Shame Songs of Praise

[Dead Oceans; 2018]

Styles: post-punk, garage rock
Others: Protomartyr, Interpol, Ought

“We got an insight into the music industry before we’d even entered it,” Shame’s drummer Charlie Forbes explained to Vice’s Jamie Milton in an interview from last December. Blessed with the tutelage of wizened groups who were spurned by that capricious sector of show business, Shame received, in their nascent days, an invaluable education from a host of also-ran bands haunting the Queen’s Head pub, a punk institution in Brixton where a large swathe of acts cut their teeth before either matriculating to notoriety or dissolving into obscurity. Yet in spite of the firsthand accounts of failure and the generous inculcation allotted to them, these sandy-haired South Londoners maintain a naive, callous perspective of societal ills on Songs of Praise, one that rebukes modern life and human nature with the tact of a teenager oblivious to any of the nuances therein.

Like Ray Davies, vocalist Charlie Steen condemns extramarital affairs, viewing infidelity as symptomatic of a moral impairment plaguing society. But while The Kinks addressed this issue with keen satire, as on songs such as “A Well Respected Man” or “Dandy,” Steen adopts a far less subtle approach, as evidenced on “Gold Hole.” “She wants the money/ It comes with his cream,” Steen sings, spinning the tale of a gold-digging young woman who sleeps with a married older man in exchange for money, handbags, and other largess. Devoid of empathy and dripping with judgement, “Gold Hole” reduces its characters to the first dimension and keeps them there. And if you’re unconvinced of the band’s heavy handedness, go ahead and take one guess as to what the term “gold hole” refers to.

Elsewhere, Steen vocalizes with an egregiously unearned sense of self-righteousness. On “The Lick,” Steen stentorianly lectures over a swaggering bass line, name-checking NME and castigating the “four chord future” that so engrosses its idiotic mass audience. Talk-singing with an unwavering ire, Steen lambasts the current state of pop music as if he’s the first person to realize its insipidness. The song bears a passing resemblance to Richard Hell’s “Destiny Street,” another song featuring a bass-heavy groove underneath a rambling sprechgesang. But compared to “Street’s” depiction of Hell travelling back in time to jerk himself off, “The Lick” is far more masturbatory, sardonically asking for an easily digestible pop single that’s “relatable, not debatable,” as if Steen is too smart and principled for such tawdry pleasures.

Fortunately, the rest of the band is able to pick up the slack from Steen’s hit-and-miss lyrics. Shame amalgamate the diverse quiddities of post-punk’s most hallowed giants into a cohesive musical identity. The track “Concrete” marries Wire’s indefatigably steady drumming with Bernard Sumner’s disaffected-yet-bright style of guitar playing. “Donk” evokes the truculence and dissonance of Big Black. And album closer “Angie” recalls some of the more groove-oriented moments of Television’s Adventure. It’s in the musicianship that we see Shame’s true aptitude, displaying a penchant for dynamic song structures and unfaltering group chemistry (which compensates greatly for some of the band’s more obtuse lyrics).

Forged in the counsel of failed bands who couldn’t make it in the music industry, Shame were afforded a tremendous leg up early in their career. Their success is a testament to the generosity of unsuccessful musicians altruistic enough to pass their wisdom down to a coterie of wide-eyed kids with the same ambitions they once held. That’s not to say, however, that the group isn’t talented. Despite Shame’s lyrical foibles, they evince a prodigious adeptness for musicianship, and though Songs of Praise isn’t the most arresting debut by a garage band, there are far worse places to start.

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