It has ruined so many bands. The notorious ‘difficult second album.’ So how do you go about finding inspiration for that potentially disastrous record? Well, if you’re Ed Wallis, singer and songwriter of London-based My Sad Captains, you hide away in a bedroom in San Francisco for weeks. OK, so it might not be the healthiest of environments, but it seems to have done the job for Wallis.
Fight Less, Win More has one foot planted firmly on both sides of the Atlantic. Written in that lonely, borrowed room in San Francisco and recorded in a barn in Cornwall, the constant tug-of-war between the two sets of influences is one of the defining features of this record. At times the tracks take on the sun-kissed, carefree sound of the West Coast, while at other points they become pale, introverted, and typically English. But, as the record progresses and grows into itself, it becomes clear that this actually isn’t a transatlantic musical battle – the two sides of the pond aren’t vying for position. In fact, they’re existing in perfect harmony. Like the symbiotic relationship between a leguminous plant and the rhizobia that dwell within its root nodules. Or something.
Opening track ‘Orienteers’ demonstrates Wallis’ knack for intelligent melodies and arrangements, as gentle synth pads bubble away underneath the understated guitars, while ‘The Homefront Pt. II’ slowly builds to a climax that is subdued and controlled, but effortlessly powerful. The low-slung slacker vibe of ‘Little Joanne’ and ‘Resolutions’ see the band at their most laid-back, with Wallis’ lazy melodies and slightly nasal vocals on the latter sounding like a vaguely hopeful Lou Reed (if such a thing exists).
‘Heavy Lifting’ again sees the influence of American optimism, as Wallis proclaims “I want to drive a motor / A motor car / I’ll drive to California / To see the stars.” However, the lyrics on other tracks are far less upbeat. For instance, during ‘Orienteers’ Wallis mumbles “I will reserve / I will reserve the right / To decompose / In front of your eyes,” before going on to say, somewhat unconvincingly, “And I hope you feel happy now.”
Although the majority of the album is a real melting pot of different influences and emotions, the one constant is the production. Muted and claustrophobic but with a real sense of space and clarity, the production is key to the album’s overall personality. It prevents the tracks from ever straying into woeful guitar-rock territory, and keeps the sound of the album crisp, clean and fresh.
Fight Less, Win More may be subdued throughout, but that doesn’t mean that it’s one-dimensional. In fact, the subtleties and the multiple layers are made all the more noticeable by the downbeat production, while the well-structured arrangements are given space to manoeuvre. There are very few albums that manage to match the dynamic range of this one without having to rely on over-the-top instrumentation and expansive production, but My Sad Captains have seemingly pulled it off with ease. Fight Less, Win More might not be the most pushy of records, but it truly is a fantastic collection of ten songs. People always say that it’s the quiet ones you need to watch out for – and Fight Less, Win More proves that this really is the case.