Chvrches - The Bones Of What You Believe

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.

The Bones Of What You Believe is out now on Glassnote. Stream it here.

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.

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Comments (63)
  1. Sorry, guys, if I got too caught up in money and motive and cynicism here. I really like this album, and maybe all this stuff isn’t fair to the group. I’ve just been thinking about the Godspeed/Polaris thing all day.

    • I ask this because I genuinely don’t know… what’s CHVRCHES songwriting process like? Who writes the music/hooks? lyrics? arrangements?

      If it’s purely collaborative, then I may see it more as these dude’s having their own creative vision and Lauren Mayberry is just really good at actualizing and executing all of their ideas. If it’s just two dudes piggybacking on her musical endeavors, then the cynicism may be be warranted. I just think of the historical collaborative songwriting culture in Nashville, or a song like “Me and Bobby McGee,” where Kristofferson would not have gotten that song where it is without Janis Joplin.

      • As a male I’d like to point out that the fact that you even question whether or not she has a hand in the song writing process is in and of itself quite sexist. You have to ask yourself, if the lead singer was a male would you even ask this question. The worst part is that it’s covert sexism.

      • Doh, looks like I spoke too soon. Yeah it’s a bad idea to read the comments section before reading the article. I take back what I said.

    • Any chance for an article on the Godspeed/Polaris thing so we can all jump in hash it out as a family?

  2. Yeah but Garbage were good and had crossover appeal. I see neither in this band and I speak as a Scotsman.

  3. I fully believe this entire album is great but I haven’t yet figured out how to stop replaying “The Mother We Share” as soon as it ends. Maybe someday I’ll make it to track 2.

  4. Aw, I was pulling for Touche Amore this week. Is Survived By is so killer, you guys. Surprised you didn’t mention it when it went up on P4K Advance or even put it in Heavy Rotation.

  5. Nice to see Touche Amore mentioned near the end there. It’s good to see they’re getting more attention

  6. Well… Lauren is a bit better on the eyes than Shirley was. So there’s that.

  7. I saw Chvrches earlier this year and it didn’t come off as the “Lauren Mayberry and some other guys” show at all. In fact, nobody came off as a star; the whole thing was kind of bland.

  8. Ladytron + better songwriting – cartoonish icy gothiness + outsized M83 melodrama = awesome/Chvrches

    • If you know something about good electronic music, you should know that Ladytron is one of the best bands in this genre. What better songwriting when they’re already masters in songwriting? I will give you just one example: the whole album “Witching Hour”. Also “cartoonish icy gothiness”? Give me a break!

  9. I know since it already had a Premature Evaluation that Nothing Was the Same can’t be AOTW. But let’s face it, this week belongs to Drake.

    • I had this same thought but then wondered if the official release was just a bit anticlimactic after the leak? Because let’s face it, my last week belonged to Drake.

      • Last week, this week, and many weeks to come belong to “Too Much.” That song is just killer.

        • I wonder, in regard to the mention of Drake’s album above if it’s a typo and it was meant to be “pretty” instead of “petty,” because that would be a pretty awesome Freudian slip.

          On another note, Chvrches is by far the pick of the week. Mazzy and Frankie’s are great Autumn listening material as well.

  10. I’m glad that CHVRCHES album was selected as Album of the Week. It’s interesting that you mentioned Garbage here. However, there is a lot of bullshit about Garbage in this article:

    1. “…hit upon a winning formula: Find a charismatic Scottish lady and stay the hell out of her way”. Like they went to Scotland and searched until they found Shirley Manson… It was just a happy accident; the story with the Angelfish video on MTV is well known. “Stay the hell out of her way”? Yeah right. The band exists for over 19 years (and counting). Poor guys to stay out of Shirley’s way all the time… *sarcasm*

    2. ” The dudes in the band [...] dressed in all black, maintained neutral facial expressions, and did everything possible to direct all attention toward Shirley Manson”. Really? I don’t think so.

    3. “Lauren Mayberry, Chvrches’ own charismatic Scottish lady, isn’t the force of nature that Manson was”. WAS? Garbage reunited last year. I saw them live: they still rock! Manson is still a force of nature.

    4. “But Garbage was a cynical project”. False! They’re a real band. Who still exists after all these years. Who know how to play their instruments. Who are still friends after 19 years.

    Also about CHVRCHES: “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”. Are you a douchebag to make these assumptions?

  11. Been listening to the Mazzy Star album on repeat all day at work today. Just as good, if not better, than Among My Swan. Good to have them back.

    • Agreed. It’s the real best album of the week and there is hardly a mention about it anywhere. I listened to this the same day as I listened to the Chvrches album and thought about that “Decline of Guitar Rock” article. I think it’s more of a decline in ability. Seems a decent pop hook will garner more attention than solid songwriting and craftsmanship.

      Needless to say, color me unimpressed with the Chvrches album. It doesn’t really stand out among the other 10 or so “indie” pop albums that have come out this year. A few good songs with everything else pretty forgettable.

  12. Just saying: the CHVRCHES album is indeed excellent.

  13. Mmm, this is a really bad review of an album that is album of the week. If you’re going to call out the other members of the band then at least have something… anything… to support your argument.

  14. Frome here on out, I will be sure to seek out Tom Breihan’s byline.

  15. It’s a clean album. Like an old man.

  16. Honestly I don’t care how they made the music, “Gun” is a banger, even if I am embarrassed to play it loud in my car for silly masculinity reasons.

  17. I’m sorry Tom, but despite your comment on the top here, I’m not sure it’s fair to CHVRCHES (and us readers) to generalize like that. You never even made a convincing argument as to why Lauren Mayberry is these guys’ “human lottery ticket”. I assume you mean because she’s an attractive young woman who can hold a tune? It’s never really mentioned. Yeah, this is a good (not great) pop album, but I just can’t see what makes her (or this band, for that matter) so special. Not all lottery tickets are winners.

  18. Oh Tom, no no no. I know you mean well here, so I need to issue a corrective. If you have followed Chvrches at all — and I am a huge fan so I have — you should know that in fact the biggest concern of the band has been to present themselves as a three-piece collaborative unit. Lauren is a strongly outspoken feminist who wrote her graduate school dissertation on images of femininity in magazines, and from what I have seen she is very concerned about being judged simply as a pretty face. She has repeatedly insisted that the band be treated as a three-piece unit in interviews and in the press, doing things like refusing to be pictured separately from the band, deflecting questions about clothes and relationships, etc. They all are very careful to repeatedly state that all of their music is collaborative. Chvrches’ success was something of a happy accident, and I don’t think there was any grand plan to market the band based on Lauren’s face.

    • Great point. The problem they’re going to have in convincing the public that they’re fully collaborative is that as a young attractive woman who is also the front-woman of a group, Lauren is the most charismatic member of this group by default. She is front and center with all eyes on her. No offense to them personally, but the other two musicians aren’t nearly as immediately interesting. Even the songs they (or one of them?) sing on are the low points of this album (IMO).

      • Yep. Just how it works when a good looking female sings for a couple of average looking dudes. We can pretend that kind of superficiality only exists in the mainstream pop world…but we’re all human.

    • An outspoken feminist who gushed over Ryan Gosling on stage like a One Direction fan, thanking Canadians for him at the gig I went to…

      Still a big fan, but just saying…

      • There’s nothing incompatible with being a feminist and being attracted to men and even gushing about it. All feminism asks is that women be treated like individuals, and not be instantly judged as conforming to one stereotype or another stereotype based on various double standards. This is an example: a man (who doesn’t need to fight for equality) who expresses attraction to a famous woman is just being a guy, but a woman who fights for equality for women and who expresses attaction to a famous man is somehow a hypocrite? Not to get on my high horse too much, but that sort of categorization is exactly why feminism exists.

      • Yeah, and who WOULDN’T gush about Gosling? That’s just human nature, male or female.

  19. This records is 5/10 for me, but anyways, ”Gun” has a pretty nice hook, interesting fact i thought the lyrics were ”Take a gun, swing at me” but it’s actually ”Take a good”, i think ”Take a gun” would be more amusing but i digress because what really bums me out is that Chvrches gets a lot of cred for doing good hooks and fun songs nothing more nothing less, and on the other hand Holy Ghost! tries to reach the same goal, with more dept imho, and gets it throw back at them as a negative point. In fairness, Stereogum was one the only publications that showed them some love regarding Dynamics.

  20. I saw them twice at Sasquatch this year (they played an abbreviated second set in a shack for those who waited in line….me) Not for a moment did I think she was a dominating force. She’s pretty, sure. She has a great voice, sure. But that was a band. They rocked.

  21. Corey Beasley  |   Posted on Sep 24th, 2013 0

    the lyric in “Tether” is “I’m feeling capable…”

    –Corey Beasley, That Guy

  22. newcomer OTY

  23. Tom! In “Tether,” I think she’s saying “I’m feeling capable of seeing the end / I’m feeling capable of saying it’s over” on the hook!

    Knowing that changes the song dramatically for me / makes Mayberry’s delivery that much stronger. Related: I’ve read an interview with her where she mentions that she’s studied feminism in journalism + how to be feminine within a band without becoming the front-woman of the band. Her kind of dry lyrical prowess paired with THAT VOICE hits the nail on the head for me w/r/t that.

  24. Album of the week here. 8.5 at Pitchfork. 8 of 10 at Spin. The machine is definitely working! I’m listening but I’m not hearing it. Sounds like Disney Pop with an edge. The chick’s voice is annoying after a while.

  25. Love the mix in this album. It’s like the pop version of “The Knife”.

  26. Based entirely on the video link to “Gun” I have decided I don’t much care for this act, based mainly on her vocals. I’ll probably give them a bit more of a chance than that in the next few days, but as of now my expectations are low. Between this and realizing who Icona Pop is, this has been a big let-down week for me and electro-pop.

  27. Austra >>>>>>> Churches

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