It’s a sad but inevitable fact that hotly tipped indie bands are often forgotten as quickly as they are built up. Such is the prospect that possibly awaits Young Knives, a band who have been mainstays of the British indie scene for a fair few years now, without ever quite translating their quirky qualities into mainstream appeal. This third album certainly represents the most brazen attempt they’ve made so far at reaching a wider market. In recording in LA with established producer Nick Launay, many of their spikier, stranger edges have been smoothed away in favour of something more accessible.
Ornaments From The Silver Arcade appears to be competing for terrain already occupied by numerous other bands. The influences are predominantly post-new wave ’80s guitar pop. In fact, the spirited, direct Everything Falls Into Place could very easily slot neatly on to either of the previous two Mystery Jets albums without anyone realising it’s actually the work of a different band. The XTC of Drums And Wires are also another predominant influence, even if that band made more fruitful and ambitious records both before and after (Black Sea or Skylarking might have been more interesting reference points). Sister Frideswide sounds like Making Plans For Nigel rewritten in 6/8 time.
That being said, there’s often a tremendous sense of fun here and the production is undeniably slick and punchy. The group’s wordy, observational lyrics have retained some of their attack. The idea of the ‘official greenhouse choir’ in Glasshouse is twee but affecting. There are some unexpected moments of inspiration in the music too. The brass section on Woman is both surprising and uplifting. Vision In Rags is immediate and infectious, with an imposing chorus and some clever melodic lines.
This approach does lead to a somewhat formulaic record though – it’s almost as if the band and producer have conspired to ensure that the songs share sound, concept and structure. Nine of the 11 songs are between three and four minutes in duration. As with far too much British indie music, there’s very little range in dynamic, texture or timbre. Given how much can be achieved in both home and professional studios now, it’s depressing that so many albums emerge sounding so streamlined and limited. The fact that Henry Dartnoll’s voice lacks nuance and expression is also a problem exacerbated by the steamroller approach to production. It does occasionally feel as if the band is pounding the listener into submission. Storm Clouds is particularly headache inducing, its relatively calm final coda feeling like a necessary palliative. At other times, it feels as if the band is straining very hard for something anthemic and unifying, without ever quite reaching it.
Young Knives initially seemed like a band of energetic, committed outsiders, with songs characterised by distinctive, angular qualities. On Ornaments From The Silver Arcade, they sound more or less subsumed within an indie-pop firmament. Ultimately, the main problem here is that there is less and less to distinguish Young Knives in what has long been a crowded marketplace. It may, regrettably, be the case that in trying to polish and perfect their sound, the group has simply drifted even further from commercial success.