All Or Nothing

The Subways

Sire Records, 2008

http://www.thesubways.net

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/06/2008

When last we encountered the boy-girl-boy, brother-fiancee-brother British power trio The Subways, they were wringing every drop of sweat they could out of a set of frenetic, slightly adolescent punk-pop.  That was their 2006 debut Young For Eternity.

Two years and a potentially lethal breakup between guitarist/vocalist/lyricist Billy Lunn and bassist/vocalist Charlotte Cooper later, they’re back.  The obvious questions are: is the band still cohesive, how have they changed, and how does superstar producer Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Garbage) figure into the equation?

One thing’s apparent from the start; this trio has lost none of its Nirvana times Oasis melodic drive.  Lunn still brings the monster riffs and banshee screams, Cooper still plays the light melodic yin to his dark angsty yang, and younger bro Josh Morgan still smashes the skins like a cross between Dave Grohl and Keith Moon.

The principal difference between Young For Eternity and All Or Nothing suggests that Vig’s presence was huge.  The former album was a big shaggy dog of a debut, full of manic enthusiasm but uneven and often underdeveloped songs; the new disc has all the in-your-face impact of the first plus a lot more strategic discipline.  Songs are songs here, not just sketches trying to get by on a single sweet riff or line.

“Girls & Boys” encapsulates the whole album in its first 75 seconds.  Starting off with just Lunn’s guitar playing a jangly, melodic riff, the tune does a steady build until it explodes into an extended, bludgeoning riff that would make Jimmy Page smile.  Then it falls back to the melody, now supported by bass and drums, and Lunn and Cooper come in with dueling lead vocals, trading lines in a harmonic counterpoint that’s both compelling and absolutely brilliant.  The tune also immediately brings one of this album’s lyrical themes into focus – tension and anger and suspicion around male-female relationships.  (Okay let’s just say it: my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Rumours 2008, anyone?) 

“Kalifornia” is a second helping of aural nitroglycerin, dark aggro verses giving way to a sunny chorus over a retro Beatles backbeat.  “Alright” is a variation on same and then “Shake! Shake!” comes in and slams you up and down with its coiled-then-unleashed dynamics and sneering lyrics (“I'm calling out to you from the basement / I got a need to feel so I Shake! Shake! / You got a problem with me, say it / I couldn't care if we lose.”

“Move To Nelwyn” is the first place things ease up, as Lunn turns it down and Morgan and Cooper step up for a dreamy tune full of clever start-stop dynamics and lush harmonies.  There’s a distinctly British lilt to the melody here that also pops up in the strongly Oasis-influenced titled track.

“I Won’t Let You Down” brings back the slamming power chords and unrestrained aggression as Lunn cries “I won’t let you down / I won’t tear your heart out” until he can’t take the irony any more – clearly his lover has done both of these things to him -- and lets loose with an agonized scream.  “Turnaround” builds off of this fury to take the band squarely into punk territory, frenzied chords and unhinged vocals from Lunn offset only momentarily by Cooper’s complementary vocal lines.

The closing quartet of songs offers fresh variations on all of the above, with the standouts being the softer pair -- “Strawberry Blonde,” with its gentle, spacious build and Beatlesque harmonies (this should be a single), and “Lostboy” with its disarming melody line and vulnerable lyric (“I was a lostboy that was found / Drowning underwater / Smothered by the pressure / I was a lost toy now I'm found / You patched me back together / Sewing up the leather”).

There’s not a song over 3:40 here, but they don’t need to be; under Vig’s watchful eye the band has put together its most accomplished set of songs to date and polished them beautifully without losing any of their essential rawness or vitality.  Across the Atlantic, NME has already declared this “The best U.K. rock album of the year” -- a fairly bold statement considering there’s still plenty of year left -- but it's a hard sentiment to argue with.  I can’t think of another band this young that delivers such a potent combination of raw adrenaline and sheer musicality.  The right combination of brawn and melody is a knockout punch for a power-pop aficionado like me, and this one left me flat on the mat with eyes closed and a big smile.  The Subways have arrived -- all aboard!

Rating: A

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