The Futureheads - News and Tributes
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Somewhat hilariously, the Futureheads were once sort-of popstars in Britain. It’s a pretty weird place and all, but there’s still something heartwarming about a group of heavy-accented guys from Sunderland gatecrashing the charts with a cover of “Hounds of Love” that sounds like an art-punk barbershop quartet with ADD. They went down well with critics all over the place as well; the stop-start structures and inventive vocal arrangements of their eponymous debut basically made them sound giddy with exhilaration at all the ideas constantly pinging around their heads. Endearing as it was though, there was always a certain lurking anger amidst the chirpy harmonies (“You thought that I was joking when I said you were a moron / When I said it I was smiling, so you thought that I was joking”), which finally came to a startling head on the final track “Manray,” a borderline-psychotic burst of white-hot jealous rage. “Touch yourself, touch each other in black and white,” they shrieked with increasing and terrifying fervor, until the entire thing halted cheerily on a brief, piercing scream.
By the time of 2006’s News and Tributes it was probably time for them to Consolidate Their Success, ascend to Proper Popstar status and y’know, become boring and shit, but that troublesome negative energy’s still in evidence from the start: “YES! NO!” they bellow, spraying confusion and indecision everywhere, sounding more like Sham 69 than XTC and advising You to “go home” and “brick yourself in.” They later manage to compare love to both third degree burns and nuclear fallout before they get to the title track, which is a lament for the Manchester United team killed in a plane crash in 1958. Daaaaark.
Initially it’s actually a bit disappointing because it appears to lack the dynamic invention of the debut. The faster numbers seem louder and more aggressive, but they’re ham-fisted by comparison. “Return of the Berserker” is borderline ridiculous on this front, sounding like a ludicrously beefed up caveman rewrite of their earlier mainstay “Carnival Kids,” only they forget to change chords at all because they’re SO GODDAMN ANGRY.
That gloriously giddy, inspired energy of yore does eventually manifest under closer inspection though: it’s almost as if before the ideas were hemorrhaging out all over the place, whereas here they’ve developed a perfect understanding of exactly where to put every last note. Those oft-praised vocal harmonies are crucial, as they’ve honed in on the idea of holding them back until a certain point and then embellishing the hook with an immense wall of vocal noise. “Fallout” moodily hammers out a sparse two-note motif for ages, and then when they finally unleash the harmonies on the chorus it sounds startling and brilliant. Likewise, on the aforementioned Dead Footballer Song, when they all pile in to sing a strange, ambiguous sounding harmony over the line “news and tributes, leaking in,” it ramps the weird pathos up to hairs-on-back-of-neck levels.
There’s quite a wistful mood throughout the album, most obviously on “Thursday,” wherein they complain—while sounding like some kind of half-speed zombie Beach Boys—that “every day still feels like a Thursday.” It is not, in fact, all gloom though—“Worry About It Later” is one of their best songs, marrying an unashamedly stadium-ready guitar n’ tambourine chorus to a joyous mantra of “worry about it later, we couldn’t resist the risk.” The song resolutely failed to reach the stadiums, though; News and Tributes is ultimately a triumph of atmosphere over dynamics and harder work than its predecessor. It’s their best album though, and a year on it’s still reassuring that there were some among the hyped Brit indie crew who were prepared to inject the four-dudes-with-guitars template with vigor and creativity. It’s just an ongoing source of frustration that this seemed to also amount to pissing their career up the wall.