Think of The Verve, and you’ll no doubt remember Richard Ashcroft, the self-styled Wigan shaman, striding down a road bumping into people during the iconic video for Bittersweet Symphony. Yet while Ashcroft was very much the voice and public face of The Verve, there was another man behind their sound. That man was Nick McCabe.
His is a story that’s somewhat similar to that of Bernard Butler and Suede. An original member of the band, McCabe and Ashcroft soon experienced personality clashes and the band split after their second album, A Northern Soul. After a few months apart they reformed, but without McCabe, who then eventually rejoined in 1997 just ahead of their commercial breakthrough, Urban Hymns.
The old tensions remained though, and the band split for a second time in 1999, before reuniting again eight years later. But like Butler and Brett Anderson, the two couldn’t work together for very long, and a final break-up occurred in 2009. Additionally, like Butler, McCabe then became a kind of session musician for hire, appearing on a John Martyn record, a song by Faultline and also embarked on some soundtrack work.
McCabe is far too good a songwriter and musician not to work on his own material though, and that’s where Black Submarine come in. Formerly known as The Black Ships, McCabe has reunited with Verve bassist Simon Jones, Davide Rossi (who’s worked with Goldfrapp and Coldplay in the past), the former drummer for Portishead Mig Schillace, and vocalist Amelia Tucker.
Surprisingly though, Black Submarine’s overall sound is markedly different from that of The Verve. It builds more on the songs of the band’s final album Forth, rather than replicating the heady days of Urban Hymns. Even more surprisingly, Black Submarine, for the most part, tend to lay off the guitar pyrotechnics, with McCabe using his instruments to build the overall atmosphere of the album, rather than show off with endless solos.
That atmosphere defines New Shores – the sound is big, sprawling and bombastic, which only occasionally spills over into pomposity. Vocals are shared between Rossi and Tucker, and while both singers do a fine job, it’s Tucker who provides the highlights. This does tend to rob the band of a real sense of identity and any future Black Submarine projects would do well to place Tucker centrestage on a permanent basis.
That said, there are plenty of great moments on New Shores – opening track Black Submarine is dark and relentless, and unexpectedly breaks down into a rather funky jam halfway through. It’s almost enough to forgive the band for the constant, repetitive vocals of “this is our Black Submarine, Black Submarine”. Here So Rain is even better, a swirl of guitars enveloping Tucker’s evocative vocals and although the sound is epic, it never once threatens to overpower, despite a running time of over eight minutes.
Move Me A Mountain is at the polar opposite end of the spectrum, a delightfully stripped down, folky number – it sounds totally different to the rest of the album, simply being an acoustic guitar and strings backing Tucker, but it works rather beautifully. Similarly, the gorgeous Lover holds back on the bombast and works all the better for it, a swaying ballad in which Rossi and Tucker combine to heartbreaking effect.
However, it’s undeniable that a fair amount of New Shores would benefit from a ruthless editor. Is This All We Feel is a long, seven-minute slog which at times sounds like a pale imitation of Pink Floyd, and the second half of the record in particular becomes weighed down with some rather tedious guitar noodling. By the time the final track You’ve Never Been Here rolls around, you feel like you’ve run a marathon.
There’s certainly a decent amount of chemistry on display in Black Submarine however, and if they never quite reach the heights of their celebrated former bands, there’s enough confidence and swagger here to demonstrate that McCabe’s fire is very far from extinguishing just yet.