Glaswegian three-piece Sparrow And The Workshop struck gold with their first two albums, 2010’s Crystals Fall and its 2011 follow-up Spitting Daggers (largely, in all fairness, an amalgamation of previous EPs). Their bruising blend of folk and rock set the band apart, and lead singer Jill O’Sullivan’s distinctive timbre found its natural place between gain-laden chords, irresistible percussion and an exciting-yet-assured grasp of quiet-loud-quiet dynamics.
With a hefty chunk of 2012 committed to the recording process, are we to expect a change of tack? A reinvention of the wheel that has taken the band as far as the fringes of national airwaves? Thankfully – and perhaps gratifyingly – no: five years into their tenure, Sparrow And The Workshop continue to refine and define their output. Evolution, not revolution.
As such, familiar facets remain intact: Murderopolis opens with Valley of Death, an implicitly theatrical piece in which Jill, as expected, takes centre stage against fuzzy-yet- reined-in bass and harmonic, metronomic jabs. What is new is the sense that the band are utterly at ease; that the patient verse and gently climactic chorus are more reminiscent of an album closer; that the statement is neither forced nor hurried, and is instead afforded the time and space to make itself.
Lead single Shock Shock and its neighbour Water Won’t Fall are similarly nuanced. The former is an earworm of the highest order that would sit comfortably on any previous Sparrow effort; the latter offers a western sound tinged with menace, its distinguishing features found in its instrumentation (glockenspiel and flute).
But there are passages, of course, where the development of the band’s sound is more of a short dash than a long journey. The title track, for starters, is a real departure: opening with a couple of curious operatic yelps before ushering in a vibraphone-tinted track and hypnotic refrain (“I’ve been runnin’ round without my head”), it comes across like a theme from some dystopic 1960s spy show. There’s also The Faster You Spin – in which chugging power chords and a brutal chorus (“Fame whore!”) bring the likes of Republica and Elastica to mind – and Darkness, where Sparrow And The Workshop become The Breeders (Pod era) for three-and-a-half thrilling minutes.
But what truly defines Murderopolis is its two longest tracks, Odessa and Avalanche Of Lust. While the latter grows from timid beginnings to become vast and expansive, it goes wanting for a stronger direction; the former, on the other hand, is the album’s high watermark, a heart-rending masterpiece that occupies headspace and airwaves in equal measure. It may be the closest to perfection they ever come.
There are undeniable peaks, then – fantastic peaks – but there is also a suspicion that the LP, as a whole, lacks the impact (or perhaps just the surprise element) of its predecessors; that Sparrow And The Workshop have established standards so high that it has become a Sisyphean task to meet them. Nevertheless, Murderopolis has virtues in spades – and vices so minor that you’d be hard pressed to identify them.