ALBUM OF THE MONTH: Shame - Drunk Tank Pink
A Pre-Emptive Reinvigoration
Three years can feel like a really, really long time. It's been that long since Shame released their debut album Songs Of Praise, turning heads as the arrival of an essential voice in the UK scene, and going on to become Rough Trade’s Album of the Year for 2018. It has been three years since fans began an arduous wait for a follow-up. Since their emergence, the vibrant scene in which Shame have remained a big part of has continued to offer up a wealth of great music. London friends Sorry and HMLTD have formally introduced themselves, while Idles and Fontaines DC have managed to put out two albums each. But nothing from Shame.
It would be uncharacteristic of Shame not to strike while the iron was hot. They are almost overflowing with confidence - suggested by the youthful bravado in their indie-tinged post-punk, certified by their immense and electrifying live performances - all bleeding into those ten songs in their studio arsenal of a debut LP. With the exuberant uproar of ‘Concrete’, the seedy sleaze of ‘Gold Hole’, and the anthemic heights of ‘One Rizla’, Songs Of Praise stood out as an assured project from start to finish, proving Shame to be a group not short of ideas or talent. It provides listeners with the buzz of wanting to share it with everyone. It sounds confined by the four walls of the studio and calls out to played live. Crucially, it leaves behind a lingering thirst for more.
But Songs of Praise wasn’t the finished article. While definitely a personal favourite of the last few years, (we here at SMPM listed it among the Top 100 Albums of the 2010s back in August) it always seemed self-evident that Shame’s second album would present a changed band. A few non-album tracks were often thrown in to the mix on the road to beef up the setlist and provide a taste of what was to come; the three which became tour staples were always a thrill to hear and only increased the already massive levels of anticipation for new material. Only one of them would go on to feature on Drunk Tank Pink, and in a markedly different style. (Still waiting for 'Exhaler' though, lads.)
The band truly shine at their gigs, to the point where not talking about their live presence is selling them short, but within their albums their explosive energy still demonstrates itself in real clarity. Charismatic vocalist Charlie Steen prowls and marches across the stage, Josh Finerty’s bass fills the room, and the tight dual guitar attack of Eddie Green and Sean Coyle-Smith provides the meat and muscle - all held together by Charlie Forbes’ top-notch drumming. Shame’s live act is passionate, polished, and seriously strong. As a direct result of years and years of touring in venues all over the world, Shame have already done the hard yards. The admiration of the music press and their fans’ adorations, then, are fully deserved.
But finally in September, the long-awaited first taste of new Shame music arrived in the form of ‘Alphabet’. Reluctantly, I admit I was unconvinced at first, but as 2020 trudged on it started to grow on me. With more snippets of the album released I was straight back on the hype train, so playing Drunk Tank Pink, Shame’s long-awaited second album, for the first time was in itself a great feeling. It opens with two singles, ‘Alphabet’ first - a leap into Shame’s new direction by way of a quick blast of energy well-placed as the record’s opening track - then promptly flowing into ‘Nigel Hitter’, perhaps the album’s most playful track, all built around a wonky drum beat (with cowbell!). This is the first of many opportunities seized by Charlie Forbes to show us what he can do. Despite a sometimes deceptively loose style, he is always in control, and his creativity and timing behind the kit form a solid foundation for these songs.
The explosive ‘Born In Luton’ is fantastic, with Shame firing on all cylinders. A rapid-fire guitar riff accompanies Steen’s headfirst dive into the deep and dusty recesses of a lonely heart and his pained shouts in the second chorus feel intensely real, his bandmates forming a choir to keep him afloat as the song meets its end. ‘Born In Luton’ is guaranteed to resonate in the current climate, its concern with the pressures of isolation and the loneliness it brings now so familiar. Since its inspiration came not from the pandemic but from self-inflicted seclusion after constant touring, there’s a kind of irony in the fact this song will be a highlight of Shame shows when they are back where they belong.
Isolation themes continue on ‘March Day’ albeit from a different angle. The snappy refrain “I can’t get up, I won’t get up” seems remarkably prophetic for an album wrapped up before lockdown struck and young people felt confined to their beds. Guitars anxiously jerk through the whole track, flirting between a tense dissonance and a danceable Television-esque jangle - the song feels like it’ll collapse in on itself three quarters of the way in. The record's second single ‘Water In The Well’ probably captures Shame’s essence and personality better than any other song in their discography. As Steen bounces through the song, very much in his element, his quips and barks translate his performative stage presence to the studio. Musically, it bridges the gap between the jovial undercurrent of Shame’s debut and the intricacies of the modern sound. The production is fantastic too, a sound crisp enough to show off the riffs and phrases but dynamic enough to make the exciting moments stand up with towering imminence.
The polarity between Shame’s two albums is clear. Not quite night and day, but the raucous swelling of ‘Dust On Trial’ (still a firm highlight in their catalogue) which opens their debut feels like almost like the only part of it which wouldn’t be out of place on their second effort. The excellent Songs of Praise promoted Shame’s distinctive spin on an alluring hybrid of Protomartyr-inspired post-punk and cheeky English indie rock, but that distinctive spin has evolved. The hybrid has mutated with the sound remaining true to its roots. The first half of Drunk Tank Pink is a really impressive run of tracks. It's not just this band at their absolute best, it’s modern “guitar music” at its absolute best, culminating in the calculated fluidity of sixth track ‘Snow Day’.
‘Snow Day’ is rightfully the album’s centrepiece. It’s a phenomenal song. Forbes’ propulsive drumming and the uneasy sound of the two guitarists carry the song’s first movement as the listener hangs on every word, until the whole thing erupts with a head-splitting crash. The main melody chimes in about halfway through to usher in the song’s sublime second half. From the mystique of Steen’s spoken word on sleepless nights trapped in his subconsciousness, to the cathartic walls of sound which bring the song to a close, ‘Snow Day’ is breathtakingly, frighteningly good. The band are immensely proud of it, and I can’t stop myself listening again as soon as it ends. It may well be one of the best songs you’ll hear all year.
The final five songs are then faced with the challenge of ensuring the album keeps the pace up without withering in the shadow of what is undoubtedly its best moment. Three of them are smartly welded together into a throbbing, restless mass of chaos. ‘Great Dog’ is brief but blistering punk, featuring unhinged backing vocals and finishing with a cacophonous guitar freak-out. ‘6/1’, the next track, sits slightly calmer until the blasting headbanger of an outro, but the aptly-named ‘Harsh Degrees’ is anything but, driven by an irregular riff soaked in layers of gain and distortion and closing with a thunderous, discordant racket. It’s as clamorous and aggressive as Shame have ever been. Inspired by a brand of migraine-inducing music from bands I didn’t think I’d mention - think early Daughters or The Men, maybe even the unmatched frenzy of Lightning Bolt, definitely the loudest moments from Black Midi - but Shame pull it off surprisingly well, and for a noise rock fan it’s a welcome development.
Yet the remainder of the songs here are strikingly less brazen. As they did three years ago, Shame bow out with their longest song in ‘Station Wagon’. It’s ambitious and atmospheric, and feels like it might not get anywhere before Steen begins a self-affirming meandering monologue until an epic crescendo smothers him. ‘Human, For A Minute’, the one live staple that did make the final cut, practically embodies what is happening on Drunk Tank Pink: once an indie-punk banger with the air of a 2018 outtake, it has been reworked into a slower, more brooding cooldown after the ferocity of ‘Snow Day’. The “old” version has plenty of merits, but would stick out like a sore thumb amongst the booms and blasts of this album’s roaring second half.
There is a lot packed into 40 minutes on this album. At first, Drunk Tank Pink seems to race through its eleven songs, many of them delivered at high tempo, some of them at a fierce and breakneck speed. But listening again reveals more to love about the songs, parts which you might have glossed over the first time, or poetic passages that take on new meaning. Shame introduced themselves with the quality of urgent crowd-pleasing tunes and compelling choruses, the angst of adolescence pervading their songs. Steen would repeat and repeat catchy lines of lyric to force them into your head. It might have established them as an exciting young band and a must-see live force, but Shame can’t rely on this formula anymore, and nor do they want to.
Drunk Tank Pink is an accomplished body of work. It is a reinvigoration for a band that didn’t need reinvigorating. The new crop of Shame songs are more purposeful and progressive. Their sonic evolution has swept them up like a wave and could drop them anywhere, but it’s certainly carrying them in the right direction. The production is a step forwards too and James Ford deserves a mention at the very least - for his great production work which intensifies the record’s dynamics, but also his help in refining the band’s sound and assembling the songs as well as he has. I’m a big Shame fan and was always in a position to enjoy this album, but I’ve come out of it hugely impressed. The problem with Drunk Tank Pink? It cries out to be played live. It leaves behind a lingering thirst for more. Now, we wait again…
- 8.6 -
'Born in Luton', 'Snow Day', '6/1'
Anthony Ford is a Maths student, spending every Saturday watching Burnley attempt to avoid relegation. He calms himself down by listening to music, playing guitar, or shouting at people on the TV.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He edited this article and he is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
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