it definitely isn’t a formula Starcrawler have followed. Everything from the fact that the L.A. foursome have only been a band since late 2016 to their rapid signing to Rough Trade and the decision to record their debut album with Ryan Adams at his Pax Am studios using analogue tape seemingly amounts to the desire to keep things old school, and strike while the iron is not so much hot but still technically a liquid.
On paper all of this seems like a great idea: a wide-eyed rock band with some serious love for all facets of 1970’s rock music and the right people surrounding them, what could be better? It’s a shame then that their debut effort, while strong in places and positively brimming with youthful energy and potential, can’t match the zeitgeist nature of either the band’s own live performances or the works of their rock n’ roll mentors’ first records. Take the opener Train, which is kind of emblematic of the main issue I have with the rest of the album, namely too many good musical ideas squandered on songs that feel throwaway. Train is 82 seconds of building momentum, the gutsy guitar chords and head-bobbing drums build into an incensed crescendo with this sublime fuzz-blues riff that should lead into another verse but instead cuts out abruptly, ending an okay song that could have been great. The same goes for Different Angles, another sub-two-minute punk barnstormer. Guitarist Henri Cash’s tone calls to mind Jack White and Joey Ramone duelling, and the bass/drum groove keeps the quickfire vocals locked in, but there should be a bridge or another verse, something to stop the track sounding so careless.
The weakest point comes in Full Of Pride, just a Nirvana B-side without the lyrical depth. ‘You’re as dumb as a bum and I can’t even take it no more’ vocalist Arrow de Wilde sneers in the chorus, somehow managing to sound even younger than she is. Fortunately, the album’s shakier moments are now behind us and I’m pleased to say there’s a lot to enjoy elsewhere; particularly for the classic rock aficionado. Love’s Gone Again evokes The Stooges’ proto-punk fury, especially with the opening line ‘There was a boy […] he was created, built to destroy’, and Let Her Be sounds like the lovechild of every post-White Stripes project Jack White has dabbled in. As far as production goes, I have to admit the drums across the board sound thunderous- all that analogue goodness gives the cymbals a piercing quality and every tom hit is like a gut punch. The bass and vocals are frequently buried under walls of distorted, chainsaw guitar chords, but de Wilde manages some stand out turns on Chicken Woman, a fuzzy doom-blues affair with a sinister turn from the singer aping her idol Ozzy as best she can, and on the wonderfully trashy Pussy Tower, where her and Cash’s squeals in the chorus call back to the androgynous punk of New York Dolls. However, it is disappointing her vocals on the rest of the record don’t do justice to the force of nature de Wilde is on stage.
Singles I Love LA and Let Her Be are some of the more considered cuts on offer, they are at least some of the longer ones. The former is, as the name suggests, an ode to the band’s hometown, the glitz and the grime, exemplified by a ragged guitar solo and de Wilde cooing ‘cruising everywhere just to get in your nightmares’. Meanwhile the latter is, as previously mentioned, bluesy as all hell and, while the riff may kick no small amount of ass, it’s on just the wrong side of imitation and combined with the building power chords in the bridge and male/female vocals in the chorus, it could just as easily be a Jet song in the wrong hands (i.e. Jet’s hands). Penultimate song Tears is the only ballad on offer, a sour Tom Petty-esque tune with de Wilde’s forlorn vocals- ‘I call you on the phone, but you’re hanging up all day’- and Cash’s effects-laden minor chords mistily swirling around her. At the very least it makes for a better closer than What I Want, which features another bluesy central riff alongside punchy drum and bass fills which smacks slightly of self-indulgence; although, the whole album still weighs in at under thirty minutes, so I won’t protest too much.
I had hoped seeing the band live would allow me to make up my mind on the record but, instead, the adrenaline fuelled, blood soaked (literally) performance I had the privilege of witnessing only increased the gulf between the band I saw then and the band I’ve spent the last week listening to. Starcrawler’s debut is not a bad album, it’s worth your time even if you’re not the biggest rock fan in the world. There’s a lot to enjoy here; the band have lashings of raw talent and a real frisson for their influences and it’s clear they’ve already surrounded themselves with great mentors (Rough Trade and Mr. Adams I’m looking at you). But it’s their live show that is the essence of the band right now and if you take one thing away from this review, let it be a recommendation to see them play as soon as you can. In the meantime, this is about as close as you can be without getting wet.