Review - In The Drunk Tank
On ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ shame takes the most interesting sounds of post-punk past, pours on heaps of new wave and fills it with a more mature, more vibrant, more introspective version of themselves.
Shame’s follow up to 2018’s ‘Song’s of Praise’ comes in the form of an album that leans into its influences heavily. The in vogue sounds of post-punk are always going to draw comparisons to bands of days gone by and the post-punk elite such as ‘Gang of Four’ seem to be getting more and more relevant as that corner of music grows in size. Unfortunately for us this often ends in a boring re-hash that sounds like something that might have been interesting 50 years ago. However, what Shame have managed to do on ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ is create an album that wields that influence unashamed, while also improving every aspect of themselves sonically and lyrically. The result is a sound the re-affirms rather than rips off and waves a flag for the heritage it loves.
It’s instantly recognisable from the start of the first track ‘Alphabet’ that shame have grown. Gone is the oppressive heaviness and aggression of — their debut — Songs of Praise's opener: ’Dust on Trial’. Instead there is a lightness to the music and there is a levity in the comparison between the openings of the two. The Bass has a repeated groove that drives the song ever forward, the guitar chips rather than shouts and Charlie Steen seems to be looking inward. The line ‘Monkey see and monkey do, just like me in front of you’ signifies maybe one of the biggest shifts in the band this time round: Steen’s willingness to look inward is as refreshing as anything that could have potentially happened on Shames sophomore record. The outwardly sneering, borderline obnoxious attitude of the often — literally — teenage frontman on the bands first effort has been tempered, improved and focused. Where this focus came from has been publicised well by Steen, the feelings of isolation and an “identity crisis” brought on my the upheaval of lifestyle after a break from excessive touring. Genuine internal questioning that brings up themes such as the search for personal meaning in ‘Born in luton’ ‘I’ve been waiting outside for all of my life And now I’ve got to the door there’s no one inside’ show a side of the man and the band that we haven’t seen yet — no doubt in part to literally growing up inside the band — and it happens in a chorus, not in a spoken word passage over a swarm of noise - although there is that too. The funny thing about this is that through writing an album that concerns itself so much with the specific personal upheaval that being in a successful band brings — something wholly un relatable — Steen has accidentally written an album that makes the personal detriments of a touring cycle run in complete parallel with the mundanity of lockdown and it makes the lyrics throughout resonate even more: ‘Change the sheets on my bed I wanna smell fresh linen Will this day ever end?’ . This effect isn’t purposeful, but is undeniably effective and adds something to most songs on the album.
It isn’t just lyrically and thematically that the band grow however. Throughout the album the band show sizeable leaps in their ability to craft songs. A perfect example of this is the sublime ‘March day’ that uses a honey sweet lead guitar that’s only ever played to blast out of a dissonant section of the song. Creating that constant movement of tension and release so efficiently within a 3:11 song is truly bordering on objective evidence of improvement. Which within any form of art is sometimes impossible to mark. There are, of course, other examples of songwriting improvement — such as the weaving threads of guitar on ‘6/1’ for example — however what makes this album a triumph is the way it marries the influence with the Shame. As rife as the earlier mention of post punk is on this album, there is something else in this cocktail that makes it stand out. And that is the weaving in of the sounds of new wave — more specifically New Yorks own: Talking Heads.
The fingerprint of David Byrne’s is all over this album. It is in the vocal deliveries that add energy and playfulness to the songs and it is in the music itself. Take ‘Water in the well’ for example: The dancing guitar at the start is reminiscent of something like ‘Life during wartime’ by Talking Heads — albeit slowed down and smashed against a PiL song. This deliberate wearing of influence has lead us to a point where Shame — for the first 40 seconds at least — have a (bordering on) new wave song that could be danced to in a bar or club. And it 100% works. Until of course the wailing guitars come into the chorus, and by doing so the song has sidestepped any credible accusation of being too derivative. And it is this decision to openly flirt with the obviousness of their influences that makes it so interesting. There are times where the question should be asked wether they are getting too close however, such as the sound-byte like background textures of ‘Born in Luton’ which are an almost direct reference to ‘Remain in Light’. However even here it is underneath a song that undoubtedly embodies the distinct energy of Shame. And that texture is apparent across most of the album, in a way that often sounds nothing like Talking Heads.
The most impressive thing about this album however, is that — as they’ve moved further from the indie flavourings and more straight forward songs of ‘songs of praise’ — they haven’t become lost inside of their own self indulgent intricacy. This is music that is still more spirit rather than scripture, and retains so much energy and life that is needed at the minute, in a scene that is becoming more and more a group of early twenties somethings playing to a sea of middle age dads in ‘wire’ t-shirts that have left the kids at home (craft beer dads as sports team calls them), this album has reclaimed a little more of the actual essence of punk and indie rather than just the cerebral application of it and it rarely flies to close to the sun.
Shame wear this genre with more character than anyone else in the world right now. And flies the flag for guitar music made that compels energy from the listener.
At certain points ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ revitalises and refreshes sounds from the past that had become little more than sport for critics and, at others, potentially galvanises a scene on the verge of self parody.
Music loving, opinion giving Barrovian