If London is the bedrock of European punk, then the district of Brixton is its spiritual center. With a heritage stretching from The Clash to Fat White Family and beyond, it’s an area long-marked by diversity, political unrest, squat culture and, more recently, gentrification, giving it an infamous reputation as a creative hub and a kind of haven for misfits. It’s from Brixton’s most notorious pub, The Queen’s Head, that the latest group in its history arises, the pug-nosed quintet Shame, and finding themselves on the shortlist of guitar bands you should actually give a shit about.
Citing influences like The Fall and Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Shame make familiar but not unawesome post-punk. Think tightly-wound, jittery guitars, mile-a-minute hi-hat and an exquisite bleakness that stems from their municipal origin (Gang Of Four-flavored “Concrete,” a song about an unhappy relationship that will have you beating on your steering wheel, embodies this sound perfectly and already gives me hope for a better 2018). What sets these lads apart is their beyond-their-years songwriting, riotous live shows (they were once fined for ripping a chandelier from the ceiling) and frontman Charlie Steen’s arresting vocals.
“I’m not much to look at/And I ain’t much to hear,” Steen sings, proudly acknowledging his place in the long-standing English tradition of guys who sneer more than they sing, a feral attitude and dangerous cool emanating from every warped vowel. He alternates between a detached baritone lull—a cross between the bored slur of Mark E. Smith and the underworld pulpit-poetry of Nick Cave—and protest-hoarse yelling, each line delivered with a pumping fist and a picket sign. The former is at its wickedest on “The Lick,” propulsive drums and a back alley bass line underscoring Steen’s talk of the “golden ticket” hanging out of his left pocket and his trips to the “guy-noh-cohl-oh-gyst”—his mouth stretching out the syllables with sick delight. The latter shines brightest on “Tasteless,” each line about consumerism and conformity spit out with such force, you can practically feel the drops hit your face.
There’s something hardscrabble about them, something working-class, in the proud, rosy-cheeked English sense. And while they do carry on the political edge of their forebears, it’s not inherently so, but present in the rapid-fire fury of “Lampoon,” with Sheen shouting “my tongue will never get tired,” the giant middle finger to insecurity of “One Rizla” and the whip-smart examination of the fine line between sexual exploitation vs. empowerment on the filthy “Gold Hole.”
Delivered with a heavy dose of grit and honesty, there’s some teeth marks there, but not the whole bite. It makes for their own, unique brand of sociopolitics-lite, done with a nudge, a wink, and just enough of the unexpected. All the way down to the cheeky image of the band wholesomely posing with baby pigs that graces the album’s cover. The seven-minute closer, the doomed-love dazzler “Angie,” features Steen’s first attempt at real singing, and shows that these guys are definitely playing with a full deck, delivering a more-than-solid first effort with plenty of anticipation for whatever they choose to do next.