THE RIDE by Catfish and the Bottlemen
Genre: Indie Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Soundcheck,” “Glasgow,” “Heathrow”
The thing that’s hard to get over about THE RIDE, the sophomore effort from Catfish and the Bottlemen, is how juvenile it sounds. The Bottlemen, as they will be referred to henceforth for brevity’s sake, are a young band, and like a lot of young bands, they opt for enthusiasm over technical skill and energy over nuance. This would be all good and well, except that there is very little authentic enthusiasm and energy on this record. The Bottlemen owe a lot of their music and their ethos to the seminal Britpop and post-punk revival giants of the late 90s and 2000s, particularly Oasis, The Libertines, and other pub-friendly bands that are “alternative” but in the way that, say, Foo Fighters or The Killers are alternative. Though it isn’t exactly accurate, the thought that stuck in my head upon first listen was that they sound like One Direction doing an impression of The Strokes, a comparison that frontman Van McCann would undoubtedly object to. Fortunately, since McCann is such a young songwriter, he has plenty of time to develop more of an individual identity, but THE RIDE makes it clear that that time isn’t going to come for a while for The Bottlemen.
The album opens with “7,” a pleasant enough 4-chord indie rock song that feels overstuffed with musical indie rock clichés (semi-melodic guitar solos! Quiet-loud dynamics!) and seems to lean on the “aw, shucks” charm of McCann’s speak-sung Welsh accent as he alternates between never and always wanting to call the female subject of the song. McCann’s songwriting, both here and throughout, is frustrating because it feels like piecework — the verses, choruses, pre-choruses, and bridges rarely feel like they were born from the same idea or musical concept. “Twice,” the song that follows, basically has the same problems, and more or less the same structure, as the previous song, as do many of the subsequent songs on the record.
“Soundcheck,” the third song on the record, catches the ear in a way that most of the others do not, for two reasons — one, it contains the most musically interesting ideas on the record. Though it still stays more or less within the numbers, it incorporates a stuttering rhythmic pre-chorus that comes as close as anything does on this record to establishing distance between the Bottlemen and their peers musically. Unfortunately, the momentum that they gain is killed by an overlong midsection in which McCann decides to shed some light on the backstory of this song’s female protagonist — is it the same one? Who knows? However, the second reason is that the chorus sounds eerily similar to something that would be found on Mumford and Sons’ WILDER MIND, their recent effort to regain credibility by going electric. Sure enough, the Bottlemen started their career on Communion Records, a small label founded by none other than professional keyboard-batterer Ben Lovett of Mumford and Sons.
After the first few tracks, which, perhaps not coincidentally, were all radio singles, we’re introduced to a slightly different, more serious version of the band. The songs are still lacking in creativity, nonetheless, but “Anything” and “Glasgow” feel like a breath of fresh air after the several-song long onslaught of British Lad Charm™. “Glasgow” in particular stands out, at least for how different it sounds from the rest of the album. We see McCann and the lads trying something a little different melodically, though the chorus does unfortunately dip its toe in “wedding song” clichés, and the result feels far less try-hard than the rest of the album. Another late album highlight is “Heathrow,” which is anchored by heavy acoustic guitar and references to The National. It’s McCann’s most cerebral song on the record — the forlorn, downtempo arrangement fits nicely with simple lyrics that inspire far more emotional response than any song on the rest of the record can.
Though they do connect together at least passably most of the time, THE RIDE sounds like what it feels like to look at a giant tower of mismatched Lego pieces — sure, it all snaps into place, but the result is not often sensually cohesive. The Bottlemen seem like nice, if raggedly charming, fellows who probably put on a very fun live show, but their music on record is almost shockingly lacking in creativity, and unfortunately, when it works, it almost always works on accident.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend