Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The bird is the word


Not so much coals to Newcastle as Foals to Oxford – that’s Sketches, whose penchant for trebly guitar marks them out as keen students of the work of Cowley Road’s finest (though surely Total Life Forever hasn’t been out long enough to be this influential?). Perhaps their B-side ‘Fevered Foals’ is them wishing ill on their heroes so they might grab their limelight?

In truth, though, Sketches seem to be slightly at odds with themselves. On the one hand, the quartet look like tediously self-conscious fashion victims – none more so than the frontman, complete with moustache, white wifebeater under plaid shirt, slip-on shoes and brown trousers with rolled-up legs in that Shoreditch-does-freemasonry style. (The guitarist’s purple slacks could at least be excused by the fact that he confesses to having sold his trousers as merchandise in Birmingham last night.) On the other hand, though, ‘Bleed Victoria’ and ‘Dear Heart’ suggest that imprisoned within the self-imposed stylistic cage, rattling the bars trying to escape, is that most unfashionable of things: an anthemic indie band.

You could never accuse Sparrow And The Workshop of fashionable pretensions – though sterner critics than I might charge them with a degree of affectation, citing the stark contrast between the goofy and playfully affectionate onstage banter of vocalist/guitarist Jill O’Sullivan and duetting drummer Gregor Donaldson and the frequently murky and bleak subject matter of their music, which, like ‘Into The Wild’ and debut single ‘Devil Song’, draws upon the rich, dark history of the folk, country and blues traditions.

In this the trio are reminiscent of another outfit who call Glasgow home, Sons & Daughters – especially new single ‘Black To Red’, the "snazzy" video for which O’Sullivan smilingly complains had her painted blue and tottering around in crippling six-inch heels. The involvement of Delgados associate Paul Savage in this year’s well-received album Crystals Fall is another indicator of the direction in which their muse tends.

Perhaps the best way to describe them, though, is as ample compensation for anyone (like me) who loved Howling Bells’ debut but found its misjudged follow-up Radio Wars a crushing disappointment. The Australians’ gothic and shoegazery overtones might be absent, but O’Sullivan’s vocals – insinuating, sweet and stinging – are as seductive as ice maiden Juanita Stein’s, making a song like ‘I Will Break You’ sound almost as much a serenade as a threat.

As thrilling as the punch packed by Donaldson and guitarist/bassist Nick Packer can be, it sometimes feels as though there’s too much of the Workshop and not enough of the Sparrow. But when they get the balance and tension just right – as on album closer ‘You’ve Got It All’ and a new song containing a lyric about "shooting pains down my arm – the results are stunning.

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