Nine years is a long time for a band to hang around. Indie pop notoriety may have been won but by the third album in, it’s time for a band to quit skimming the edges of potential and finally reach it. Hoping to prove their merit along with their chops, Sussex Heights Roving Artists Group, a.k.a. Shrag, are back with the toothily menacing Canines.
‘Tears of a Landlord’ exhibits the kind of shout-a-long gang spirit characteristic of the band, followed by the post-punk, bass-heavy leanings of ‘Show us Your Canines’. ‘Chasing Consummations’ is kicked off with jerky synths and paired with sugary girl band playground rhymes interspersed with strings. Frontwoman Helen King’s lyrics are a bit of a mysterious closed book, the peculiarity of lines like “A body coloured garish sight” surely an indication of a personal meaning that isn’t quite ever disclosed to the listener. Lead single, ‘Tendons in the Night’ is no less weird, a male/female shouty bratfest that talks of being down on all fours, followed by the similarly carnal ‘Devastating Bones’ which snarls “I’ve got zero faith in your free will”. ‘You’re the Shout’ sees Helen admit “I’d like to rip his heart in two” amidst a beautifully executed pop song played off against the moody tone of ‘That’s Static’ while ‘Jane with Dumbells’ is a sweetly bold and orchestral sign off.
British Lo Fi indie has always had a fondness for a quirkily idiosyncratic take on punk but while Shrag are a lot less aggressive than Huggy Bear, not half as vitriolic as Help! She Can’t Swim yet tons more barbed than Bearsuit, they still share the shambolic charm of all three. While they’re not shaking off the Twee As Fuck label anytime soon, they’re knowingly whimsical without being too cute, and playfully snappy.
The off-beat vocals play wild and loose with the idea of tuning and while distinctive are also a little one dimensional. Pitted against the current, bizarre trend of aping a regional accent which is not your own, King’s genuine intonation is refreshing, her delivery sometimes meaning the songs fade into one another. Shrag are a band with a live reputation that precedes them and though the songs work on record and stand up in their own right, the touches of true pop brilliance are perhaps most likely to emerge in that live setting. King claims that the album “makes a particular kind of sense” to the band but that clarity is not always revealed to outside parties.
Canines is an album that is introspective in that it literally looks inside, with its focus on tendons, bones, and the inner lust (bloody or otherwise) of the human. However, for all its inner thematic explorations this album still only scratches at the skin of what Shrag are capable of. Once they bare more than their teeth, they will become as fierce as they have the potential to be.