Just over two years on from their well-received second album, Fight Less, Win More, London-based quartet My Sad Captains return with their third album under a new label. Bella Union picked up the band, who are named after a poem by Thom Gunn, after they impressed with their second effort in 2011. It is a move that signals an intent from the band to try something new, and that becomes even clearer when listening to new album Best Of Times.
It’s the sound of a band that are comfortable and assured in their own skin – something aided by their decision to record and self-produce the record at Bella Union’s Hackney studios – with their understated, melancholic guitar pop sounding better than ever. As the record’s title suggests, there is also an element of My Sad Captains’ third LP that reflects on the time that has already passed, while also looking forward to what is next for the band.
The album opens appropriately with lead single Goodbye, where lead vocalist Ed Wallis whispers over a precise guitar melody: “Those precious words that you never say/ you save them all for a rainy day.” The wobbling synths that underpin the track only add to the feeling of nostalgia it conjures up, with its eerie atmosphere intoxicating. The band’s fondness for drifting melodies is further explored on Wide Open, which is built around a simple, but effective, guitar riff.
While Fight Less, Win More saw the beginnings of what My Sad Captains wanted to achieve – with its sun-kissed melodies and subdued production – Best Of Times sees the band really settle into their sound and explore the possibilities available to them. Take seven-minute epic In Time, which is a beautifully measured arrangement, one that manages to accomplish so much with just Wallis’ nasal vocal and an expansive melody.
Another highlight is the mesmerising, slow-burner Hardly There. The track begins with a quaint guitar riff – one that is reminiscent of the West Coast vibes that dominated the band’s second album – while Wallis’ vocal is as hushed and reassuring as ever, as he sings: “And it feels like you’re everywhere/ meanwhile I’m hardly there.” However, as it progresses an ‘80s-indebted drum beat kicks in and the song breaks down into a thrilling climax that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Stone Roses’ record.
It is the sort of invention that has been missing from the band’s previous efforts and it is one of the most impressive aspects of Best Of Times. All Times Into One is another example of the band’s willingness to experiment with their sound, with the combination of the driving beat and sweeping keyboard melody giving the song a real sense of space, while All In Your Mind strips everything back to a basic acoustic guitar riff to create a delicate and emotively powerful end result.
Yet for all the album’s plus points – and there are many – My Sad Captains do have an unfortunate tendency of allowing their subtle, crafted melodies to occasionally lose focus and meander. Keeping On, Keeping On, in particular, is an unnecessary addition, with its wandering keys going absolutely nowhere. Then there’s closer Familiar Ghosts, which finishes Best Of Times off with rather a whimper.
However, leaving the disappointing conclusion to one side, My Sad Captains have delivered a third album that could prove to be a defining moment in their future development. The move to a new label has clearly been an invigorating one and, while the band’s understated melodies are by no means reinventing the wheel, Best Of Times demonstrates enough ambition to suggest that the four-piece have a lot more up their collective sleeve.