n early 2003, two years before the great man’s death, BBC DJ John Peel hosted a live session with The Crimea and declared “Lottery Winners on Acid,” the band’s British single at the time, one of his favorite songs of the past few years. Heady stuff for an autonomous Ukrainian republic with only a single to its name.
Fast forward three years: no more Peel favorites, alas, but The Crimea have released their major label debut, Tragedy Rocks. Peel, it is a fairly safe bet, would have been a fan. The album builds on the whimsical early promise of the band, delivering a clutch of bittersweet melodies designed to bury themselves in your subconscious and niggle at your cerebellum.
The album begins with a fussy, classical-styled 30-second piano intro which signals either high ambition or a juvenile sense of humor. Given the album that follows, which name-checks Fred Flintstone and Tarzan as well as the Almighty, it’s probably both.
Lead singer and songwriter Davey Macmanus can sound like a hoarse Ben Gibbard, with the same nasal, high school earnestness, something he deploys to winsome effect on “Lottery Winners” and its erstwhile B-side, “Baby Boom,” both cleaned up and re-released here, to somewhat ambivalent effect. “Lottery Winners” maintains the woozy carnival-after-too-much-cotton-candy effect that charmed Peel. “Baby Boom” sounds more constricted than its earlier incarnation, making its soaring guitar motif sound slightly hollow, despite its anthemic chorus. But if the songs have lost some texture, the album also has the burnished, best-of-the-batch feel of a long-incubated debut.
Macmanus has a gift for arrangement, framing his Kinks-ish chamber melodies in layers of tinkling keyboards. His choked voice, which sounds like he might burst into tears at any moment, stays set to “Aching Croon” for the first half of the album, like Conor Oberst singing through muslin. The band mines a seam of ecstatic, dreamy melancholia somewhere between the lusciousness of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” and the archness of Belle and Sebastian’s “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying.”
Charming, to be sure, but the sugar high starts to wear off around halfway through. Borrowing a page from Blur’s Britpop crossover playbook, they ditch quirky effects in favor of a solid guitar riff and a “Woo-hoo!” chorus on “Here Comes the Suffering.” Determined to keep things bittersweet, Macmanus embeds a thorn even in the album’s most straightforward rocker, “Girl Just Died”: “If you wanna see my happy side / Better tell me that my girl just died.” Macmanus’ voice stays congested, but he turns it into an effective half-spoken mumble, an effect that comes into its own on “Opposite Ends.” “Done something real bad this time / Practically signed my own death warrant,” Macmanus rants over a spooky, reproachful guitar line before slipping into a deranged, remorseful squeal: "Remember how it used to feel… feel… FEEL!"
Tragedy Rocks, as its name suggests, is dedicated to the sickly, swooning feeling of having taken something good (love? sex? alcohol?) one step too far, and the glorious agony that follows: a classic rock subject. It’s emo by way of Ray Davies, with titles to match: “Miserabalist Tango” and, in semi-pastiche, “Gazillions of Miniature Violins.” When the music and melodramatic sentiment becomes overwrought, it is leavened by Macmanus’ wry humor: “Girl with a smile says to guy on his knees / Have you lost your mind or were you just dropped as a child?” Macmanus sounds in perpetual dire need of a good hug or a slap to the face, or possibly both, but like the friend who won’t stop fucking up, he’s got some disastrously great stories to mumble in your ear.