Sweet Sweet Lies – The Hare, The Hound & The Tortoise

The running theme – the ugliness of men in love, tales of guilt, revenge, and desire – makes for compelling listening.

Label: Something Nothing Records

Rating: 8

The next person I meet that bemoans the state of current music and how there’s nothing decent around anymore (before predictably referencing the halcyon days of the 60s/70s/whenever, when of course, great music grew on trees and every release was a masterpiece… obviously) is going to get a punch in the face. Hard. Then after helping them up, I’m going to strongly recommend they skip the painkillers and listen instead to this phenomenal debut, that by all rights should restore their faith and undo some of their whinging. And if they’re still unconvinced, then I’ll just punch them again.

While some of that was an exaggeration, the sentiments expressed are no less valid: ‘The Hare, The Hound & The Tortoise’, by Anglo-Scottish half-dozen Sweet Sweet Lies is a glorious – if not more than a little – sinister masterpiece. It’s not for nothing that Uncut Magazine calls it a ‘subversive debut from Brighton’s premier evil wedding band’, which in less than ten words seems to nail the band’s mission statement: these are not the guys you’d hire to celebrate love’s young dream, but supposing divorce parties catch on, they’d be bloody good for a post-breakup hootenanny. Because this is basically an album about love affairs going south, drinking (a lot), and generally being one of life’s losers – and while that doesn’t sound like a laugh riot a minute, it’s done with such a potent mix of macabre humour and acid-tongued wit that’s always underpinned by a solid musicality, and has something undeniably and marvellously British about the whole undertaking.

Opening with former single, the Gogol Bordello-ish gypsy-punk of ‘Capital of Iceland’, gets the party started at a rollicking pace and hits you right between the eyes with it’s impassioned insults, shot like arrows at the singer’s erstwhile girlfriend: ‘She is tall and much more pretty / Picked from my select committee / And she knows the capital of Iceland!’. It not only provides the backdrop for the overall sound, a witches’ brew of folk, bluegrass, and shades of country, but sets the stage for the theatricality that permeates the whole record, and alludes to it directly by drawing our attention to ‘standing in the wings, another girl moves centre stage’, and even asking somewhere else ‘am I prone to overacting?’. On its own merits however, this has to enter the pantheon of Great Breakup Songs – it’s too wickedly funny not to. Other equally impressive cuts include ‘Overrated Girlfriend’, a full-blown country brawl about a pretty but mentally unstable other half who can throw punches with the best of them, and ‘Winter Of Discontent’, where the band really hit their stride. Its jaunty, sensual rhythm and lusty piano playing, along with mariachi horns lending it a flavour of Flamenco, make it definitively a cut above the rest. ‘Breathless’ is another major contender’, marrying the dark drama of Nick Cave with Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire’, and boasts a swinging bassline, screeched vocals, and frenetic strumming.

The key element to why this album is as good as it is is the balancing of all the different components that are in the mix. The band dress up dark themes with catchy melodies and a punchy energy that matches the caustic lyricism. Even the vocals are balanced by a sweet and sour dynamic, performed by two lead singers, Dominic Arnall and Michael Hayes. Arnall’s tenor sneers and snarls, prowling across the album like a wounded tiger, whilst Hayes conciliatory tones have a pleasant, soothing quality that acts as the yin to the Arnall’s yang. But despite the mic sharing, a persona is built up over the course of the

album, of a man who at best is a bit of an unhappy chappy, and at worst is a nasty bastard. He might be good at spinning yarns and drink you under the table, but beware, girls: do you really want someone who’ll end up wishing they ‘had knives for lips to cut you as we kiss’? Hmm, maybe not. It never threatens to get overwhelmingly mean, as the acerbic observation and clever cruelty is frequently punctuated by a manic glee, and you can barely move for all the charmlessly charming self-deprecation. Next single, ‘The Day I Change’ grimly admits ‘the only things I’ve ever planned are meals and how to die’, and even ‘Valentine’, a sweet, tipsy ballad in waltz-time, strays into hopeless neurotic territory: ‘none quite like you have left me such a nervous wreck’. But the best bon mot comes courtesy of ‘Nathaniel & Bartholomew’, which exasperatedly lays it on the table, ‘don’t try to understand me, ‘cos I’m really not that deep’.

This is an astonishingly good album, and the fact that it’s a debut makes its stylistic and thematic consistency, as well as suave swagger, all the more to be recommended. Even if the musical genres covered here don’t feature on your usual playlist, they’re borrowed from with such panache and modified with hooky pop harmonies, that you won’t necessarily clock that you’ve been listening to a whole load of rockabilly and country – and by the time the realisation sneaks up on you, you’re hooked. The running theme – the ugliness of men in love, tales of guilt, revenge, and desire – makes for compelling listening, and the balance of tragedy with comedy means it never becomes heavy-handed or dull. If this is the best that British music has to offer in 2012, then we have a lot to look forward to from these Brighton rockers. And if you disagree, well then you can go punch yourself.