The duo’s debut album The Best Party Ever was one of those sleeper hits that took a while to seep through to many people but received a rave review on these very pages back in 2005.
After an enforced hiatus due to record company shenanigans, Owen and Hobbs have returned to their Too Young To Die label to release this new album. And for fans of their earlier work there is plenty here to delight.
The Law Of The Playground is a more cohesive set than the debut album, which essentially bundled three EPs together. This time around there is a greater sense of purpose in the music and lyrics that marks The Law Of The Playground as a definitive statement for Owen and Hobbs.
The opening Saddle Up is a perfect introduction to the duo’s musical ethos: sweet vocal harmonies, a melodic structure straight out of country music, and parping brass and glockenspiel sprinkled like a sugar coating over everything. Meanwhile, the underlying threat beneath the surface pleasantness of the lyrics (“I know there is a big scary world out there just waiting for me”) carries on the themes of the first record.
A Balloon On A Broken String could be the perfect song title for Owen and Hobbs, evoking the strange mixture of childhood wonder and adult melancholy that permeates all their music. The track itself, with its recurrent fuzzy guitar motif, introduces a more urgent tone than is normal in The Boy Least Likely To world, while Owen finally nails the perfect Green Gartside impression.
When Life Gives Me Lemons I Make Lemonade is the closest track in structure and melody to the debut album, while Owen’s assertion that “I’ve always been a hopeless romantic” brings a warm feeling to the heart in chilly times. There is an even greater cautiousness to his starry-eyed optimism this time around, however, as he reminds us that these days he always “sleeps with the light on”.
As on the debut album there is the occasional lull in proceedings, with both I Box Up The Butterflies and Stringing Up Conkers marking time. Fortunately, these two tracks bookend the absolutely gorgeous The Boy With Two Hearts, which positively skips by on the back of an exquisite brass arrangement.
The Boy Least Likely To Is A Machine is a curio, introducing a thumping beat and electronic squiggles to back up some unsettling lyrics. More than any other track on the album, it reassert the feeling that where the debut album was full of jejune optimism this time around all is not well in the world.
Despite its cutesy title, Whiskers reaffirms this feeling. The martial drumbeat lends lyrics such as “he sits around the campfire and licks his wounds” and “I found his little plastic shield chewed up on the battlefield” an added oomph. It’s as if nature red in tooth and claw has descended on the cute animals from the cover of The Best Party Ever in all its vengeful fury.
The Nature Of The Boy Least Likely To mines a similar seam, managing to make cricket pitches, chocolate raisins and fallen leaves sound eerily sinister. The increasing sense of isolation that pervades the second half of the album is writ large in I Keep Myself To Myself and The Worm Forgives The Plough.
A Fairytale Ending brings the album to a close on a note of doubt that belies its title. And this is why this album is such a triumph. Owen and Hobbs could have just rewritten their debut note for note, but instead they have chosen to take us on a journey that many of us know all too well. Here’s waiting for the next instalment.