One of the curiosities of modern pop’s landscape is that no one knows any longer how to measure success. An artist can be a huge live draw, but make no impact on the charts; they can be consistent chart-toppers but minnows among the streamers; they can stream by the bazillion, but have no live following to speak of. The metrics of success are so unrelated to each other that anyone can prove anything these days: any band can be the biggest young band in Britain right now.
Yard Act are one of those biggest young bands in Britain. Their debut album was a No. 2 hit at the start of this month. Properly big, right? Well, no, perhaps not. For one, it stayed in the chart for only two weeks. If you look at the streaming stats, Yard Act’s biggest track has been played on Spotify a little over a million times, which is nothing: around a third as much as a single that entered the chart at No. 22 last week. And the first night of their UK tour was at the 700-capacity Village Underground, rather than one of the big halls.
On one level, the notion that Yard Act might be the biggest young band in Britain is plainly ridiculous, despite that album coming out on a major label, Island. What they play is the kind of thing that was once a staple of the John Peel show: James Smith speaks his lyrics (which sound good — rhythmic and punchy and full of unexpected words — but look less interesting on a page); behind him, bass and drums churn away, while Sam Shjipstone plays guitar in the manner known to music writers since time immemorial as ‘angular’, which actually means ‘has listened to a Captain Beefheart album’. This is not the kind of music, historically, that results in its makers buying stately homes, albeit Yard Act have actual hooks in their songs. (As a side note, consider how depressing it is that the buzz band of 2022 sound as though they have been transplanted from 1982. In terms of time elapsed, it’s as if the groups of 1982 had been trying to sound like the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.)
At the Village Underground, Smith was the ostensible star of the show. He came on, to cheers, a few minutes after the rest of the group (that’s the kind of thing instrumentalists in a band come to hate, especially if it mutates into a case of full-blown lead singer syndrome). He talked between songs. And talked and talked. He even noted that he’d been warned: ‘Don’t go off piste, because all the reviewers are in.’ Going off piste is fine, if there are views. But he kept going off piste into dead ends, notably when he invited a young woman on stage for some audience participation, which she took to be an invitation to say she loved Sonic Youth and to recite the lyrics to ‘Cherry Bomb’ by the Runaways, which was a fine way to kill the encore.
Shjipstone was the actual star, though. At times you could trace his roots back through another Leeds band, Gang of Four, back to the mutant R&B of Wilko Johnson. At others, on ‘Tall Poppies’, for example, he played glorious, arcing lines that brought to mind Peter Buck of R.E.M. Clearly, making his guitar sound like a headache is not the limit of his abilities: he’s reason enough to suspect Yard Act might still be around come the second album.
Wolf Alice have gone from being a generic alternative band scraping around the club circuit to a sleek pop-rock band who headline festivals and fill the big rooms. Their third album, Blue Weekend, was the unmistakeable sound of a group staking a claim. You could hear the growth in the difference between two songs: the old single ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’ (better than its title) was grunge-by-numbers — exciting enough, but a caricature — whereas ‘Delicious Things’, from the new album — a huge great sighing swoon about being physically and emotionally displaced to Los Angeles — is the kind of song you can build a career off.
They also — because it’s never all about the music — look great. Ellie Rowsell, the singer, has become a commanding frontperson: not fussy, but charismatic in a slightly distant way. Their guitarist Joff Oddie — a name, let’s be honest, that marks Wolf Alice as a band who didn’t have to pursue pop stardom to escape the estates, unless by estates we mean Burghley or Chatsworth — threw shapes with remarkable vigour, even if his rather excellent suit and sensible hair meant he had the air of the CFO of a really go-ahead small airline cutting loose at Rock Fantasy Camp. Wolf Alice hold a lesson for Yard Act. Island did not sign Yard Act because they love all the other bands in the wave of groups who speak their lyrics (yes, indie Sprechgesang is a thing right now), but because they’ve got hooks. Now, as Wolf Alice did, they have to sharpen those hooks until the barbs won’t let go.
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