On emerging a few years ago, Cribs-supporting Brightonians Shrag couldn’t decide what they were. Electro vamps? Kenickie-like pop-punk smart alecs? Shouty riot grrrls with messages? Last year’s self-titled debut album tried all those hats on for size, but then it was to all intents and purposes a compilation of their 7″ output to date. Now they’re charged with recording songs as an album, they’ve learned to straighten out a bit. Helen King is less yelpy, the dual keyboards are relegated in the mix and most of the melodies are stronger without giving out to all-out commercialism. It’s art-pop, kids.
Art-pop, that is, very much as we know it. Liberally picking from post-punk’s rhythmic edge, C86 indiepop and day-glo pop (not in the electronic revival sense, despite the buzzing synths), there’s a new found swagger to Shrag’s sound that decries their DIY past and instils in its place a sense of wiry purpose. The enormous hook in the middle of single ‘Rabbit Kids’, flirting openly with the Long Blondes while retaining its jangly purpose, isn’t something they could have pulled off before now. Similarly the meaty, menacing bassline underpinning ‘A Certain Violence’, leading into the sort of angular attack Ikara Colt specialised in before it all dissolves into everyone singing/shouting over everyone else. If that’s not enough to demonstrate their comfort in uncomfortableness, ‘The Habit Creep’ has King delivering lasciviously quixotic spoken word verses, the tense, almost mocking air matched with a dense stew of needling guitars that gradually grow in intensity and break out for a chorus of sorts. Eventually, between ‘Tights In August’, relocating Heavenly to Sheffield’s fertile ground of indiepop loucheness via a becalmed Prolapse, and ‘Ghosts Before Breakfast’ dragging Life Without Buildings to the electro-New Wave dancefloor it clicks that Shrag haven’t so much pinpointed what they’re best at as grown in confidence at reassessing their strengths into something more coherent and less artful for the sake of it.
After that spell of excitable, quite sinister inventiveness within its parameters, the slump sets in. The second half after ‘Rabbit Kids” breezy greatness can’t match up, going over old ground listlessly – here a Manda Rin shout, there a song reminding this listener of nobody so much as late 90s also-rans Linoleum, the preceding intrigue for the love of the form increasingly whittled away until we reach ‘More Than Mornings” Fall-like thrash in search of a Fall-like point. Also anyone else who came across the debut album by the Kiara Elles earlier in the year might find their opinion coloured, given Slide Over was a not all that dissimilar but mildly superior mesh of strident female vocals, tripwire bass and subtle synth (‘Stubborn Or Bust’ particularly guilty on this score), although I’d put it down to coincidence.
Which is a shame, as for seven tracks it seems Shrag have hit their marks. The ADD eagerness to please of their first record has not so much been smoothed out, despite the exclamation mark-friendly title, as sieved thoroughly. Instead they’ve taken a spirited run-up at their influences, often frenzied and on edge, sometimes something more carefully crafted without losing the essential urge to pull their garage melodies and standard vocal lines apart. If they can become more consistent without losing their keenness to explore, we may not have heard the whole of their abilities yet.