The Isle Of Wight’s a funny old place. In its heyday, it sported delightfully thriving seaside resorts, bustling with grockles. That was an age ago. Now, riddled with economic woes and below-par education services, it’s a deeply conservative, woefully poor and rather isolated rock. These days, the Isle only dons its best garb and sucks in its gut three times a year: during Bestival, the Isle Of Wight Festival and Cowes Week (a sailing regatta). The other 49 weeks of the year are spent under a greyscale fug punctuated by the stench of rotting seaweed. Perhaps a scathing indictment, but hey-ho – you weren’t there man, you weren’t there*. It’s not exactly the Victorian idyll painted by CHAMPS‘ overner onlookers.
When it comes to Ventnor brothers Michael and David Champion, the duo behind folk outfit CHAMPS, people have tended to focus on the quaint whimsy of it all. The debut record, Down Like Gold, recorded in an old water tower during winter on the Osborne House estate, couldn’t be more traumatic. The pair have said that the majority of the record is about failed romances, but it feels like those lovelorn sentiments echo the kind of claustrophobic upbringing growing up on the Island brings. There’s lots of talk of broken dreams (8MM Desire), empty promises (Too Bright To Shine) and a loss of hope (St Peters), which is something that many younger residents struggle with: job prospects are low, morale is lower, money is lowest. Perhaps Down Like Gold is simply about love’s foibles, but it sounds like it goes rather deeper.
Savannah, bundled with ragtime piano chords and simple basslines, is a sombre effort with a brave face: “I was your blood out in the water/ I was your desert rain/ I was your star, sweet Carolina/ I want to breathe again.” The endlessly charming My Spirit Is Broken, as Idlewild-y as you can get without actually being Idlewild, doesn’t even pretend to be in a good mood, and White Satellite will induce spasmodic jerks of scrunched-eye bawling – “We’ve all been together in that dying town/ we’ve all joined hands through the doorway down / I’ll be here forever wearing your frown/ I’ll be here forever, sharing your crown.” While a lot of the lyrics are, on the surface, quite clearly about relationships, there’s an ambiguity – maybe a deliberate ambiguity – that implies a deep dissatisfaction with Island life.
Fleet Foxes are obvious comparisons musically – the record’s rammed with gorgeous folk-pop melodies and creaking harmonies, elegiac choirs and shimmering guitars. It’s not a derivative record though, and although the Champions’ falsettos feel familiar, they’ve put their vocal chords to fresh use, and rather than Fleet Foxes’ by-and-large subtler, dainty hooks, CHAMPS opt for behemoth pop. They’re peddling anthemic motifs, the kind of ultra-swollen singalong moments that pockmark festival sets and remain lodged in the recesses of your grey walnut for months. In some ways, despite only being a twosome, they bring conjure the sprawling atmospheres that The Polyphonic Spree and Arcade Fire do. It’s bombastic folk, which at its root contains a semi-punk twang: they’ve got the rousing, stick-in-your-mind trad-folk melodies built for chanting on picketlines.
A frightfully enjoyable record, Down Like Gold pinches the best bits from Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and Arcade Fire and bundles them up with a glossy pop ribbon. Each track on the LP is 50 cal. oomph, capable of double-tapping your heart and mind – they’ll capture you with potent riffs, then clock you with dark subtexts. It’s a powerful combination. CHAMPS deserve to be gracing grander environs on the back of this album, and while that may not happen, Down Like Gold does ensure that they’ll have thousands of eyes trained on them when they make their next move.
* – The author is from the Isle of Wight.