“OH-HO, YOU’VE BEEN WAITING FOR A WHILE!” Pressing play on ‘Lander’, Rob Knaggs wails into immediate action, causing the sort of unexpected headphone startle that incites cardiac arrest. It’s probably the exact effect that Sports Team were aiming for - what could herald the arrival of a long-awaited debut better than a quick, sharp shock to the eardrums?
Having caused a stir up and down the country with their chaotic live shows, semi-ironic jollies to the seaside and a certain penchant for shooting their mouths off in interviews, Sports Team feel like the sort of band British indie has been holding its breath for. The traits that people find them insufferable for are the same that others adore - naked ambition, a disposition for smart-arse literacy and a ceaseless commitment to extending a joke as far as it needs to go to become funny again. Containing them on record is quite the challenge, but ‘Deep Down Happy’ manages to do what all good music should - it makes being in a band sound like the absolute best thing in the world.
Their success is all in the alchemy. Rob’s wordplay is deserving of its own plaudits, but in Alex Rice, they possess a frontman willing to work overtime. Whether he’s howling his way through ‘Camel Crew’, an ode to sell-out musical peers and the boring bourgeoisie, or giving it his best call-and-response with his bandmate on ‘Here’s The Thing’, Alex intonates with full theatrical commitment, giving new life to the pithy observations that would have fitted right in with the mid-‘90s. There’s several familiar singles back on show, but even their energy remains vital, freshly plumped with big production and sequenced in a fashion that delivers precisely zero ballads. Tear-jerkers simply wouldn’t work for Sports Team - to sing that slowly would be to pass up the opportunity for another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag.
Of course, no band is perfect. Considering their relative privilege, some of the middle-England commentary is less kitchen sink and more freestanding roll-top bath, jarring unspoken against their enthusiasm for making working-class cultural artefacts the butt of their jokes. Still, this stick is becoming an increasingly dull one to beat them with - where you’re born doesn’t necessarily negate your capacity for being bored and frustrated with the society you see around you. ‘Stations Of The Cross’ casts a damning eye across the complacency of suburban bystander syndrome, while ‘The Races’ takes suitable swipes at Union-Jack-sporting bigotry. The understated gem of it all is ‘Going Soft’, a comedy take on the fear of subsiding into mediocrity as middle age beckons. In 12 songs, they make it pretty clear which side they’re on, and it looks like the winner - smart, engaged, and willing to crack a joke with the faith that their musical dexterity will speak for itself. Love them or hate them, dismiss them at your peril.
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Watch performances from the shortlisted artists on BBC Four at 10pm on 23rd September.
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Including a show at London’s O2 Academy Brixton.