Artist: Band of Skulls
Album: Love Is All You Love
In Brief: Precisely zero wheels are reinvented on Band of Skulls’ fifth album. A decade into their discography, they’ve settled into a comfortable and largely predictable groove, trotting out their brand of garage band swagger with occasional dance-rock tendencies for a short but tight ten-song set. It’s fun stuff, with less filler than their last couple albums, but don’t go into it expecting anything even remotely deep.
The last few reviews I wrote were really analysis-heavy. Getting to dig deep into that kind of stuff is why I love writing in the first place, but at times, the fear that I might be missing something important in the lyrics or the arrangement of a particular song can cause the act of writing those more analytical reviews to take a lot out of me. So sometimes it’s fun to unwind with a record that I do genuinely enjoy, but that doesn’t take a ton of brainpower for it to click with me on a gut level. Band of Skulls, a three-piece indie/garage rock outfit from the UK, have been that kind of band for me ever since I first discovered them in 2013. Their style is generally no-nonsense rock & roll, sometimes surprising me with what they can come up with using the raw ingredients of a simple drum kit, electric guitar, and bass, and at other times hooking me with a sweet earworm as they lean unapologetically on more of a dance-oriented sound. It’s not an identity that makes them stand out a whole lot among a glut of similar bands trying to get noticed in a crowded scene, but they do it will, and it’s the kind of thing that I figure is probably best enjoyed in a live setting, which is where I first experienced their music. Like most of their past work, their 2019 album Love Is All You Love doesn’t take the band in any startling new directions, but it feels like a darn good rehearsal for what I’m willing to bet would be a killer live set (with a few breaks in the back half for mellower material that I’ll admit is more interestingly textured than I had initially given it credit for). Sometimes I just need a short burst of energy like that to help get me through an afternoon slump at work or a segment of a long drive when I’m feeling a bit drowsy. Band of Skulls doesn’t hit home runs with every track, but their albums tend to have enough highlights to keep me coming back to cherry-pick more and more favorites.
Of course, there’s a downside to their “Keep it simple, stupid” ethos, and generally that means that when a song doesn’t have a killer hook, or in the inevitable stretches on each album where they try to go a little mellower, those sections can be a bit of a chore to get through. 2014’s Himalayan, while it remains my favorite album of theirs so far, had some difficult stretches like this, and most of the back half of 2016’s By Default, while it was a leaner album overall, was guilty of feeling like “more of the same”. Love Is All You Love mostly skirts the issue by keeping it to a tight ten tracks, with a few slower ones in the album’s dead center, but not belaboring the point like the longer ballads on Himalayan did, and not screwing up the pacing by constantly jumping back and forth like 2012’s Sweet Sour did. Occasionally changing up the vocals by letting bassist Emma Richardson steal the mic away from guitarist and lead singer Russell Marsden helps as well. I wouldn’t call this a great album, or even really a collection of songs that feels like they all belong together, but I keep putting it back on, so if nothing else, it means that the shortcomings are less of an annoyance than they’ve ever been for this band.
As you might gather from the redundant title, Love Is All You Love isn’t a particularly profound album, either. I feel like Band of Skulls tries to have something worthwhile to say occasionally, and I think there were a few tracks on Sweet Sour and Himalayan where they actually pulled this off, but for the most part I think lyrics are just an excuse to have something to sing along to while you’re enjoying the groove and the sweet guitar licks. I feel like the band’s heart is generally in the right place, in terms of some of their songs being playfully confrontational or even braggadocious, while others have more of a chill, uplifting, “Can’t we all get along?” sort of vibe. The mellower songs, while occasionally they can be interestingly textured, generally don’t feel like a compelling enough invitation for me to put all that much effort into deciphering their meanings (though I guess for the sake of the review, I’ll give it the old college try). The bottom line is, if you demand high-quality, literate lyrics from your indie rockers, Band of Skulls isn’t gonna be for you, but if you’re OK with a little style over substance for the sake of blowing off some steam… then trust me, you could do a lot worse than these guys.
Ready for some big, dumb fun? This is one of those songs that is just so stupidly simple in its concept, and yet so badass in its execution, that my brain skips right past the dumb parts I want to criticize and just has to admit, “Yeah, this is pretty cool.” With the organ-like keyboard sound that opens it up, the bouncy synth bass riff, and one hell of a mean beat, it’s almost like the band wanted this silly song to be their very own “Thriller”. It doesn’t come anywhere close to that level of classic camp, especially since the spoken-word lyrics (what I can understand of them, anyway) seem to be chosen less for direct meaning and more for how satisfyingly the syllables roll off the tongue, culminating in a chorus that merely repeats “So carnivorous, ivorous, ivorous, ivorous…” until the hook has been bludgeoned into your skull. Throw in some howling wolf sounds during the bridge (right after a brief drum fill breakdown where the band reminds you this is actually happening live), and you’ve got a song that deserves a retro-futuristic, Teen Wolf-inspired music video way more than whichever song Muse made one for. (Tangent: I really should know which song I’m referring to here, as I’ve seen the Muse video in question, but the convoluted interconnected storylines of all their recent videos make it far too easy to forget which subplot went with which song. End of tangent.)
2. That’s My Trouble
To me, this song is Band of Skulls stripped down to their most basic elements. The drums, guitar and bass are very economical, leaving a lot of space in between the raw rhythms and riffs, which I guess is why the band still invites comparisons to The Black Keys from time to time. It’s not a terribly innovative style at this point, but I do like the jerky, stuttering motion of this one. Russell and Emma are actually singing rather than just speaking or chanting here (though I guess the verse, which finds the lead guitar following the vocal line almost exactly, is a bit on the “talky” side, as a lot of theirs are), though strangely enough I tend to see this song as very “black and white” and “Carnivorous” as much more colorful by comparison, probably because the repetitive chorus doesn’t stick as well this time around. Some of Russell’s sassy lyrics about someone he’s in love with, but that he knows is trouble and is urging to leave before she gets the better of him, are amusing, but as usual, I find myself caring way more about the style of this song than the substance.
3. Love Is All You Love
I’m just gonna come out and say it – the title track is a dud. I tried not to judge from the moronic title, even giving it the benefit of the doubt, thinking maybe they’d manage to say something semi-profound about how we tend to get confused between actually falling in love, and a state of infatuation with the mere idea of love. If the lyrics are trying to make that, or any other salient point, they’re missing the mark due to Russell’s attempts to sound cocky and confrontational against way too limp and unassuming of a mid-tempo backbeat for it to work. And regarding the lyrics… hoo boy, I don’t know what’s worse, his creepy breathing in the verse one that is supposed to sound like the cough he references in the first line, or his pronunciation of the word “little” as “wittle” in verse two. Throw yet another repetitive chorus and some ill-advised “Woo!”s and “Yeah!”s in there to act as a weak hook (seriously, dude, stop trying to be your own hype man, you’re very bad at it), and you’ve got yourself a thoroughly unremarkable track to name your album after. Not outright bad, but definitely enough of a flop to kill the anthemic party vibe that I’m guessing they were trying to go for. What the hell was even the point here?
4. Not the Kind of Nothing I Know
I like it when a band with two vocalists actually gives them the chance to play off of each other. So while I’m not sure how I feel about the snippy tone of both Emma and Russell’s speak-singing in this song’s verses, it is fun to hear them trading smart-assed barbs back and forth. I imagine this as some sort of a weird dance between two people who are mildly infatuated with one another despite also being kind of annoyed with each other. It’s once again set to a rather minimalist garage rock groove that doesn’t need to bother with using riffs as a counterpoint to the vocal melody, when simply aping that vocal melody will do. While the title (and their over-reliance on repeating it as a chorus hook) doesn’t land quite as cleverly as they seem to want it to, I am amused at the notion of this love/hate relationship landing on a truce where the two are like, “Eh, I guess you’re good enough because it’s not like I’ve got anything else going on right now”, which will probably lead to some regrets and a walk of shame the next morning.
5. Cool Your Battles
The album’s first single struck me as stubbornly middle of the road the first few times I heard it. the strong guitar riffs are there, the bass is nice and meaty, and the drummer (I’m not even sure who this is, as their longtime drummer Matt Hayward left the band in 2017) even pulls off some slick cymbal rolls in the chorus, making it one of the album’s more memorable tracks from a percussion standpoint. But the pace of it feels held back when the band really could have let it rip, as if they needed to play it less rambunctious and more melodic for the sake of fitting into a wide range of curated playlists without being too jarring. (That’s the closest equivalent I can think of to being “radio-friendly” for indie rock bands who have no real shot at mainstream radio, I guess.) The lyrics want so badly to be taken seriously, asking us where all the peace and love is, and begging us in the chorus, “Cool your battles/Stop the hating/All that matters/Will be waiting for you.” First off, I don’t think I can take the phrase “Stop the hating” seriously after what feels like a solid decade of Taylor Swift making memes that masquerade as music while obsessing about all the haters she supposedly doesn’t care about. Second, when you tell me “everything” is waiting for me – really, all of it, being held up just for poor little old me? – that doesn’t make me think of peace and love and enlightenment, it makes me think you’re trying to sell me theme park tickets or a timeshare or something. So yeah, not brilliant lyrics, and they’re not even dumb in a fun way like “Carnivorous” was. When that last “You” extends into a shimmying “Ooh-ooh, ooh, ooh” hook, though? Pure indie pop magic. God, I can’t get it out of my head! I feel massively guilty for being that easy to please, but I think that wordless hook encapsulates Band of Skulls in a nutshell – they’re at their most delightfully entertaining when they’re not trying particularly hard to say anything.
6. Sound of You
I’ll give the band some credit for surprising me with the record’s most low-key track. It’s quite delicately textured, and there’s a bit of darkness to it – the soft thump of the drums and the gentle, shimmering guitars make it feel like a faintly beating heart is just starting to pump some life back into a body that was on the brink of shutting down for good. Emma gets to sing lead here, and it’s a welcome change of pace – certainly not something I’d recognize as Band of Skulls if I were to hear it out of context, but there’s a very intimate, primal need being expressed in the lyrics that I think does relate it back to their usual M.O. She’s been caught off guard by someone she’s fallen so hard for that she wants to listen closely, head against their chest, to hear each sound their heart makes. It’s interesting to hear this expressed so delicately, like she’s holding them up as a precious stone she’s fascinated to view from all sides, backing off quite a bit from the band’s usual sweaty swagger. There are still some problems here – a rather inert chorus that turns out to be the weakest element of the song, for one – but this is certainly a much better way to ease in to the band’s mellower side than we’ve gotten in side two of some of their past records.
7. Thanks a Lot
Russell takes his turn at a mellower song here, and it comes out sounding rather indecisive. The mechanical synth bloops and muted electric guitar feel like they might be building up to something, positioning this song as the recovery from the dark doldrums before we get back into the up-tempo stuff. But it never really seems to take off, despite the live drums and electric guitar getting noticeably louder as the chorus tries to build up some energy. The lyrics make it seem like he’s just listlessly waiting around for someone he’s lost but still has feelings for, repeatedly asking, “Give me a sign” in the hopes that she might be coming back around. This doesn’t really play out with a lot of confidence (despite the assurance in the lyrics that she’s got nowhere else to go), or with a lot of fear and trepidation. Some nice vocal harmonies from Emma perk things up a little bit here and there, but for me this is still the dullest track on the album.
8. We’re Alive
I was sort of dreading hearing the full album after my initial lackluster response to “Cool Your Battles”, but the follow-up single gradually turned me around. At first, this one also seems like its energy level has been watered down a bit for the sake of accessibility – the guitar riffs chug along rather limply, there’s a strong backbeat but it doesn’t have the usual sense of spontaneity that I’d expect from a feistier Band of Skulls track. But it’s a strong showing for Russell and Emma as a vocal tag team, as they sing in tandem on the verse and then once again play off of each other in the chorus, as she takes on most of the melodic lines while he interjects some playful “come on, come on”s that work a lot better than I’d have expected just reading the lyrics on paper. I’m actually kind of surprised at how the lyrics manage to communicate both hope and intrigue at the same time – when I’m not listening to bands that advertise themselves as Christian, a line like “Without love, without faith, we are nothing” is definitely gonna jump out at me, especially when I have to puzzle over the following line, “We’re the first to leave and the last ones to arrive”. The chorus finds its way to a declaration that “It’s our future, so don’t you get in our way”, and it almost feels like these are the words of a couple trying to persuade each other not to second-guess the good thing they’ve got going, even if they have no guarantees it’s gonna last forever. I guess it hits me in a sentimental spot, while also knowing how to maximize its dynamic range so that the workmanlike rhythm section you hear at the beginning can eventually build up to something a lot punchier by the time the bridge rolls around, even though they’re really just repeating the chorus at varying levels of volume. This one might not hold a candle to Sweet Sour‘s “Wanderluster” or any of my favorites from Himalayan, but it leaves more of an impression than any of the tracks I considered highlights on By Default, for sure.
9. Speed of Light
More sweet cymbal rolls here – I’m getting a little bit of a U2 vibe, circa The Unforgettable Fire, from this one. This is another one of those tracks that seems mellower in comparison to the harder-hitting stuff, but it gradually snuck up on me, and now I appreciate how it builds up around the drums and bass and then brings in the electric guitar and some strong male/female vocal harmonies for a bit of a sneak attack. The lyrics might not impress much with their garden-variety fight/night/light rhymes, nor do they ever really explain what it means that “Tonight, we’re the speed of light”. It’s more of a mood song that resists being conveniently sorted into the “rocker”, “ballad”, or “anthem” categories, but I rather like it despite being not entirely sure what to do with it.
First time I listened to this record, I wasn’t paying close attention to the track listing, so I didn’t realize I was already at track eight when “We’re Alive” showed up, and that the album was actually set to wind down after two more tracks. This one doesn’t feel like an album closer, because it’s a glammed-up dance-rock workout with a slick bass line and some vaguely empowering lyrics about an independent woman headed out to hit the clubs and make the most of her life despite the meager living she’s been able to eke out. Nothing terribly deep beyond that archetype, but it gives the band an excuse to play with funk and disco tropes a little more than they usually would. I may not think it makes sense as an album closer, but this would be a pretty solid set closer, and at this point I figure that’s the main reason Band of Skulls makes albums – less as end-to-end listening experiences, more as an excuse to expand their repertoire of fun songs to play live. So this’ll likely be the song that rings in your ears as you’re driving home from one of their shows.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
That’s My Trouble $1
Love Is All You Love $0
Not the Kind of Nothing I Know $.75
Cool Your Battles $1.25
Sound of You $1
Thanks a Lot $0
We’re Alive $1.50
Speed of Light $1.25
Russell Marsden: Vocals, guitars
Emma Richardson: Vocals, bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: