Of all the images Londoner Eugene McGuinness could have chosen for the cover of his debut full-length album, ‘mildly bemused fencer’ was probably not high on many people’s lists.
It’s an image, however, that’s simultaneously archaic and modern, the history of the noble sport mixed with the clarity of the pure white suit on a clean white background. This conflict is something that permeates the music on McGuinness’ full-band follow-up to last years lo-fi mini-album, The Early Learnings of…, mixing elements of The Beatles with Elliott Smith, or the distinct Britishness of The Kinks with early Blur and Pete Doherty.
But McGuinness isn’t merely a clever musical magpie and has managed- in the space of just two albums- to carve out a fairly distinct sound that uses elements of what’s around but sounds curiously, and brilliantly, out of step. If albums were kids in the classroom then Eugene McGuinness would be sat in the corner thumbing a Victorian novel with an iPod on, generally being ignored but remaining completely fascinating.
The album opens with Rings Around Rosa, a rattling shuffle of brittle percussion and wiry guitar lines, that unexpectedly opens out into a gorgeous, acoustic lead refrain of “The gloves are off”, McGuinness’ vocals multi-tracked before the drums kick back in as suddenly as they departed. This is followed by album highlight Fonz, a song that contains possibly the best couplet of the year: “We synchronized our watches/ Arranged for the meeting of our crutches”.
But McGuinness doesn’t just rely on the exuberance of youth (he’s still only 22); he can also craft something as beautiful and stately as Those Old Black and White Movies Were True. Over twinkling piano and perfectly pitched ‘ohhhs’, McGuinness imagines a taxi ride through town, mixing beautiful imagery (“the frost christens every car that goes by”) with the mundane vistas of any large city. Its homage to the 1930s hides a hoodie beneath the silk smoking jacket and cravat.
Elsewhere, highlights include first single Moscow State Circus and the Magnetic Fields-esque Not So Academic, a tale of dark characters in Bethnal Green with a deceptively sweet pay off on the chorus; “Mother, I’m not so academic…but I love”.
So, Eugene McGuinness has crafted an album that not only builds on the promise of his mini-album debut but ushers in a brand new talent in British music. As with Alex Turner, McGuinness is able to create musical worlds that belie their author’s youth, the difference being that McGuinness is able to transcend his influences to create something at least approaching fresh sounding. It’s also an album that collapses musical history, mixing skiffle with ’60s rockabilly, or old soundtrack music with dry as the bone rock production.
Once a year an album comes out that slowly worms its way unsuspectingly onto your stereo and then refuses to budge, surreptitiously lodging itself in your head. In that sense, Eugene McGuinness has created the perfect musical definition of a grower as opposed to a shower, a subtle nudge instead of a smack in the face, and the album’s all the better for it.