Someone once told me you’re either a Rolling Stones or a Beatles fan. Which is to say, you love either kick-ass rock and roll swagger or earnest displays of pop intricacy. As far as I can tell, no one’s imposed this limitation on UK rockers The Cribs. The trio’s fifth album, In the Belly of the Brazen Bull, fuses the opposing dichotomies, offering heavy noise and bravado alongside emotional vulnerability to satisfy anyone on the rock and roll spectrum.
The album’s first half is a random concoction of garage and punk themes that, while not overly profound, at least entertains. “Come On, Be A No One” is prototypical Cribs, a sloppy anthem for losers everywhere built on the back of a polite English snarl and the concussion of an oversized guitar-bass combo. “Chi-Town” is equally anthemic, only more complex, with the instrumentation swirling and shifting into early, less artsy post-punk fury. Coupled with “fun times” lyricism, it’ll kick-start the dancing regardless of your intellectual pursuits.
“Anna” deserves attention for its low-key romanticism and its belying depth. Musically, there are two competing components: the energy facilitated by the jangly beat and an undercurrent of more sinister intentions and noises. The band rides the line brilliantly, reflecting the chaos in so many young men’s hearts, which reaches a desperate apex by the line, “I’m not yet who I wanna be/So help me to change.”
While the first half lacks long-lasting influence, it effectively buffers the second half’s movements of operatic proportions. Movement #1 features the one-two punch of “Back to the Bolthole”/”I Should Have Helped”. Where “Anna” held back in intensity, “Bolthole” tears off the chains, trudging forward like a haze-metal colossus, each strum of the psych-rock guitar a massive footstep. Hanging in the air, balancing the harsh vibe, is a vintage synth line that lends an air of forlorn. Dichotomy thus set, the track/giant continues its great roar, each element intensifying into a truly disorientating cry.
Following the devastation, “I Should Have Helped” enters like a lonely minstrel recalling the havoc. Backed by a folk-y strum and bittersweet harmonies, the band achieves the most simple and profound lyricism of the record (“When a loved one dies, you look at the sky in a different way/But that’s OK/Cause perfect things can still break your heart”). Alone, it’s touching and sweet; as a follow-up to “Bolthole”, it generates the kind of heartache that can be nauseating. The key is how interconnected the sentiments of both songs are, linked together with the subtlety of a great author.
Less emotionally impactful, the second movement focuses on sonic intricacy. The uber psych-y “Stalagmites”‘s precise beam of militaristic drumming reins in a guitar akin to a rebellious teen. Toward the end, the whole relationship breaks down, but from that chaos emerges the Zen-like “Like a Gift Giver”. Structurally similar, it eschews the sense of order for a swelling sense of freedom by unifying the instrumentation under a banner of groovy peace. Once the world around it has leveled out, it splits the difference completely and transforms suddenly into “Butterflies”. The act of balancing both dichotomies seems fairly easy, resulting in saccharine vocals with New Wave guitars and drums marching together in righteous glory toward arena rock bliss.
What’s so vital about this particular movement is that it demonstrates the band’s ability as pure sound-crafters. Much of their back catalog focuses on forging lyrical displays of immaturity and sweet garage rock grooves. With this three-headed animal, they’ve cut out the former for pristine musicianship that presents feelings and situations with as much clarity and insight as any clever line.
Despite varying approaches, both movements unite in the album closer/piece de resistance “Arena Rock Encore with Full Cast”. An air of theatricality, complete with Broadway-esque choral vocals, is just as prominent as the arena rock-ready guitar solos and random strands of noise and feedback. Unceasing joyous-ness aside, its core message makes it the perfect closer.
Several times, the band proclaims, “Sorry that it’s taken years/We were victims of our own ideas”, as if to say they’ve at last arrived at something they’re proud of. After years of fun yet under-constructed output (represented by the first half) they’re now onto a sound (the second half) that has overcome its self-created weaknesses to achieve something that exemplifies who they are as a band and their future aspirations. Along the way, in gaining that maturity, they’ve never lost the brashness or spontaneity. With that kind of well-rounded pedigree, you don’t ever need to be the Stones or the Beatles. You can be just as proud being The Cribs.
Essential Tracks: “Come On, Be A No One”, “Anna”, and tracks #9-14