sat 04/04/2020

Shellsuit, Dublin Castle, Camden | reviews, news & interviews

Shellsuit, Dublin Castle, Camden

Shellsuit, Dublin Castle, Camden

Promising Scouse rockers with a conscience take their message south

During the 1980s, a major artistic response to the Conservative government came in the form of a sustained surge in music that was, on some level at least, politically engaged. Not necessarily in the classic agitprop manner either. For every band of Red Wedge-compliant rabblerousers, there'd be another act insisting that "the personal is political", as they made domestic power struggles or everyday banalities their preferred songwriting topic. With a Tory government once more, pursuing an aggressive programme that possesses uncomfortable echoes of the Thatcher era, emerging Liverpool quartet Shellsuit provide an early indication that this wheel may have turned full circle.

Walton Prison Blues, their début album for North-West indie Higuera, is certainly one of the overlooked gems of the year so far. Warm, subtly produced and concise enough not to wear out its welcome, there's a vein of mordant, drily observed wit running through songs like "Iraqis in Shellsuits", "Suntan", and "Decline of Manufacturing".

Although rapidly attaining cult status on their home turf, they're still largely an unknown quantity in the south of England. However, early support via Tom Robinson's BBC 6 Music show may in some way have contributed to a healthy mix of the already familiar and the curious who made up the audience for this show at one of London's more revered staging posts on the indie circuit, the Dublin Castle.

After an introduction by the band's enigmatic poet-in-residence Farquhar, who rattled off a couple of cryptic verses juxtaposing the Irish potato famine with the audition process for The X Factor, they began with a vigorous run-through of the album's opening track "Just Like Everybody Else". Wearing an orange visibility vest with the legend “community payback” stencilled on the back, singer Ed Doherty makes an engaging frontman, his tuneful Scouse-accented baritone sweetening the occasionally sardonic edge of lyrics which reference the Bullingdon Club, Trotskyites turned born-again Christians, economic migrants and the modern obsessions with beauty and fame.

Below: "The Radio Sings" by Shellsuit (YouTube)

The main characteristics of Shellsuit's sound on record – ringing acoustic guitars and crisp drums – take on a more muscular quality this evening. Indeed, there are several points where the dynamic between drummer Nathan McGahern and guitarist Lee Scanlan (foregoing his usual acoustic for an electric) creates something closer in atmosphere to The Who's less frantic moments, as opposed to fellow Liverpudlians Shack or early Aztec Camera, with whom they've already drawn comparison.

Still, nothing is overplayed, and nor do they overcompensate for the restraint of the album with an excess of volume and bluster. In songs like "The Radio Sings", they document the mundanities of council-estate life with the carefully observed affection of a Shane Meadows rather than the garish buffoonery of something like Shameless. The set's closer, the bouncing "Bali, Thailand, Sydney, America", takes another approach, with the romantic appeal of quitting work to backpack around the world ironically contrasted with the necessity of having to leave your hometown to find a job.

shellsuitamazonIn recent years, attempts to articulate the preoccupations of what Shellsuit describe as “the self-educated working class” have fallen into a sort of disrepute. Hastened by the eagerness of some to play up to the stereotype of laddish rambunctiousness that emerged in the wake of Loaded and peak-era Oasis, the more thoughtful approach has been pushed to the margins somewhat. And although Shellsuit may yet be some way off from achieving their avowed intention of creating a socio-realist fusion between the emotion of deep-soul legend James Carr and the politics of George Orwell, the ambition, as well as the intelligence, is clearly already there. Either way, theirs is a voice that hasn't been heard for some time and, as the effect of the Con-Dem coalition's austerity drive begins to bite, there may soon be more people willing to listen.

Below: Shellsuit's 'Iraqis in Shellsuits'


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