So begins the short biography of the two-parts Seattle to one-part Portland punkers At The Spine on their Myspace page. So, not your average saccharine-coated pop band then. In fact, while this initial description might build up the impression that they might be a bunch of Joe Strummer-worshipping agitators, the truth is actually much less prosaic.
Now on their fourth album, the muscular, heavily tattooed group, led by backpacking substitute teacher Mike Toschi, are a whole mixed bag of influences, from the ethereal strains of Radiohead to Jeff Buckley through to the noiser post punk of Fugazi and the Pixies.
Written while Toschi was working as a teacher in Hackney’s murder mile, Vita is an energetic, carefully constructed pop record that is much more cheerful than it has any right to be. He notes that the record’s uneasy birth was influenced by the social injustices he witnessed traveling across Europe – and during a period recuperating after being attacked in England.
Songs with titles like Transylvania, The French Girl and Spanish Anarchy are particularly notable because of their willingness to admit to a world outside the band’s native United States – something that is actually very rare even in the most liberal of artists (when was the last time you heard Bruce Springsteen sing about shivering on Primrose Hill?).
Opener Chisel is an absolute corker, sounding like an (actually) harmonious Graham Coxon record, clocking it at a perfect 2 minutes 15 seconds, driven by a driving, chugging guitar line and a wonderfully apt metronome. Transylvania, similarly, is a big, ballsy rocker that starts a little like REM’s Leaving New York but ends up as a halting, haunting screamathon, more reminiscent of the Melvins than anything else.
Despite having a pretty hard-rocking background, the songs that stand out here are the ones that Toschi lets his innate sense of melody lead the line. Album highlight Crumble wouldn’t sound out of place at a Guided By Voices concert, berating “Martini drinkers who sit on Wall Street… Wannabe gangsters whose crimes are so petty” over a careening, jangling guitar line.
Finally, Primrose Hill’s lyrics on “that elusive northern sun / showing its face for the first time in many days” can take a little getting used to, especially the song is essentially a rocked-up version of the White Stripes’ We are Going To Be Friends, but there’s enough subtle adoration of London here to sit it alongside some of the Kinks’ later work.
There’s more than a touch of Billy Bragg to some of the tracks here – not strictly a bad thing, and it helps that Toschi’s delivery is a much easier listen than the arch socialist’s nasal growl. However, lyrics like “The God of greed feeds the rich while the poor folks starve” sometimes grate, as if he’s trying just a little too hard to make a political statement. While the lyrics are nowhere as incompetent as some of the Manic Street Preachers‘ ‘state of the nation’ efforts, he ain’t Marvin Gaye just yet.
At 13 tracks, Vita is probably a little too long and it loses focus towards the end. It is, at times, a very enjoyable listen, and deserves to be much more widely heard than it will probably be. And as long as Toschi sells a few more records, though, it’ll mean that he doesn’t have to return to Hackney anytime soon…