As delightful as Hooton Tennis Club’s first album ‘Highest Point In Cliff Town’ was, there’s a sense that even just a year on it’d be hard for them to get away with duplication second time around; to attempt to replicate the organic, carefree spark that made their debut so immediately seductive would essentially undermine what made it so addictive in the first place.
Faced, perhaps, with a dilemma of direction, on their new record ‘Big Box of Chocolates’ the Wirral foursome have certainly progressed, although in four or five different directions at once. There’s still the familiar elastic bass-lines, subtle slows of concentration and the occasional cryptic lyrical touch to their sound to distinguish it as very much their own, yet the record veers from straight-faced ballads to frantic old-school rock ‘n’ roll via sweet, melodic pop songs and blasts of fuzz.
Each guise works in and of itself, and it’s only the plodding ‘Frostbitten In Fern Ditton’ that really feels like filler — a feat in itself given they’ve had just a year to come up with an entire record’s worth of new material. Further still, ‘Bootcut Jimmy The G’ is the only real hangover in terms of sound from their debut, a semi-obscure character study laden in leaping, choruses and gleeful turns of pace.
Conversely, rapid surf-rocker ‘Statue Of The Greatest Woman I Know’ is the biggest departure, a little by-numbers structurally but rescued by the band’s inherent magnetism, as is the frantic ‘Lazers Linda’, a straight up rock ‘n’ roller with a splash of howling mania. ‘Lauren I’m In Love’, meanwhile, is the band at their most charming; a sweet, infectious slice of pop with a perfect lilting kick.
Yet by far the most beguiling of Hooton Tennis Club’s new twists is when they play it completely straight, allowing the honest, emotive edge that was always buried beneath their slacker aesthetic to take centre stage. It’s hinted at by fierce, pounding opener ‘Growing Concerns’, a driving track tempered in its gravitas only by a brief spoken-word vignette about the greatest mountain walk in west Transylvania. The propulsive ‘Bad Dream (Breakdown on St. George’s Mount)’ and ‘O Man, Wont You Melt Me?’ take things further, the latter boasting blistering thuds of fuzz as the precursor to an candidly anthemic chorus that would until now feel uncharacteristic.
If there’s a criticism to be made about ‘Big Box Of Chocolates’, it’s that while every track works on its own, often a song has a tendency to knock the course of the album as a whole off centre by contradicting its predecessor. It’s a cliché, but the record feels very much transitional. There is, however, one moment where the group’s progression clicks into perfect place — on lead single ‘Katy-Anne Bellis', a song that combines a powerful drive of rhythm, an earnest air of melancholia and a good old-fashioned alt-pop chorus for what might well be their finest track yet.
Words: Patrick Clarke
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