June 05, 2006

The Playwrights “English Self Storage”

Bristol band the Playwrights couldn't have asked for a better name, as the eight songs that comprise their sophomore album English Self Storage are among the most verbose I've ever heard. Guitarist Benjamin Shillabeer, the band's sole songwriter, is in love with words, and he crams as many of them as possible in his songs. It's a minor miracle that singer Aaron Dewey can get through most of the songs without awkwardly shoehorning words into the meters or totally strangling his melodies. Each Playwrights song is rich with enough imagery and analogy to fill a short story, which makes it a crying shame that English Self Storage doesn't come with a lyric sheet. You have to access the lyrics through the band's website, which can make things difficult for anyone who isn't near a computer when listening to the CD.

Most of the lyrics on English Self Storage lament the negative effects that industrialization and expansion can have on small-town lives and relationships. “The city's rise and the country's fall were the same event,” sings Dewey on opener “Why We've Become Invisible,” “and buried in the topsoil are bodies.” Succeeding track “Fear of Open Spaces” continues this theme in what shapes up to be the album's catchiest chorus: “There are panes of glass between you and me/Lead, brick, tile, electrical circuitry.” The lyrics of “Central Heating in the Summer Season” condemn vapid hipsters who fetishize irony and nostalgia: “The present is the past in new clothes, a fresh light. Dig deep...underneath, there's some bad blood, a few bad drugs and a real lack of anything.” Ironically, album closer “21st Century Kasper Hauser” finds Shillabeer complaining about being behind the cultural curve, about being “the last village to get connected...the last hippie to take acid.”

Musically, the first piece of critical shorthand that comes to mind would be “the Futureheads gone math-rock.” Every song is built from wandering bass lines, guitars that interlock and diverge every few seconds, and drums that navigate tricky time signatures without being flashy. None of the songs overstay their welcome, but they do tend to throw in extra bridges when one least expects them. Occasionally, the band wanders too far into prog-ville (see the beginning of “Movements Toward a Paperless Life,” which puts a rushed, half-spoken verse on top of a 10/8 grind), but they swiftly regain their footing with another strong hook that listeners can sing along to...if they take a deep breath beforehand, of course.

There's just as much going on in the music as there is in the lyrics, which is both a blessing and a curse. Such sensory overload makes English Self Storage the kind of record that demands repeated listens, but not everyone will be willing to meet this demand. Some critics have already dismissed the album as “pretentious, contrived dross,” which says more about those critics' attention span than it does about the quality of the music. The lyrics read well on paper, and the music is tuneful, rocking and challenging. When fused together, though, it can be a bit much to take in all at once. Perhaps the Playwrights would do well to apply some restraint on their next album...or, at the very least, include a lyric sheet. Until then, English Self Storage will suffice as a promising release that finds the band standing on the cusp of greatness.

Artist Website: www.theplaywrights.co.uk
Label Website: www.sinkandstove.co.uk

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