Let’s start with the obvious: the band name, general crapness of. In the same way that a lot of misguided people have never bothered listening to My Bloody Valentine because their name makes them sound like the kind of band that Metal Hammer readers slobber over, any reasonable person could easily mistake London-based foursome It Hugs Back and their arty-crafty pipecleaners ‘n’ hessian album artwork for some kind of insufferably cuddly folk-pop group – and be understandably turned off. Which would be a terrible shame, because It Hugs Back are not, in fact, an insufferably cuddly folk-pop group. What they are is a lot more complex and difficult to describe.
Recommended Record is the band’s third full-length release, coming fairly hot on the heels of 2012’s Laughing Party, and it’s a bit of a leap from its two predecessors. Both Laughing Party and 2009’s Inside Your Guitar were pretty sedate, controlled affairs: all hushed vocals, spaced-out keys and guitar parts that sounded soft and distant even on more forceful tracks like Inside Your Guitar’s Now And Again, and Laughing Party’s Half American. All very pleasant, but the songs on the whole had the tendency to merge into a sort of formless, pastel-coloured musical blob.
On Recommended Record, It Hugs Back seem to finally have found some teeth and some structure. This could perhaps be ascribed to guitarist and singer Matthew Simms’ role as a touring guitarist for post-punk legends Wire, masters of the lean, tense, straight-to-the-point school of songwriting. The extent of the Wire connection shouldn’t be overstated – It Hugs Back’s prettily layered, ethereal melodies are still very much the order of the day – but Simms does seem to have added a more brutal, visceral style of guitar playing to his repertoire. It’s most audible in opening track Sa Sa Sa Sails, instantly grabbing the attention with its thrashed-out two-chord intro, and midpoint track Big Sighs, one minute and fifty one seconds of earbleed-inducing guitar squeals and enough rough-edged distortion to sand metal down to dust.
Elsewhere on the record, the band largely carry on with the mellow indie that they’re known for, but it feels a little sharper and clearer than on their previous efforts, each track standing apart from the others. The laid-back Teenage Hands and energetic closing track Recommended Record are nothing new for It Hugs Back – euphoric, breathy-voiced indie-pop – but they feel better crafted and more punchy than ever before.
There are a few perhaps unexpected musical forays – Go Magic! sees them channeling T-Rex, while Lower is an expansive piano-rock track with a searing guitar line, the unlikely lovechild of Keane, Oasis and a ’70s prog jam – but they work, because the band put their own hazy gloss on them. The best song on the album is undoubtedly the instrumental Piano Drone, which does pretty much exactly what the title suggests but in such a hypnotically beautiful, mesmerising way, full of off-kilter discordancy and distant noises that all melt together to create something that’s ambient in the best sense of the word.
It Hugs Back have an admirably DIY attitude towards their work, from filming music videos on their phones and driving their own van on tour, to recording everything in their own tiny home studio, The Record Room. Where a lot of bands with a similar ethos makes sure it comes out in their music – low production values, guitar feedback, background noise and so on – It Hugs Back stand out in the professionalism of their finished product. Recommended Record may flit between styles but it’s a cohesive and polished third effort from the band.