With their 2009 debut album Baby Darling Doll Face Honey – a record sparking with overlapping ideas and attitude, darting from dustily authentic rock thrills to warmly rendered emotion with a breathtakingly deserved confidence – Band Of Skulls quietly threatened to become the biggest thing to come out of Southampton since the Titanic, and infinitely less likely to sink without a trace.
It didn’t quite work out that way, although a loyal and growing fanbase, and the appearance of their track Friends on the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack has kept their name buzzing like a faltering neon bar sign, and their return is a very welcome one.
In the best possible sense, Band Of Skulls are every bit as duplicitous as ever, throwing different sides of their collective personality at us in a smörgåsbord of influences and ideas. The White Stripes still cast a long shadow in the primal, gut-level percussive thump and dirty delta guitars of the opening title track, while the strutting, Zepp-flavoured attitude of The Devil Takes Care Of His Own displays what is surely Jack White’s great lost riff.
With the cynical male/female vocals zinging back and forth between bassist Emma Richardson and guitarist Russell Marsden, they’re everything The Kills would have killed to have been, had they ever got around to placing music over style. But for every bawdy bar room blast of bohemia there’s a beautiful, mellow, introverted glance into the soul.
A smoky psychedelic mood lays its mist over Lay My Head Down, offering up a deep sadness that recalls the warmly melancholic likes of Mojave 3, as the song stoically looks at the inevitability of change and the way we’re programmed to grasp at other humans to make it all bearable. The comforting ennui is repeatedly interrupted by a tidal wave of deep, bassy scuzz that takes any sense of schmaltz out of the equation. And at their very prettiest, in the gorgeous, Mazzy Star-like constellations of guitar, pattering percussion and sighing vocals on Close To Nowhere, they display a knack for variety that makes this band special.
In a world where it seems like pigeonholes are getting tighter and tighter and less easy to spread your wings in, it’s refreshing to find a band so happy to forge their own path. Band Of Skulls have some very obvious reference points to be sure, but they’re twisting them to their preferred shape and making them their own, which is reason enough to cherish this fine band.