It’s been a long old road for The Virgins and frontman Donald Cumming since the release of their self-titled debut album back in in 2008. Five years between albums certainly seems like a surprisingly lengthy gap for a band whose first album achieved great critical acclaim and led to international festival appearances and late night talk shows. Yet Cumming had something of a crisis of confidence, which subsequently left him wondering whether he wanted to make music again at all.
Nevertheless, The Virgins are back with their sophomore album, entitled Strike Gently, despite the many changes undergone since the release of their debut LP. Importantly, the major label was ditched, allowing Cumming the space and freedom to write new material without the weight of expectation. Then there was a change of personnel, with Cumming joined by three new bandmates and friends in Max Kamins, Xan Aird and John Eatherly. But perhaps the most significant and noticeable transformation concerns the band’s sound on the new album.
Strike Gently, which is the first official release on Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records, is a world away from the Strokes-esque, indie-disco sounds of their eponymous debut. Opener Prima Materia lays the foundations for the rest of the LP, with a stop-start beat and a laid-back guitar riff. It’s much more down-tempo and mature compared to their infectious, disco hit Rich Girls, while Cumming’s lyricism also appears to be more vivid than ever before. This is confirmed by the funky, bass-led Flashback, Memories and Dreams, where he sings: “As she danced with the mirror sway, while the records played/ and the hours passed.”
Elsewhere, Strike Gently has a somewhat retro and vintage feel to it, with The Virgins sounding strikingly similar to Dire Straits, at times. This is by no means a bad thing, though, as the soothing Wheel of Fortune proves. The song revolves around a repetitive drum roll and Cumming’s intricate and rather twee guitar playing, while his crooning vocal could not sound any more like Mark Knopfler. It verges on country rock – without sounding forced – while Impressions of You continues to reaffirm Cumming’s newfound affinity for a meandering guitar riff, until the song reaches one of the more memorable choruses on the album.
The album really is quite a departure from The Virgins’ first record, but then that was always likely to be the case after such a long time away. The very direct and pop-orientated sounds of songs like She’s Expensive and Teen Lovers have made way for dialed down, introspective rockers such as Travel Express (From Me), which includes a rumbling bass line and wondering guitar solo. Then there’s The Beggar, an atmospheric, world-weary track that really marks the evolution of Cumming as a songwriter. Although the song slightly loses its way towards the end, lyrically, it’s beautifully poignant.
In many ways, it’s hard to even contemplate comparing The Virgins’ first album with their second effort, as they are essentially from two different bands. Cumming is also clearly in a completely different place to where he was when his band broke onto the scene all those years ago. And as if to hammer that point home, Strike Gently closes with Blue Rose Tattoo, a five-minute-plus, easy-going, romantic crooner. While many of those who fell in love with The Virgins the first time around may be put off by the absence of addictive indie-disco hits, Strike Gently is a quite remarkable, and effortlessly crafted, reinvention.