Hello friends, welcome to The Listening Booth. We have a bit of a theme running through what I’ve been listening to this week, but I’ll leave that for you to figure out (it’s not going to be hard). Whether you agree with my ramblings or not, it’s three stunning albums, so if you’d prefer to close this shite and listen to them, I won’t hold it against you.
PUP are a band who can be enjoyed in two ways. Morbid Stuff would work as the backing track to a BBQ allowing you to bounce along to its punk charms as it washes over you. Or, you could sit with it, listening to the words and understanding that this is nowhere near as cheerful as it might appear.
It shouldn’t take you long to figure it out either. Within the opening lyrics, Stefan Babcock is pondering if anyone he has ever slept with is dead, an observation that will turn out to be quite cheerful once you’re through. A track like ‘See You At Your Funeral’ is built on spite, diving into the process of trying to convince an ex you’re doing just fine without them, ‘I try vegan food, I take up meditation’. Sadly, it’s not to last, as it unleashes towards the end, declaring ‘I hope somehow I never see you again, and if I do it’s at your funeral or better yet I hope the world explodes, I hope that we all die’. It’s just possible the narrator is not over that relationship, folks.
That’s not the end of it either, ‘Scorpion Hill’ may open with an inviting acoustic guitar, but it details the collapse of someone’s life till the end sees their wife finding a gun hidden away in the house. Then there’s ‘Full Blown Meltdown’ which breaks down into hardcore, describing, well, what it says on the tin. Morbid Stuff is not a happy album. It’s the sound of someone lost in the world, lashing out at those around them as they try to swim to shore.
And yet, it’s a fucking joy. It’s weird, but it’s true. PUP write awesome songs and those dark musings become the choruses that you want to sing. The sun is shining in Edinburgh today, and I went for a wander with this in my headphones where it sounded incredible. It put a spring in my step, even as it detailed the mind of someone looking at the world and struggling to find the good.
If Morbid Stuff is the sound of someone seeing the bad in the world and being overwhelmed with it, then Love Keeps Kicking is the sound of someone fighting back. Once again, this is an album that is darker at its roots than it appears on the surface. However, unlike PUP you never get the impression that Martha are struggling to breathe. In the darkness is a ray of hope, and it’s kind of beautiful.
And not to be repeating myself too much, but this is an album made for the summer. That title track is a certified banger which makes you feel like you can float when it comes flying out the speakers. It’s got an old-school vibe as it leans into the harmonies embracing the fact that everyone in Martha can grab the mic (they don’t have a main vocalist, choosing to trade the job between them all). It’s so catchy that you almost don’t notice the change in tone when it becomes evident love isn’t kicking in the way you might have expected.
However, even as love deals out a beating in one song, it seems to be saved in the next. ‘Brutalism By The River (Arrhythmia)’ carries that grain of hope, pondering that ‘falling in love is a dangerous game to play’ but seeming to go along with it anyway. It’s a track (that at least in my reading) embraces the light in among songs that are occasionally finding it hard to do so, but so desperately seem to want to.
There there is ‘Orange Juice’ which reflects on someone’s failures and the sense of loss they feel at the end of a relationship. While there’s an acceptance that the other person is better without them, that makes it no easier to know what to do next. However, you also have ‘WrestleMania VIII’ which name checks Roddy Piper and Maya Angelou, and if that’s not a first, I will be shocked. This is an album to dance to, it’s an album to cry to, and it’s one that you get the impression desperately wants to be one of delight even as it sometimes struggles to be so.
However, once again, much like PUP, it is one. Because even when the darkness bursts in these songs outshine it. It’s impossible to listen to this and not smile. Love Keeps Kicking is the kind of music that makes the world look like a brighter place, no matter what the lyrics say. I’m not dismissing the words because there is value in them too, but you can take this, turn it up loud and dance the night away even as the bad taps at the window.
When you first put on Everything Is Fine, you would be forgiven for failing to see the warning signs. As ‘Cocaine and Abel’ draws you in you can appreciate its melancholic reflection on life without quite catching what it’s about. It might take two or three listens for lines like ‘but the blood in the water is the blood of my brother’ to seep through and for the title to click.
Amigo the Devil plays what he has pithily described as murderfolk. We can presume that his musical talents are not just the result of trading his soul to the devil but dancing with him in the moonlight before sharing a stiff shot. Everything Is Fine is a deliciously twisted album with songs like ‘I Hope Your Husband Dies’ being pretty straight forward in their desire to revel in the darker side of life.
However, to focus purely on that is almost to give the impression this is a gimmick. That what you’ve got here is some alright folk songs made interesting by an evil sense of humour. That’s far from the case. For all that Amigo the Devil is embracing his personal dark side, these songs are more than alright. ‘Hungover in Jonestown’ is the best drinking song you’ll hear this year (and probably for the next few) with its gallows sound and it’s call to ‘drink till night becomes another day’ while ‘Preacher Feature’ feels like an old-school country song, a genre that knows more than it lets on about the wilder sides of life.
And there is also real darkness on here. The kind of darkness that stops you in your tracks. ‘First Day Of The End Of My Life’ is a musical suicide note, a goodbye that will leave a lump in your throat as it signs off ‘sincerely, Caroline’. That it works among songs where Amigo vows to rot in hell with his lover, is a testament to the songwriting on display.
I have a soft spot for country and folk. My Mum is a country fan, so I grew up listening to it, and it brings back memories. However, a scroll back through The Listening Booth’s history will tell you that I also have a taste for the darker side of music. In that, Amigo the Devil filled a hole I did not know I needed to be filled. Bringing together two worlds that it turns out, compliment each other pretty well.