Tues Nov 16, Crocodile, 8:30 pm, $10.
Although they've toured with post-punk revival stars the Rapture and Franz Ferdinand, the Futureheads are no nostalgia trip. The concise pop smarts and breakneck complexity of their eponymous debut may suggest the influence of early XTC and Wire, but the delivery is something new. All four members contribute vocals, creating layered harmonies and call-and-response hooks that synthesize avant-garde texture with the purity of doo-wop.
The young quartet hails from Sunderland in northeast England: a mid-sized conurbation with a small-town mentality. Taking their name from the Flaming Lips' 1992 opus, "Hit to Death in the Future Head," they formed at the turn of the 21st century when guitarist Ross Millard and bassist Jaff (just Jaff) met nominal frontman Barry Hyde and his kid brother Dave at the city's Detached Youth Project. "Ross and I heard that bands could practice there for free," recalls Jaff. "But the project was really intended to get naughty lads off the street. The youth workers would sit them down at the piano and they'd write songs about issues, like 'Smoking Kills!' and 'Do You Sniff Glue?' Barry was teaching there, and his brother Dave used to go down for the crack [slang term for "fun"]."
By 2002, Dave had replaced original drummer Pete Brewis, and the then-teenage ensemble's sound was beginning to take shape. The Futureheads are an overdue reaction to the dreary state of contemporary UK guitar music, which has been dominated by the windy balladry and vague angst of dullards such as Coldplay and Travis. The Sunderland act's response was to keep their songs short, up-tempo, and about specific topics. Their album crams 15 tracks into 37 minutes, ranging from sardonic commentaries on office politics ("First Day") and urban life ("The City Is Here for You to Use"), to imaginative mood pieces inspired by Dadaist photographs ("Man Ray") and android psychology ("Robot").
"We try to really arrange the music and do fast, fun pop. When we started there was a wave of bands who were being really boring by having a lead singer and guitarist with 'mystique.' We want to get away from all that."
Initial sessions were produced by erstwhile Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill, more by luck than design--he's managed by the same company. Not wholly satisfied with his work, the group then called on London-based studio whiz Paul Epworth.
"We'd never heard Gang of Four until people said we sounded like them," maintains Jaff.
So what music were they listening to?
"For me it was Radiohead and the first Devo record," Jaff continues. "Barry was into Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Ross has always liked stuff on the Dischord label. Everyone brings something different to the table."
Jaff himself may have indirectly supplied a future smash. Long before the 'Heads signed to a label (Sire in the States; 679 elsewhere), the band embarked on a tour of European squat parties, opening for Sunderland indie stalwarts Milky Wimpshake. The bassist made a compilation tape of favorite pop tunes to listen to in the van, with the tracks arranged in alphabetical order according to the artist. "B" was Kate Bush, with her classic ode to infatuation "Hounds of Love." As soon as they got home, Barry worked out a new arrangement for the song. It's been a staple of their live set ever since.
Awestruck fans lobbied for the cover's inclusion on the LP, and were eventually rewarded. However, it was left off promotional copies, as the band were concerned that reviewers would just focus on the Bush song. Happily, their own material has proved equally memorable. The breezy "Decent Days and Nights" was a surprise British hit, while follow-up single "Meantime" showcases their sly way with a put-down.
"A lot of the lyrics were written while Barry and I worked at Quicksave," explains Jaff. "It's this really crappy supermarket, and the ignorance of some of the people who came in was shocking. There's a big right-wing community in Sunderland, a real cynicism we try to comment on. It'd be fake not to, there's only so many times you can hear 'I love you, you're the best' in a song."