Long ago, a group of gnarled Midwestern studio-rat veterans hit upon a winning formula: Find a charismatic Scottish lady and stay the hell out of her way. They called this endeavor Garbage, and they went on to become one of the great alt-pop singles bands of the ’90s. The dudes in the band — one of whom was honest-to-god famous, at least among the subset of the population who read music magazines and liner notes — dressed in all black, maintained neutral facial expressions, and did everything possible to direct all attention toward Shirley Manson, the firecracker at the front of the stage. And now there’s a new band doing roughly the same thing. Lauren Mayberry, Chvrches’ own charismatic Scottish lady, isn’t the force of nature that Manson was. She’s no less appealing, but she’s more of an open-hearted and relatable type, not a world-crusher. And in Chvrches’ case, the two black-clad dudes in the band are just as Scottish as the lady in front of them. Still, the trio doesn’t seem any more organic than Garbage did, and those dudes have spent nearly as much time in the unsexy guitar-rock trenches as the Garbage men had. There’s a whiff of careerism here: Chvrches is clearly these guys’ shot at becoming marginally famous by attaching themselves to an undeniable star. But Garbage was a cynical project, too, and that doesn’t mean “Stupid Girl” wasn’t an amazing song. It might not be fair to speculate on the Chvrches dudes’ motives, but let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that they’re looking at Mayberry as a human lottery ticket. Even if that’s the case, they’re still making really, really great songs in the process. That’s what matters here.
The two guys in Chvrches have both been kicking around Scotland’s endlessly scraped-out and beaten-down sad-bastard indie rock scene for just about forever. Iain Cook played guitar in Aereogramme, a band I saw once in Baltimore in maybe 2004. At least, I think I saw them. I have this completely vague memory of bald men onstage working up a wave of guitar fuzz, and I remember thinking it sounded pretty good, but it left no impression on me deeper than that. Martin Doherty, meanwhile, was a touring guitarist — not even a full-fledged member — of the Twilight Sad, one of the most descriptively monikered bands of all time. I definitely saw them at one Pitchfork Festival, but I don’t know if Doherty was with them then, and that set didn’t resonate much either. Both Aereogramme and the Twilight Sad have made plenty of good music, but they made it in a way that didn’t exactly set them apart from the many, many other bands making the same type of good music (especially in Scotland, where everyone seemed to be depressively broguing over clanging guitars for years and years). In Chvrches, they’re making clean and precise synthpop, but you can still hear echoes of their old bands if you listen for them. Most of Chvrches’ songs are about desperate relationship circumstances, and their choruses are the same sorts of big, comforting melodies those bands had. But on The Bones Of What You Believe, Chrvrches’ debut album, they’ve found sharper and cleaner ways to deliver those hooks and those sentiments, and they’ve found a singer who can sell the living hell out of them.
Lauren Mayberry was a law student and an award-winning freelance journalist before Chvrches, and she spent some time in a couple of lesser-known rock bands, but she was born to lead a group like Chvrches. Without ever relying on showboating or dramatic overselling, Mayberry brings a smart, conversational emotional intensity to her vocals here. On “Gun,” her threats (“I will burn your bridges / I will be a gun, and it’s you I’ll come for”) have a lightly mocking tone to them; she’s teasing, but she’s quietly serious, too. On “Tether,” she’s trying to come to tough realizations and suffering in the process (“I feel incapable of seeing the end / I feel in capable of saying it’s over”), but she’s not wailing. There’s a plainspoken flatness to her voice, like she’s only just processing what she’s singing as she’s singing it. I don’t even know what “The Mother We Share” is about, but even there, it’s clear that Mayberry is singing some heavy shit, and she never lets the soft pleading in her voice overwhelm the breezy hook at the song’s core. Every song on The Bones Of What You Believe has a breezy hook; it’s one of those albums where it never makes sense to skip a track. On two later songs, one of the group’s two men sings lead, and even there, the hooks and the gloriously propulsive keyboard beats keep things from bogging down. But Mayberry is really something, and if the album stays on heavy rotation in your house for months to come (as it will in mine), she’ll be the main reason.
In a conversation-starting Deconstructing piece last week, our own Chris DeVille used Chvrches as an example of the rising hordes of synth-based studio groups, which, as he sees it, are gradually coming to replace guitar-bands in the hearts of festival-going young people anywhere. But Chvrches don’t really belong to any particular genre (unless “music that sounds really good at festivals,” counts as a genre, which maybe it should). There’s an echo of Purity Ring in their glimmering textures, of Passion Pit or Metric in their slick songcraft, of Santigold in the creeping sense that we will hear many of these songs in TV commercials. But underneath all the smartly arranged synthscapes, there’s an abidingly uncool heart-on-sleeve sentimentalism at work here. The beats might draw you in, but the album’s emotional core will keep you there. So consider this: Chvrches merely represent the latest mutation of Scottish sad-bastard indie pop. Scottish sad-bastard indie pop is, after all, a remarkably durable and adaptable animal. You can hear echoes of it on Taylor Swift’s Red, where Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody sings a duet. And I have to imagine that the Pastels, in 1982, did not imagine we’d hear bits of their sound on a bajillion-selling pop-country album 30 years later. They probably didn’t see Chvrches coming, either. But Chvrches are merely bringing futuristic sonics and pro-level songcraft to an age-old, endlessly comforting style of music, and they’re doing that style proud. Whatever their motives, we’re lucky to have them around.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Drake’s masterfully petty synth-rap glass house Nothing Was The Same.
• The latest Kings Of Leon rock-radio takeover Mechanical Bull.
• Mazzy Star’s spare, spacey reunion Seasons Of Your Day.
• Touché Amoré’s intense, emotive, generally badass hardcore attack Is Survived By.
• Icona Pop’s bold and brassy Swede-pop invasion This Is… Icona Pop.
• Frankie Rose’s sweet synthpop throwback Herein Wild.
• Jesu’s crushing shoegaze-metal trudge Every Day I Get Closer To The Light From Which I Came.
• Au Revoir Simone’s floaty dream-pop flutter Move In Spectrums.
• Odd Future haze-pop duo the Internet’s Feel Good.
• The Foreign Exchange’s intimate space-soul album Love In Flying Colors.
• Deer Tick’s raw, rambling roots-rocker Negativity.
• Trentemøller’s collab-heavy dance LP Lost.
• Heaven’s Gate’s ramshackle DIY debut Transmuting.
• Willie Nelson’s duets album To All The Girls….
• The Fresh & Onlys’ Soothsayer EP.