IT MUST BE hard getting it all together way down in Invercargill. As a young musician, in a city of a few million like Auckland, there’s going to be a pool of like-minded souls with similar aesthetics – it’s just a matter of finding them. Aesthetics have always been all-important to young men with guitars, although having a keen (or cool) sense of aesthetics has never been a guarantee of musical or artistic quality.
The Sparrow Thieves are an interesting case in point, because what they do has a lot going for it; it’s just that aesthetically, they’re a bit all over the show. Their press release mentions “indie/alternative” bands like Pink Floyd, The Doors, MGMT, Kings Of Leon and Modest Mouse as chief influences, but while that list is a key indicator of the group’s aesthetic confusion, they sound like none of them.
What they do sound like is the acclaimed 1980s Brisbane band, The Go-betweens, and vocalist Nick McGrath even has a similarly talk-sing style to that of Robert Forster. Except that The Go-betweens fitted comfortably in the alternative, folk-rock strum aesthetic that was so beloved of some of the Flying Nun crowd, especially Christchurch group The Bats, whose strum/drone structures also share something with The Sparrow Thieves.
But The Go-betweens (or The Bats, for that matter) would never have allowed the fruity deviations that The Sparrow Thieves indulge in: things like guitar solos, dramatic drum fills, and every now and then, a bit of anthem-style post punk.
In fact, the opening track, ‘Golden Age Of The Gas Station’, comes on like Big Country guy Stuart Adamson’s early band, The Skids, with a little taste of early U2: you know, the choppy guitars, and choruses that desperately want to be anthems. Examine the song and it reveals itself as stylistically schizophrenic, with the bridge that jangles away like The Bats, but which resolves itself on the chorus with a sound that’s redolent of another post-punk band, Magazine.
There are 11 songs (12, if you include the false ending and the hidden track at the end) and while most of them rattle and hum away like an indie folk-rock group, each song contains certain elements that are like alien cluster bombs that don’t really belong, but do add enormously to the musical variety: the sarcastic bolero a-go-go rhythms of end-of-the-world scenario, ‘The Right Place’, the heavy bass/drums groove on their reflection on ancient history, ‘Azrael Silene’, the piano solo and swinging drums on ‘Black Of The Night’.
Like I said, there’s a lot going for The Sparrow Thieves, and their album debut, Lethargic Caffeine, is a nice package with a nice package. That is, the music is well thought-through and memorable, the lyrics are concise and interesting without having quite the gravitas of the artistic and literary allusions of The Go-betweens, and the artwork brings it all together with a movie theme.
While a band like The Go-betweens (or The Bats, for that matter) might be horrified at their easy exploitation of musical mannerisms that would have been called unforgivably “rockist” or “pub-rock” in the 1980s, it’s not that that matters so much as the fact that, as promising as The Sparrow Thieves are, I’m just not sure if all its members really want to be in the same band, playing the same sort of music. Still, that’s a relatively minor flaw on a record that I’d happily slam on the platter and play a few more times. And these days, that’s quite a compliment. [Oh, it’s available as a download from Bandcamp, and physically from “boutique” stores]. GARY STEEL
Music Rating = 3.5/5
Sound Rating = 3.5/5