Sheffield’s other favourite sons, The Crookes, have returned with their second album ‘Hold Fast’, released on esteemed indie label, Fierce Panda. Astoundingly, they’ve still not quite managed to break through, despite being championed early on by NME, then going on to produce an absolute peach of a debut EP, and then following it up with an even finer youth-infested, storied album in 2011’s ‘Chasing After Ghosts’ (which featured on my best albums of 2011 list). I say ‘astoundingly,’ but that’s too much of an understatement to match my bewilderment. To put it bluntly, if their tightly woven tales of disenfranchised lovers doesn’t reach out beyond the echelons of their fanbase this time, they probably, unfortunately, never will, because ‘Hold Fast’ is a joy to behold; it’s really quite excellent.
The Crookes’ brand of youthful, romantic chamber pop lies at the forefront of the nascent #newpop movement, featuring other bands with good faces and good cheekbones, namely The Heartbreaks, Frankie and the Heartstrings, et al. What properly sets them apart from the indie landfill, though, is their eye for infectious, classic C86-sourced sounds and eye-popping hooks that stir like a rash, guitarist Daniel Hopewell’s uncontrived, sincere, highly evocative lyrics and their quietly growing devout cult following, the aptly titled Bright Young Things. Above all else, there’s something of an inherent sense of humanity and sincerity to The Crookes, in stark contrast to the chart-manufactured conveyor belt that consists of a wub wub here and a dub dub there. But make no mistake: this is unashamed pop music.
Opening track and lead single, ‘Afterglow’, comes on like a packet of sour skittles devoured by a pair of cavorting, coked-up kids at a 15th birthday party, exemplified by a lulling drum beat that suddenly accelerates side-by-side with vigorously jangling chords and overlaid by ’50s-reminiscent doo-wop vocals from George Waite. It’s probably the most vibrantly alive and overtly hormonal track The Crookes have ever rustled up, morphing the candid dancefloor aura into a sugar-coated indie pop hit in the vein of – whisper – fellow Sheffielders and local-lads-turned-desert-dwellers, Arctic Monkeys.
The juvenile, romantic narrative continues to evolve and expand in the Housemartins pastiche and ’80s-chart ready concoction that is ‘Maybe in the Dark’, as the narrator sardonically, wryly pokes fun at “the perfect second best” girl, fulfilling the northern lad persona down to a tee. Following into the next track, ‘Stars’, we’re then reminded of the different side to young love: the euphoria of falling hopelessly into our own personal form of Utopia whilst “the stars still smile” above us. It’s a heartfelt tale, with Waite’s warm vocals enhancing the equally soft tunefulness that recalls the lighter delicacies of the Libertines, conjuring a lovely piece of balladry that falls just the right side of wistful. Waite also carries the opening of ‘American Girls’, before the record finds it’s toe-tapping feet and the gentle riffing lures us into an Americana-tinged ambience. And this echoes into ‘The Cooler King’, holding on to the convivial soundscape of a swinging sixties pub with the acapella doo-wops and its recycled rhythm.
Standout ‘Sal Paradise’ sees the pace slow down into a cascade of sunset-gorged melancholy, with the added depth of intertextually referencing the diffident narrator of Jack Kerouac’s novel ‘On the Road’. Waite’s vocals – arguably The Crookes’ most vital instrument – is again used for dramatic effect, often straying into Damon Albarn territory, accentuating the languid melodies and sense of burning, nostalgic wanderlust, of being discontent in the sprawling open road. ‘The I Love You Bridge’ further demonstrates this: it’s a humble, unpolished, heartachingly beautiful punch of an album closer that once more keeps it’s influences local (looking at you, Hawley). Leaving us with the sentiment that “it’s a magic trick, an escape from this,” serves only to add more to the intangible fragility and perfectly summarise the unique escapism ‘Hold Fast’ offers.
‘Hold Fast,’ then, further proves The Crookes might well be what they initially proclaimed themselves to be: magicians. Despite revolving around the prominent theme of youth, album number two represents The Crookes eliminating much of their musical immaturity and evolving into intellectual pop purveyors of the highest order, and all of these songs are set in stone to be the primary hymns at the Church of New Pop. “I’ve never been one for a cliché”, Waite croons on ‘Sofie’: me neither, but this is basically pop perfection in every sense of the term.