Unpretentious, New UK Wave (a term I’ll coin here – thanks) trio The Virginmarys released their debut album on 3 February. In the habit of greedily grabbing whatever free stuff I can lay my hands on, I downloaded the iTunes featured freebie of that fateful, recent week and had their music promptly infect my mind, spirit and soul. If that sounds like the beginning of an unreasoned and emotional fan-rant, it almost is, but it’s not without reason.
Let’s back up. The Virginmarys, according to their scant website’s overly effusive bio (that frankly seems to miss the point, but – okay), is three young fellows from a suburb north of the England’s “second city”, Manchester. They are Ally Dickaty on guitar and lead vocals, Matt Rose on bass and vocals and Danny Dolan on drums and vocals.
Looking at the stills on the band’s website, I have to say that Ally Dikaty’s arms are huge, so either he’s laying bricks as a day job or he plays a lot, and I believe it’s the latter. His guitar work is tight, direct and dynamic, bluesy in a non-referential way. In fact, it’s often easy to hear what a player’s Big Love in music was as it informs the playing directly, with quotes and sounds coming right off the subject idol’s tracks. Listen to Fleet Foxes and you will hear Yes, for instance. It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? But that’s not the case here. His playing is his own and is just right at the right time in any given track. On Ends Don’t Mend, the last King of Conflict album track (with a bonus – find out on your own), his guitar drives the track from the start, ominous as his vocals, driving the tune tensely forward, with in-the-pocket playing from his bandmates. As the song slips past exposition, the track opens up into a nearly loungy tableau where the dynamics shift radically and beautifully, with honest and lyrical solo playing by Dickaty that directly parallels the incredible timbral range of his voice, from smooth and direct to nearly out-of-control larynx-destruction.
Matt Rose’s bass comes through right from the start on Dead Man’s Shoes, the first, and apparently title, track on the album. His tone is straight-through and not-quite Fender Precision or Rickenbacker. Not twangy, not round, but present. It pops up in the holes, punctuating the rhythm while supporting the guitar lines. And his playing is damnedly precise, which is a good thing in such a lush songscape.
It would be inevitable to compare Danny Dolan to . . . to . . . okay: I can’t really compare him to anyone. He swings from tight and brusque to full-out, but well-clocked abandon on Portrait of Red to melodious playing on Bang Bang Bang, alternatively playing off and outlining the guitar. Dolan achieves a great deal of sound from a minimal kit and exploits the full dynamic range of those tools on this record. He’s not a simply timekeeper and keeps things very interesting in every inch of the album.
Though Ally Dickaty is the voice of the band, The Virginmarys come across as a collaborative group, not just as a frontman with incidental support from his mates. This is a honed sound derived from long interaction that would most certainly be different if any player were substituted. They play as a team, filling all the spaces that need filling with just the sound they mean to employ, with just the right rhythm in just the right way and just the right moments.
None of the songs on this album are simple or simplistic. There are conversational, mostly, filled with tales and banter, like a conversation with that serious guy you went to college with, over a beer. If there’s anger and sadness, as in Just A Ride, it’s justified and within bounds, though the expression colours past those edges, making the raw emotion ever more real. Portrait In Red’s lust is flirtatious and not at all rape-y. Out Of Mind says just what you’d say to your pals after work on a Friday night with the tacit nod that although it might be satisfying to burn something to the ground, you’re just not going to do it, or maybe you will, but just not right now, and you’re not going to be quiet about it, either. My Little Girl is a timeless blues track that tells us everything about what the singer wants in his girl and gets, because of the kind of man he is. “Black boots, white hair / good girls’ nightmare” telegraphs that that Mr. and Ms. are going to be a team tonight, no matter what, and he admires her badness, in the best Blues tradition. The rhythm figures seem straightforward, but with plenty of twists to keep each track listenable time and again. There are also three “stripped” recordings, Lost Weekend, Bang Bang Bang and the terribly honest and haunting Just A Ride.
Produced by Toby Jepson, previously of GUN and Little Angels, the sound of the album is club-y and direct, with no apparent dicking around in the rack with clever effects. The album is produced in such a way that the whole truth that the band can speak is spoken and there’s no doubt in my mind that the listener treated to the full-on live performance wouldn’t miss that power in this album. It wouldn’t be fair to say that it’s minimalist since it’s clearly crafted and clean. It’s like an excellent photograph that may have been retouched, but you’d never know it by looking at it.
It’s serious music that will haunt you or otherwise engage you. There are no hooks without an intended and honest purpose. Unapologetic emotion there for you to not only hear, but to feel. The lyrics are insistently and instantly memorable but not trite and are absent any form of gimmick. The album is not just a collection of songs, but more a book of poems, both of words and of tone, taken separately or together and meaning something different in those contexts. King of Conflict and The Virginmarys are just impossible to purge as they’re saying the things you know are true in the way you wished you could say it.
King Of Conflict is available as a signed CD set (there are 15 tracks on the album), in an unsigned version and on iTunes and Amazon. The Virginmarys are playing in the U.S. with IAMDYNAMITE in the first quarter of this year (2013, since this is the internet, after all) and I’m going to see if they have discount tickets for Senior Citizens at Webster Hall. Don’t worry. I’ll stand at the back.