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Unsurprisingly, Tough Baby is a record with purpose and resolve. Nothing is wasted. Sometimes the music feels deliberately compressed, the essences extracted and bottled into an overpowering cordial, as on ‘115 At Night’, which sounds like an ‘80s Van Halen track being squeezed into another shape. And it’s difficult to see how a track like ‘Virtuous Industry’ can hold itself together, such are the sonic hoops it jumps through. The sharp angles and hook- laden guitar lines that were once seen as a trademark sound are less in evidence. Last track ‘Crackin Up’ does nod back to earlier releases with a booming beat and guitars that snag, like wool on barbed wire.But maybe there’s another focus taking shape, one that was not fully realised on the band’s remarkable debut, Pain Olympics.
Zach Choy: “We made that album with no expectation of making another.” Maybe that expectation lent Pain Olympics its febrile, combustible atmosphere. But the world moves on, and Tough Baby is moving with it. The new record reflects Choy’s point that “we are always maturing emotionally with our experiences, and so how we understand and express them evolves over our lifetime.” There is a sleekness here: cinematic dreamer music that takes in the street romanticisms and seedy cruises of classic alternative pop. Indeed, the record could be a brilliant C21st riposte to the likes of The Pogues, the Blockheads, Roxy Music or Armand Schaubroeck. ‘The Politician’ could be a search party sent out to find The Bogus Man after 50 years.
This is music that is happy to colour outside the lines prescribed for it. In fact, Tough Baby reminds one of reading a Nabokov novel, with lots of stylistic conceits and clevernesses, sometimes outrageous pretentiousness, all there to better reveal the brutal truths about the human condition. ‘Please Yourself’ - what a great title - is a mix of all these things, a powerful track with plenty of muscle and sinew and not afraid to switch into a strung- out doodle on a piano. The title track employs orchestral sweeps and other stylings: a Broadway musical perhaps, or the sort of uplifting orchestrations that would sit snugly on a modern film soundtrack, and boasting an intermission where we could be listening to UNKLE. Key track is ‘Criminal’ - also the longest on the record, weighing in at 6 minutes - an angry soliloquy which suddenly snaps into life around a primitive beat (which sounds like someone whacking at a door with a hammer) and a scuzzy bass line. The intermittent vocals and sighs at the end only add to the drama.
The band does offer antidotes to help your head find some equilibrium: ‘Afterthought (Sukhi’s Prayer)’ is a melange of sounds that prop up an impassioned, sometimes baffling address to the heavens. It does clean your headspace, however strange the elixir.Tough Baby contains music to think to, music with which to educate, agitate and organise. Zach Choy: “The name Tough Baby is an allusion to our Planet. To our Culture. And to our Selves.” It’s made to remind us that whilst we are all in the gutter to some extent, some of us are looking at the kerb.
Costly Engineered Illusion
115 At Night
Afterthought (Sukhi's Prayer)