Archive for the ‘The Monochrome Set’ Category

The Monochrome Set — Spaces Everywhere

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Somewhere out there in an alternate universe, The Monochrome Set are filling stadiums. Critically acclaimed but mostly unknown outside of Britain, the band began in the post-punk scene of the late 1970’s and have been going more or less ever since. Shades of their legacy can be heard across the history of British alternative music from Pulp to The Smiths, but the band themselves have somehow avoided almost any kind of lasting fame or notoriety. Most people only seem to remember them for producing a set of three fairly good post-punk LP’s in the early 1980’s, which were less interesting than the more experimental output of their contemporaries. But they’ve been writing songs and playing shows for almost 35 years now show no signs of stopping anytime soon. The twelfth full-length release for the third incarnation of the band came out this month. Will it finally bring them the recognition they so obviously deserve?

The short answer, sadly, is probably not. This is one of the most well-composed, quirky and intelligent releases of the year thus far. It represents a significant improvement in musical style compared to their 2013 album Super Plastic City and boasts a layered sound reminiscent of a combination of 60’s rock, 70’s punk, and 90’s britpop. At its best, it sounds a bit like Morrissey fronting a new wave band. At its worst: a slightly condescending parody of the Moody Blues. It’s a very meta sort of album, engaging with the history of pop music in subtle ways to add emotional weight to a series of twee, satirical narratives about life in modern Britain, shown most vibrantly in the seventh track “The Z-Train”, where a driving, bluesy bassline and horror show guitar riffs back the singer’s observations of the people on his train. “Bleary mammal in blue cotton, smelling like a prune / The lyrics he has all forgotten, so he just whistles the tune.” It really paints a vivid picture, and the listless tone of the vocalist coupled with the snark behind his lyrics makes for an entertaining, almost cinematic sort of an experience. Second track “Avenue” does a similar sort of thing, with harpsichord and a kind of Beatles-esque psychedelic vibe adding a feeling of nostalgia to the singer’s recollections of a street he used to know in London, now unsafe to walk along at night. The lyrics complement the music beautifully, creating a sense of bewilderment at a well-remembered place now completely lost in time.

It’s difficult to imagine a lot of new fans being attracted to this release. The majority of the musical and cultural references end at around the 1970’s, and even the sound of the music is dated. People of a demographic old enough to appreciate The Monochrome Set have probably already formed a strong opinion on the band, and this new album won’t change their minds one way or the other. It is the one of the most musically innovative albums the band has ever made, but it isn’t different enough from any of their previous material to persuade anyone who’s disregarded them in the past. Younger people more familiar with Morrissey or Jarvis Cocker will find them harder to relate to, and because the band is so obscure, they won’t have the nostalgia required to pull them through. And the saddest part of all is that it really is a wonderful album. It doesn’t pretend the last thirty years never happened, like the newest from The Pop Group, and it doesn’t disregard everything that made the original band so great, like the latest one from Gang of Four. It’s done so much right that it almost seems like a tragedy it hasn’t tried to be a little more inclusive. This is why it will probably still be overlooked.

It would be wonderful to see The Monochrome Set get the recognition they deserve within their lifetimes, but while they continue along without making any kind of effort to engage with modern music or relate to the changing world, it’s hard to see that happening. But maybe that’s the way they like it; the sleeping giants of the British indie scene, playing detailed, intricate and funny music that speaks to the experiences of an aging fanbase who has followed them since the very beginning. If you’re not already part of that fanbase, you will struggle to appreciate the album. It isn’t necessarily a damning critique, but it’s a sad one. It could have been so much more than this. All they had to do was let us in.

Spaces Everywhere is out now on Tapete Records.