Artist: Band of Skulls
Album: By Default
In Brief: This is easily the band’s leanest & meanest record, in terms of just jamming out a bunch of fun songs and not overthinking it. But the garage-y bluesiness and stylistic variance heard on past albums isn’t as prominent here. So the surface-level enjoyment I get just from listening to them play is often undercut by a nagging feeling that there’s no real substance here.
Of all the titles of new albums I’ve listened to recently, By Default stands out as one of the most mockable. Sure, there’s nothing overtly offensive or asinine about it. It’s not doing anything to be intentionally humorous or awkward or bothersome. But it has the connotation of just being sort of tossed-off, like “Eh, we wrapped up another album, and we’ve gotta call it something, might as well settle on this.” If Band of Skulls, the British rock trio who saw fit to name a record this, had instead decided to make their fourth album a self-titled record, that might actually have been a step up. It thankfully has nothing to do with the band Default, which was a post-grunge wannabe act discovered by Nickelback (shudder) in the early 2000s. Because I’m a programmer by day and a music critic by… well, by whatever times of day I happen to be goofing off at work, that’s one of the first places my mind goes. The other is to the notion of letting your variables all fall back on the values they’re assigned if nobody bothers to specify anything else. It’s a convenient concept in programming, but a bit of a lackluster one in music. I sort of feel like that’s what Band of Skulls may have done here – they defaulted to the sound that was easiest for them to make (which is a thoroughly enjoyable brand of kinda-danceable and kinda-bluesy garage rock, more on the danceable end of the spectrum this time), hammered out a bunch of songs in rapid succession that sounded fun but apparently didn’t have a whole lot of deeper meaning, and hurried out the door so that they could resume playing live gigs, which is undoubtedly where their music is best received. Albums like this basically exist so that you’ll know the grooves and the choruses, the basic structures of the song, so that you can rock out to them at a show. I first heard Band of Skulls as an opening act for Muse, and on stage is probably the best way to experience them, but their albums still generally put a smile on my face, which is why I keep listening.
I had already mentioned when reviewing the band’s third album, Himalayan, a few years back that their sound was creeping steadily in a more commercial direction and losing some of its looser, ramshackle, more blues-inflected origins. While Himalayan got a bit long in the tooth, I think it balanced old and new reasonably well, with some of the pop crossover-type tracks being among the standouts, and some of the more raucous ones going off on interesting directions that reminded me why I had first found the band intriguing. I’m sure I used the phrase “pure swagger” to describe the impetus behind most of their songs, and I’d say that applies even more to By Default. Just two guys and a girl banging out some really infectious rhythms and spitting lyrics that were written to rhyme and sound bad-ass in the process, much more than they were written to communicate much of anything profound, seems to be the M.O. here. I think music by itself can communicate a heck of a lot even when the lyrics are silly or downright forgettable, so that earns the band a lot of points where a lot of other groups might completely fail to hold my interest if they were to write songs containing the exact same words. Every now and then I need a band in my eclectic iPod rotation that cuts the B.S. and tries to do something that hearkens back to rock & roll’s primal early days. (Or that throws a disco beat on top of it, just to be audacious.) So Band of Skulls’ overall aesthetic works for me more as an occasional flavoring rather than a steady diet. I’m not sure they’re going to turn a lot of industry heads or pull in a ton of new fans looking for something cutting edge with a record like this, but it’s got a lot of replay value, particularly in its strong front half, so I consider it a solid follow-up to Himalayan if not a terribly inventive one.
1. Black Magic
The first track, at just under three minutes, is the album’s shortest, and it’s a perfect example of the band’s ability to make a noisy first impression within an economically small amount of airtime. The drum intro, which seems to double up on itself via multi-tracking several times a few short seconds, is a bit over-the-top, yet it tells you something immediately about the band’s take-no-prisoners attitude. The meaty guitar riffs here remind me of muscle cars for some reason – I think a lot of the band’s songs bring that imagery to mind because I first learned of the band by being told one of their songs was in a car commercial or something. I suppose it fits with the opening lyrics: “I am a living machine/I like my competition clean.” If I had to settle on an overall theme for this song, it might be some sort of temptation luring a person over to the dark side, as evidenced by the coy cries of “Don’t play so innocent” and the chorus’s cry of “Every insult is an injury when you put your black magic over me”. I get vague impressions more than direct meanings from the lion’s share of these songs, and since brevity seems to be the point of this song’s short runtime, I won’t belabor the point by attempting a deeper analysis.
2. Back of Beyond
Revving up the energy a bit more is this faster-paced number, with some fun (if a bit obtuse) tongue-twisting lyrics, its sharp, stabby guitar licks, and some reasonably good vocal interplay between lead singer/guitarist Russell Marsden and backup singer/bassist Emma Richardson. She doesn’t seem to get as many lead vocals as she used to, so any song where her contributions are more noticeable is bound to get my attention. I haven’t the foggiest clue what this song is about, other than the fact that Back of Beyond is the title of an Australian heist film from the mid-90s, which I can only assume the band saw and thought, “That’d make a cool title for a song”. See if you can make any headway with these lyrics: “I rocked up like adrenalin rococo/Pass the competition there’s a line for the show/Pull yourself together for goodness sake/From the twister tone to the shamrock shake.” It’s fun stuff (and his delivery of the word “rococo” certainly brings Arcade Fire to mind), but the alliterative wordplay is more interesting to me than trying to decipher any meaning.
This one walks a fine line between the snarling guitar riffs and stuttering drums of its opening bars and its chorus, and the more ominous, low-key, lurking-in-the-shadows mood of its verses. The overall vibe I get here is feels more triumphant than threatening, so whether it’s about a literal killer or just someone who wipes the floor with their competition, I honestly can’t say. While the fun factor is cranked up as high here as it was on the last two tracks, a somewhat repetitive and silly chorus brings it down a few notches. The chorus lyrics are literally , “It’s a (whoop!) killer, killer, killer!” over and over again. And that “whoop!” sound, which I’m sure is meant to add quirky character to the song, only makes me think of the character Brick from the sitcom The Middle and his weird vocal tics. It’s not exactly the image a rock band with aspirations of total bad-assery wants to bring to mind.
While the guitar riffs and up-tempo beat still really pop on this one, it’s slightly more laid-back than its surroundings, similar to how “Nightmares” stood out as more melodic pop/rock amidst more the rambunctious tracks on Himalayan. The premise of this one seems to be more straightforward, begging someone to stay in a relationship when they’ve got one foot out the door. “Your body is nothing without mine/And nobody could compare” isn’t a terribly strong argument, nor is it terribly clever wordplay, but I do really appreciate the way the melody winds through the subtle chord changes as it leads up to the payoff of a catchy chorus. I’ve seen Band of Skulls do acoustic performances of this and a few other tracks from the album, and while they had to tweak the chord structures of a few others to make them sound less one-note when they didn’t have the raw energy of drums and electric guitars working for them, this one pretty much made it through with its melody intact. (Now that I think of it, a strong acoustic-based track is one thing that could definitely have added some welcome variance to this record.)
5. Tropical Disease
With this track, we’re back to bemoaning the influence of a relationship that seems to be a bad habit a guy can’t kick. That gives it a similar lyrical vibe to “Black Magic”, but this one takes the verbal mudslinging a bit further by referring to the woman as a tropical disease, which is just audaciously disgusting enough to get the point across without having to go into the gory details. I probably wouldn’t normally like a song that insinuates something as cruel as this about a person, but there’s something about how they mashed together garage rock with a sort of vaguely island-y, bossa nova type of beat that makes it just audacious enough to work. They really have fun with the guitar effects here, ensuring that more than any other track on the album, it’ll jump out at the listener – and perhaps to some listeners that’ll be for negative reasons, but I find its overall weirdness quite amusing, actually. This track is one of the few on the album where I really feel like they did something risky and it paid off.
6. So Good
The one track where Emma gets a lead vocal all to herself leans hard on a disco/rock vibe, to the point where the chorus constantly hammering on a single chord might seem incredibly dull and simplistic, if not for the inventive way that her melodic bass line danced all around it. Russell’s lyrics seem to be mostly cynical on the subject of relationships, and Emma’s are quite a contrast, not hiding anything behind metaphor or irony as she admits she was pretty most a down-out-and loser until someone came along and turned her life around. It’s simplistic as hell in the lyrics department, but musically, it’s a pitch perfect approximation of retro dance music by a three-piece rock band. It’s actually one of my favorite songs by the band so far.
7. This Is My Fix
Himalayan stumbled in its back half because it got suddenly down-tempo and stayed there for too long, making the songs threaten to collapse under their own weight. While By Default keeps things relatively up-tempo until the very end, it too sees a dropoff in quality right past the halfway mark, thanks to this lumbering brute of a song that manages to just stomp its way along for what feels like an eternity (it’s actually just under four minutes) without anything to offer beyond a bland melody, muddy and dull guitar riffs, and what might just be the stupidest lyric on the album. Normally I try not to punish an otherwise enjoyable song for a single idiotic line, but the phrase “Bang your head on the bottom of the ocean” is unavoidable here, due to Russell’s insistence on repeating it again and again as the song stomps its way into an entirely forgettable coda that does climactic to make the repetition worthwhile. A silly or meaningless line like that would be fine if it just slipped by in a verse and wasn’t the focal point of a song. But I’m so irritated with it that I have absolutely zero interest in whatever the hell this song is trying to say in the lead-up to it.
8. Little Mamma
Now we’re getting to the point where Russell’s usual “woman done me wrong” shtick starts to wear thin. Others have complained about some of Band of Skulls’ lyrics having sexist overtones, and given earlier songs like “Tropical Disease” that I’ve admitted to enjoying, I can see how some might interpret it that way, but I think there’s a difference between saying one particular woman has been a scourge on a man’s life, and extrapolating that all of them are. Still, I tend to get super-uncomfortable when names that are meant for parent/child relationships wind up as pet names for troubled lovers in a song that seeks to put one in her place, and that’s exactly the effect I get from “Don’t you ever treat me like that, little mamma.” Just, ewww. Who calls his girlfriend “mamma” in the first place? As much as I want to hate this song for the skeevy vibe I get from it, I have to admit there’s some excellent use of dissonance in the bridge’s guitar breakdown. So basically when no one’s singing, I like it. But that’s like a third of the song, maybe.
Some reasonably noisy, scream-y guitar effects are the most memorable thing here as well. Otherwise, the tempo is starting to dip to the point where it’s a bit monotonous, despite the slow-burn to a white-hot guitar climax that they’re trying to pull off. I suppose it’s fitting for a song that turns a lyrical corner from the cynicism of the previous one and finds a couple trying to stoke the dying embers of their relationship. So I have nothing to object to in the lyrics here. But nothing to get really excited about, either. It serves a purely functional purpose, as a bit of a cool-down from the annoyed tirade that came before it.
10. In Love By Default
While I mocked the album title in my intro, I do feel that the title track actually gives it a bit more purpose, basically pointing how how a person can seem to bounce in and out of relationships because it’s socially expected of them to be always dating someone. I actually feel like there’s something worth interpreting in the fun, syncopated wordplay here – the song’s groove is fairly laid back but has just the right amount of spring to its step, and that helps the chorus to really land when Russell makes the point that this person is just sort of blindly following the crowd and really has no idea what they want for themselves. In the middle of the song, the band does something that they used to do a bit more on their older albums, completely changing up the tempo for a fun little breakdown, in this case bringing back a hint of the disco vibe from “So Good”. Unfortunately there’s no real weight to it. It’s just an excuse to sing “Yeah, yeah, yeah” a lot and jam for a bit before they abruptly break back into the slower rhythm heard earlier in the song. They’re self-aware here, referring to that final section as an “encore” in the actual lyrics of the song, and I’m willing to bet they designed this as a set closer for their live shows. It’s a bright spot in the album’s back half for changing things up right when I was starting to lose hope in their ability to do so, but it unfortunately highlights the stubborn straightforwardness of a lot of the tracks surrounding it.
This is a fun little groove, and really there’s not much more to it than that. I like how it breaks in suddenly with another danceable pairing of guitar and bass licks, and Russell is almost whispering some of the lyrics, making it an interesting balance between the band’s more upbeat side and their more sinister one. The chorus, which once again highlights Emma’s vocals, unfortunately finds her doing nothing but singing melodic “Ah”s while Russell whisper-snarls “Singin’!” as a counterpoint. It’s catchy, but they’ve apparently stopped bothering even putting up a pretense of wanting to communicate anything meaningful. Honestly, you could strip out the lyrics, leave in Emma’s wordless vocals, and have Russell fool around on the guitar a bit more prominently instead of trying to sing anything, and this would probably be a better song. I’m imagining it emerged from a jam session where they were basically doing something like that, so trying to turn it into a full-fledged song after the fact was probably where they went wrong.
While Himalayan ended with a much mellower song, I actually thought that “Get Yourself Together” was a highlight on that album due to its melodic richness. Here, when Band of Skulls mellows out at the end of the record, the result is just about as bland as bland gets. You can tell from the generic title that they had mentally checked out at this point. The slow, chunky, even-keeled drum beat and one-note bass line do absolutely zip for me, and the guitar may as well have sat this song out, for all it contributes. It just feels like bare rhythm tied to a blah melody. The absolutely uninspiring lyric “I’ll give you everything in the word/If you were my girl” sounds like something you’d hear in a pandering attempt at a pop crossover hit, but this isn’t even slightly catchy, so if you were to take these exact same lyrics and jam them into an overproduced Justin Bieber track, honestly the results might actually be better. This is just terrible.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Black Magic $1.75
Back of Beyond $1.25
Tropical Disease $1.50
So Good $1.75
This Is My Fix $0
Little Mamma $.50
In Love By Default $1.25
Russell Marsden: Vocals, guitars
Emma Richardson: Vocals, bass
Matt Hayward: Drums
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