Sob Story is not the album I was expecting. Spectrals, a.k.a. Leeds lad Louis Jones, went to San Francisco with Chet “JR” White, formerly of US dreamers Girls, cherry-picked the best session musicians he could find and, apparently, planned a retro pop revival. Though his aim was true (Costello pun intended), Louis has come back with a pretty schizophrenic set on his hands.
Where do we start? Well, the title track is an unadulterated swell of steelpedal, porcelain guitar and dense reverb, with a lyric so self-pitying it’d make Hank Williams blush. Sob Story is a quarter lush Marmite such as this, yet this doesn’t get the musical tone. Elsewhere, the only element of this ‘crying’ country that persists through Sob Story is the lump in Louis’ throat, giving a pained and broken vulnerability to paranoid space-rock, guitar pop and snake-hipped rockers alike. Against all the signs, Sob Story mostly keeps things bright and poptastic.
There are some tracks that don’t seem to fit. For instance, the single ‘Milky Way’ sounds positively Lovecraftian next to ‘Sob Story’, with Chet’s guitar loop stabbing the chorus to bits and its agonised chords. While the gentler style of ‘Sob Story’ or ‘Let Me Cave In’ wear their heart on their sleeve, the noise on ‘Milky Way’ is brutally shy and bullied by fear – an antithesis that splinters the album’s mood. The closest thing anywhere else on the album is closer ‘In A Bad Way’, a spooky fun-house of hidden intent. These two oddities never really find their place, which is a shame since the songs work fine in their own right.
Maybe Louis just couldn’t consolidate his different urges in the same directions, since he obviously has a lot of genre he wants to show off and doesn’t feel the need to make a thematically incisive record like Christopher Owens’ Lysandre. Because, frankly, it gets wearing after a while. So he didn’t. Instead, Spectrals put great scoopfuls of sticky Britpop among the swoon’n’croon. Meaty glam riffs, the best since Supergrass stole them from T-Rex a decade ago, give a warm and fuzzy glow to ‘A Heartbeat Behind’, ‘Karaoke’ and the boogie-woogie ‘Keep Your Magic Out Of My House’. Personally, these bouncy, exquisitely produced facsimiles of classic pop are the strongest impression of what Sob Story does well.
Sometimes the wheels come off and recreating a classic sound overtakes interesting or charactered songwriting, such as ‘Friend Zone’s off the top of the head melody or ‘Limosine’s garrulous, Roses-esque riff. Each song sounds great but often there isn’t much depth; to Louis’ credit, when you’re this unafraid to be formally orthodox you are inviting greater scrutiny, with nowhere to hide if the quality drops.
Sob Story as an album is wise in its broader scope but often feels a bit superficial, like the sunny pop or introspective country or psych effects are interchangeable song by song. Also, a bit of careful editing could have made the record flow easier, drawing some of the common pleasures together. Overall an enjoyable listen, but one you might only half fall in love with.