Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Alphabet Backwards

I've always been perplexed why so many British bands and artists sound so thoroughly American in their vocals. It's as if the English accent fades altogether in song and the various inflections and phrasings that make the original form of the language are co-opted by the less colorful delivery of its descendant. And yet, some non-Americanized vocals have emerged recently, most notably through the waves of Scottish groups and vocalists of recent years (see NMT reviews of Scots here and here). Moreover, a more distinctly British vocal style is apparent in the work of the London-based quintet Alphabet Backwards and their 3-song collection released this week, The Superhero E.P.

And while the three-track effort doles out uniquely British flavor through the lead vocals of guitarist James Hitchman and vocalist Steph Ward, the instrumental foundation of the group lies far more in stateside indie-pop acts such as The Postal Service and The New Pornographers, with a healthy dose of the Violent Femmes (particularly in the prevalence of acoustic guitars as the melodic centerpiece). Opening number "Collide" eases in slow, as Hitchman's intro recalls a tenor version of Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody, before the rest of the outfit settles in after the first verse. The number is a lighthearted look at growing up, neatly exemplified in the chorus line of being "old enough to know better and young enough to go out with no sweater on." The track, in particular, hints strongly at New Pornographers influences, not only with Hitchman and Ward substituting nicely for that group's outstanding collaborations between A.C. Newman and Neko Case, but also the electric guitar work in the background points to under-appreciated N.P. guitarist Todd Fancey.

Meanwhile, follow-up "Blink of an Eye" is suitably brisk, considering its title, with drummer Paul Townsend propelling the number along with the efforts of bassist Josh Ward and keyboardist Bob Thomas, establishing a nice vehicle for the voices of Hitchamn and Ward to emerge at the forefront. At the same time, "Yesterday in June" is more retrained, with a bit of a Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Otherside" vibe at the outset before a ballady chorus takes over.

And while the brief trio of tracks on The Superhero E.P. does leave the listener wanting more, the five-piece group's debut and self-titled record from 2009 does offer a broader portfolio to examine. "80's Pop Video" mimics the melody of the American Hi-Fi's "Flavor of the Week," while "Ambulance" is more fitting of the 80's pop-synth sound the previous track's title references. In all, it relies more heavily on Bob Thomas' keyboard productions than the more recent E.P., and its a positive development in the band's growth.

Come for: "Collide"
Stay for "Blink of an Eye"
You'll be surprised by: "Yesterday in June"

P.S. June profilees Stars will be appearing at the Town Ballroom in Buffalo, N.Y. this Wednesday.

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