There are certain historical references – the hungry occupation of a new land, religious traditions fuelling conflict, alcoholism, prostitution and impossibly unforgiving conditions – that, to me, create graphic images of a certain period of American history. We’ve seen it in paintings, literature and cinema countless times but now, with ‘Paris of America’, we are being told tales of this era (the mid-1800s) by an unlikely source; a band from Sheffield.
It isn’t your usual inventory of inspiration for an album – the grim past of a nation – but that, more than anything else, is what gives The Payroll Union’s second full length release the bulk of its understated power. There are plenty of occasions when a song will have you convinced there is a big gear shift coming – surely after two minutes of smouldering, simmering menace and grit there will be an explosive release – only to realise you not getting off that lightly and this scene doesn’t want to let you lift your head out of the oppression of these dark times in an untamed land. It gives it a cinematic scale that springs surprise and a definite degree of awe, although not always what you would call classic enjoyment; at least not in an everyday entertainment kind of way.
Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t any of those more conventional hooks and melodies that our ears are more accustomed to receiving. It only really takes a couple of listens before you are looking out for the more hummable vocal lines. Of course, when they do come, they are packed with tales of sectarian violence and the restriction of basic human rights in pursuit of cold, hard dollars.
It is an intelligent album. If there was ever to be a billboard-sized proclamation of what has been captured here, it would be that: This Is An Intelligent Album. If you associate words like “pinnacle” with the Radio 1 breakfast show you may not be ready for this kind of writing, however, if you were riddled with goose bumps whilst listening to Public Service Broadcasting’s ‘The Race for Space’ then this could be the next musical instalment for you. Much like PSB’s latest offering, ‘Paris of America’ is a history lesson processed through art.
If there is one criticism it would be that musically there isn’t a huge amount of attention-grabbing stuff here – it progresses as it needs to, very matter of fact, one tale after another – but this may be a conscious decision to echo the tone of the lyrics in the soundtrack. Those lyrics, by the way, fill the liner notes of the CD and are accompanied by not only a brief introduction to each song, relating the context of the story, but also lots of helpful footnotes to fill in any gaps in the listener’s knowledge of local lingo and references of mid-nineteenth century Philadelphia. There is plenty to get your teeth into and, if you weren’t already, by the time you finish reading it all you’ll be imagining Daniel Day-Lewis getting up to allsorts in a Gangs of Philly-type scenario – read it while the albums actually playing and you’ll be completely submerged in the imagery.
It’s as close to watching a movie epic as you can get by just listening to an album and a far more cerebral experience than you’ll get from almost any other band at the moment. They may not have you whistling along like a lot of bands but this release is without doubt one of the most engrossing things I’ve listened to this year.
‘Paris of America’ is available on CD and download from the 29th June