Although the Futureheads’ self-titled debut is phenomenal, with nary a bum track (though a curious cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” comes precariously close), a thorough examination is somehow unbefitting. While this could mean that the quality of the 14 original danceable blasts of jagged guitar and joyful Oi!-ful call-and-response shouting speaks for itself, it could also indicate a sameness to these brief sweets that ultimately melt into one big gooey morsel. With equal parts glee and aggression, the young foursome from Sunderland makes like Franz Ferdinand in a pub with no dance floor where the punks have to kick over the chairs to make some room. Exceedingly and deliberately British, The Futureheads conjures such likeminded limeys as XTC (“Le Garage), the Jam (“Carnival Kids,” from the four-song 123 Nul) and Fingerprintz (“First Day”). Gang of Four’s Andy Gill produced five tracks, the best being the furious “Trying Not to Think About Time”; Bloc Party producer Paul Epworth efficiently handles the rest. The erupting working-class tension displayed in “First Day” (“this is the job that people die for”) is exceptional, as is “Decent Days and Nights,” “Meantime” and the volatile “Stupid and Shallow” (“you eat shit ’cause you’re …”). The thrash-worthy numbers come easily, but the ‘Heads never shy away from a delicious hook or sing-along pop structure, and the lively vocal interplay — clearly evident in the a cappella “Danger of the Water” — indicates that some deeper scrutiny of these angular ditties might be worthwhile after all.
Produced by Elliot James, the three-song Area EP finds the Futureheads relaxing their tightly wound sound a bit, letting the pop side of their songwriting come through more clearly. A remix of “Decent Days and Nights” erases the tricky rhythm changes of the original in exchange for repetitious sampled beats and Devo-style synths.
News and Tributes goes further down the pop path. With the assistance of producer Ben Hillier (Depeche Mode, Blur, Doves, Elbow, Clinic), the band throttles back on the complicated rhythms and thrashy riffs. The first two songs, “Yes/No” and “Cope,” might have come from the debut album (save for the amped-up drums on the former); the album-closing “Face” offers more of the debut’s trickier style. For most of the album, though, the approach is less frenzied and more melodic. The single “Skip to the End” is the Futureheads’ most conventionally poppish song to date; “Fallout,” “Worry About It Later,” and “Favours for Favours” offer even more appealing variations on that approach. On “Burnt,” “Back to the Sea,” and the title track (a memoriam to a 1958 Munich air disaster which killed nearly half the Manchester United football team), the band adds more space to its sound, giving the instruments and melodies inviting breathing room. The only misstep here is “The Return of the Berserker,” a one-chord vamp that lives up to its title: all abrasive guitars and high-speed drumming, with distorted vocals buried in the din. News and Tributes isn’t as immediately surprising or catchy as the debut, but it is a mature follow-up. (The US release appends the Area EP. The Skip to the End EP includes three non-LP tracks.)
This Is Not the World is recognizably the work of the same band, but not nearly as inventive. The songwriting still measures up to the Futureheads’ standard (at least most of it does: the opening single, “The Beginning of the Twist,” is surprisingly dull) but the production smothers the dynamics that made the first two albums so distinctive. For the first time, the band (or perhaps producer Youth) sticks to one template for the length of an entire album. It sounds as if they spent too much time after News and Tributes listening to the Buzzcocks. A few songs (“Radio Heart,” “Sale of the Century,” the title track) stand out, mainly because of the varied rhythms within each of those songs. “Hard to Bear” adds a few fillips of countryish-sounding guitars to the mix; “See What You Want” applies a queasier-sounding version of the same. But that’s about it for surprises here. The rest of the album is straightforward punk in which guitars and drums compete at the top of the mix. As British pop-punk goes, this is decent stuff, but a disappointment from a band that’s shown itself capable of so much more.
On the other hand, the Futureheads could revert to their original approach, ratcheting it up as much as they (or their fans) might want, and the result still wouldn’t pack the surprise of their debut. Better for the band to refine a style than push it to its breaking point. The Chaos is a good step in that direction. Sharing production responsibilities song by song with Youth and David Brewis (of Sunderland homeboys Field Music), the quartet brings some of its early complexity to this album, along with noisier guitars. Most of the songs teem with false stops and starts and abrupt shifts in rhythm and dynamics — none of which ever impedes momentum. “Stop the Noise” and “This Is the Life” are the most rhythmically tricky numbers the group has recorded since its debut, careening through chord and rhythm changes like a gang of kids racing down narrow, twisting corridors without ever missing a step. “The Connector” sounds like a lost Devo classic (“Our world is a circuit board”) until the Futureheads throw in vocal harmonies that the boys from Akron couldn’t match on the best day of their career. “Dart at the Map” combines a similar Devo-esque style with a Beach Boys-worthy chorus. Even the tracks that maintain This Is Not the World‘s Buzzcocks fixation (the singles “Struck Dumb,” “Heartbeat Song” and “I Can Do That” as well as the ominous “Sun Goes Down”) offer a good deal more energy than any of the songs on that CD. The Chaos is a solid, satisfying album from the Futureheads — and a well-placed reminder to fans (and critics) that a band can record its debut album only once.