Birmingham four-piece Johnny Foreigner have been around the block once or twice. In fact, their roots now stretch back almost 10 years; a decade that has seen the release of three well-received LPs and a glut of EPs, some of which garnered perfect scores while others sold out. So far, so successful.
Yet for all the acclaim thrown at their last album, 2011’s Johnny Foreigner Vs Everything, there were dissenting voices in the mix, and suspicions that the band’s boisterous brand of indie-punk was ill-suited to a 17-track odyssey of an album. You Can Do Better is significantly leaner at 10 tracks long, but have Johnny Foreigner levelled that title at their critics or themselves? Is this a sea change or a thumbing of the nose?
From the outset, it’s apparent that the post-emo quartet have not yet mellowed, at least. In fact, opener Shipping channels Sparta at their voracious best, the intertwined vocals of lead singer Alexei Berrow and bassist Kelly Southern adding an almost overpowering dimension to what is already a track that travels at breakneck speed. There’s also an extra layer in the form of Lewes Herriot’s rhythm guitar; the band’s erstwhile merchandise and album art designer makes a subtle yet undeniable difference to Johnny Foreigner’s sound.
The following pair of songs, Le Sigh and In Capitals, bound breathlessly onward. Berrow wrestles with his responsibilities, just about managing to holler out lines, his vocal delivery landing somewhere between Bloc Party‘s Kele Okereke and Pavement‘s Scott Kannberg. It’s a curious combination that suits the band’s raw, relentless riffs and keeps them from sounding too polished.
On The Last Queens Of Scotland, wailing crescendos alternate with Berrow and Southern’s full-blooded duets, though Stop Talking About Ghosts offers a somewhat less-subtle approach that sails a little too close to bombast. Together, the tracks exemplify the band’s North American bent, sounding for all the world like Tokyo Police Club demos. Hundred Reasons also spring to mind – an act once supported by Berrow and co.
Wifi Beach reverts to slacker sounds (until its overdriven chorus, at least) in a move that sees the album draw breath. Remorse-tinted To The Death then juxtaposes regret with otherwise uplifting chords and pacing before Le Schwing arrives at the same conclusion via the same waypoints. Momentum is not squandered.
Yet it is the tracks least typical to the band that stand as the LP’s highlights. Riff Glitchard is a huge departure from its trackmates: it gently picks its way into earshot before minimal percussion leads to a soundscape more reminiscent of The Longcut‘s more peaceful passages. The goalposts shift further as Southern contributes her finest moment, a world-weary, emotional, poetic lament that peaks with striking, down-tempo observations: “I might as well be an organ in your body / the damage I do when I do nothing.”
Similarly, album closer Devastator repeatedly bluffs incalzando, each jumping-off point forsaken in favour of another quiet, reflective verse. An easy trick, of course, but the result is a mature, considered sound that’s less post-punk, more Wye Oak.
So it would appear that Johnny Foreigner have done better with You Can Do Better. This is a filler-free exercise that sees the band appealing to their purists and pushing their output forward at the same time. There are suggestions, in fact, that their exploratory highs might just cast shade on their established mode. A good problem to have, surely, and perhaps a tantalizing glimpse of things to come.