Shrag - Canines - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Shrag - Canines

by Rich Morris Rating:8 Release Date:2012-07-09

If there's one label Shrag don't like having applied to them, it's 'twee', and yet it keeps popping up in descriptions of their music. I even used it myself here. There really isn't that much twee or cute about Shrag's music, which exists somewhere in an intersection of post-punk, riot grrrl and indie-rock. The term probably keeps cropping up due to singer Helen's vocals which, belying the often dark subject matter and wording of her lyrics, have an undeniably girly quality, especially when they slip into sing-song chanting, which they do quite often.

Their new album, however, is definitely not twee. Everything from its title to the often violent, animalistic imagery in the songs' lyrics speaks of menace barely suppressed. First song 'Tears of a Landlord' opens with a venomous swirl of distorted feedback and ambient noise before lurching into a tune harder, meaner than almost anything on previous album Life! Death Prizes! "No one likes the tears of a landlord" sneers the chorus. Helen has said much of this album's lyrics are indirectly inspired by the UK's current crises, so for 'landlord' you could perhaps read 'banker' or 'politician'.

The tougher, more rocky approach is evident on several other tracks. Second track 'Show Us Your Canines', first single 'Tendons of the Night', 'Devastating Bones' and 'You're the Shout' are full of angry guitar and stalking bass, the girl/boy vocals of Helen and guitarist Bob frequently sounding like taunts. Helen has said this album's lyrics were written following her move to London, and the songs seem saturated with the sense of alienation and selfishness one can sometimes pick up in the UK's capital.

These songs seem to be set in a world that's grimy, used-up and desperate: back-rooms in dingy pubs, crowded streets, messy bedsits. The characters which inhabit them exist on a knife-edge, pushed to the margins of normal life, either consumed by visceral desire - the protagonist of 'Show Us Your Canines' wants something fast and hard, the gym obsessive of 'Tendons of the Night' craves "the muscles of the racehorse", the narrator of 'Devastating Bones' poses on her lover's rib cage - or unable to cope in a society which doesn't care for them - a landlord cries and is jeered for his tears, the lonely subject of the closing, fragile 'Jane with Dumbbells' is reduced to ripping out her own teeth.

However, other songs bring some light and delicacy to proceedings. 'Chasing Consummations' is perhaps the most beautiful song the band have delivered, mixing subdued keyboard and guitar with weeping strings. 'On the Spines of Old Cathedrals', meanwhile, is a jauntier number, similar to those on their last album, brought to life by some lovely keyboard washes.

'Chasing Consummations' and penultimate track 'Flinching at Forever' may point the way forward to the next phase of Shrag. The latter is more expansive and airy than the rest of the album, recalling Modern Life is Rubbish-era Blur with its chirpy backing vocals and lyrics about "clean tired people who drink gin on the train". Like early 90s Blur, Shrag are writing songs about recognisable people who are sad, crazy, weird, sexy and confused.

While the more brutish approach doesn't always work - 'Devastating Bones' and 'You're the Shout' could do with a little less tantrum and a little more tune - Canines is a brave record which explores the Britain of today without being obvious or preachy. Like its predecessor, it also feels cohesive in a way not many albums do these days. It will be very interesting to see what this band produce next.

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