October 14, 2010
Shrag take their name from an apartment block in their hometown of Brighton, England. According to an interview the quintet did this summer with the blog Rhubarb Bomb, one of the band members lived in a building called Sussex Heights, so their unusual moniker is really an acronym for "Sussex Heights Roving Artist Group." Not exactly the kind of thing you imagine they settled on expecting to have to market it all these years later to a wider audience. Was this Joy Division? Not at all. The Desperate Bicycles? Shampoo? Bis? Getting warmer...
Shrag's self-titled debut album was the result of a similarly haphazard process, and it turned out to be one of last year's most enjoyable indie pop releases. Scruffy, heartbroken, and genuinely communicative at a time when bands are increasingly getting by on mood or genre signifiers alone, Shrag collected some of the well-crafted, cleverly affecting singles and mp3s the band had quietly offered up in the past few years, including "Hopelessly Wasted", "Forty Five 45s", and (for those of us still too freaked out by adulthood to become parents) "Pregnancy Scene". With Life! Death! Prizes!, Shrag attempt a sophomore LP that works more like an album than a collection of singles, and they mostly succeed.
When they're doing tightly coiled pop songs that could stand beautifully on their own, the group-- now two women and three men, following former drummer Leigh-Ann's illness-related departure-- can be quite charming. Keyboard-streaked and punk-spiked, boy-girl duets "Tights in August" and "Rabbit Kids" are as catchy and upbeat as the feelings they express are confused and conflicted: "Your love is like your August tights/ It looks all right, but they're impractical tonight." Slowing it down but not turning off the distortion for "Their Stats", Life! Death! Prizes! scores another potential alternate-universe hit, a jagged, jerking anxiety attack that feels like the apt product of a time when "friendship" has become nothing but a number on a Facebook scorecard.
Like so many indie bands' second albums, though, Life! Death! Prizes! suffers just a little from having to be conceived during a year or so rather than a lifetime. The shouty "Faux-Coda" ("miraculous, still not over") and plaintive, poignant "Coda" ("It was a terrible year, though") are endearing and, production-wise, miles ahead of the band's past work, but they don't have the direct-hit impact of Shrag's "Talk to the Left" or "Mark E. Smith". They feel like, well, album tracks. That's fine-- they support the record's overall flow-- but it's still difficult for them to stand out in the crowded field of bands reminiscent of the UK's first big do-it-yourself wave. And the distinctive, much-needed female perspective on the indie scene shown in past singles like "Different Glue" is no longer much in evidence, either. Whether they were planning on it or not, Shrag deserve their own chance to reach a bigger audience, only for now, they're a slightly better singles group than albums group. Given indie pop's 7" culture and their own humble origins, it sort of suits them.