Album Review: Shame – Drunk Tank Pink

7.5/10

Shame Drunk Tank Pink artwork

More than half of the citizens of this planet have non-linear lives at the moment, so putting musicians on a pedestal would be the worst kind of exceptionalism.

But even with the radical changes and breaking up of many things we’d taken for granted, for London quintet Shame it’s highly likely their path into the twenties wouldn’t have been anything like orthodox anyway.

Initially part of a grubby cabal once based around the Queen’s Head pub in Brixton (now gentrified), the then precocious teenagers were taken under the wing of various members of the Fat White Family, their 2018 debut Songs Of Praise going on to please many ears.

Gobby but gifted, a subsequent US tour saw them avoiding the standard east/west coast shift and bravely vanning it out to the continent’s less progressive hinterlands. When they were done, it was time to make a follow-up.

Except of course, everything then turned upside down. For some band members this meant going to the lengths of taking bar jobs to make ends meet, whilst Drunk Tank Pink they collectively knew was never going to build neatly on the agit-indie of their beginnings.

Shame singer Charlie Steen summed up their approach to it by saying: ‘We figured out we could do a lot more interesting and innovative stuff…it seemed the better choice than trying to make a carbon copy of the first record.’

The most obvious manifestation of this is that there’s no track like One Rizla, Songs Of Praise’s hook-friendly stub that in the old days might’ve been described as a hit single. Gone also are the sonic cues from Martin Hannett-inspired Factory acts like the Happy Mondays, replaced by off kilter tunings and a mania that in places resembles the bone dry funk of Talking Heads.

The dichotomy of pleasing/provoking audiences who are here for one thing and might not much enjoy the other is dealt with typical honesty by Shame on opener Alphabet, Steen spitting out, ‘Don’t forget your P’s and Q’s/Please smile when we tell you to’, over screaming, stressed guitars.

At times it’s hard to escape the impression of being dragged into one of his nightmares; Great Dog’s two minutes of messy sonic harassment feels like being bitten by one, while Snow Day lunges from precision menace to atonal noise and back again.

Much of this distortion seems to come from the lack of truth or, in the current perma-crisis, viable options available to the powerless. This maybe explains why Drunk Tank Pink never finds the groove of its predecessor, the sort of dislocation that turns Human, For A Minute into being not so much about love but realisation, the singer turning the refrain, ‘I’m half the man I should be’, over and over.

Whether direct or not, David Byrne’s professorial tics have also taken root, from the dirge against mundanity Nigel Hitter, to March Day’s afrobeat tension, or Water In The Well’s propulsive urgency, the latter a centrepiece of sorts, at least if something so gauche was ever planned.

There is peace though – of a fashion – in the climactic six-minutes-plus of closer Station Wagon, a cycle that builds from fragile nothingness to a throttled up, rocket ship of an ending, in which all the resonance and anxiety left to weep in the run-up is exhaled, the animation unsuspended and ripped into meaning.

Drunk Tank Pink is not a straightforward record, made by young men who’ve never been short of words but for whom the recent age has been an overwhelming series of punches and unplanned straitjackets.

Staying weird could still though ultimately prove to be the greatest defence against this zigzag new reality.

Andy Peterson
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