Black Country, New Road’s For the First Time is finally here — perhaps the most anticipated record for new rock fans since black midi’s debut. For one thing, they will always be unable to separate themselves from the category of weird-rock-hailing-from-the-U.K. (although it doesn’t seem like they want to leave that sphere anytime soon). They both have the label of being young talented bands, a phrase that is becoming rarer over time.
Also, Black Country, New Road played alongside black midi, creating the hilariously catchy moniker “black midi, new road,” which BC, NR’s singer and guitarist Isaac Wood clearly references in For the First Time. But that’s a lot of pressure to be compared to a band that went from relative obscurity to being nominated for the Mercury Prize in barely a year.
So now after over two years of waiting, what is the end product? It’s a bit hard to say.
There is so much to love about the way the group synergizes during the album. First, it’s hard to find many bands whose core members include a saxophonist and a violinist, so they definitely have the eclectic atmosphere working in their favor. If Slint directly influences 90% of your band’s sound, it’s highly unlikely for you to sound anything but slightly out there. The 90% is not an exaggeration, by the way.
Everything from the way Isaac Wood deadpans his lyrics — chilling and ephemeral — to the slow-moving dissonant sections that build into off-kilter time signatures feels like it came straight out of Louisville, Ky., in the 90s. It is so obvious that Wood even calls BC, NR “the world’s second-best Slint tribute act” on the song “Science Fair.”
There is a level of self-deprecation on the album that feels intensely refreshing. It results in a strange blend of high concept and low brow that somehow seems to work. Wood’s lyricism comes across as both poignant and unassuming. For example, on the track “Sunglasses,” he begins with commentary on how a lifestyle of mediocrity has shifted across generations, which transforms into an idea about the mechanisms that protect oneself.
Then, he throws in the line “Cars are going ‘beep beep beep.’” The average track length is nearly seven minutes, and yet it never feels as though the album is wasting time. The instrumentation doesn’t allow for it; it constantly morphs into something new.
“Track X” might be the biggest standout aside from “Sunglasses” because it is the first time there is a reprieve into something that is unabashedly beautiful. Some of the other songs are beautiful despite their harshness, but “Track X” thrives by existing completely exposed, which is exactly the feeling that Wood expresses as he talks about love, suicide and where the two coexist.
However, as I kept relistening to For the First Time, I couldn’t help but feel like it was lacking something. For one thing, the first and last songs don’t quite live up to the rest of the tracks, which is a shame because typically the intro and close to an album can make or break it. I think the biggest issue is that they are both klezmer-heavy. As a friend once said, “Klezmer isn’t really a ‘halfway’ genre. You either throw yourself into it entirely and learn the language, or don’t.”
BC, NR’s attempt is respectable, but ultimately it falls flat. Having only two tracks that aren’t at the level of excellence of everything else isn’t usually that big of a deal; however, For the First Time is only six tracks, so it ends up being a significant portion of the album.
In general, Black Country, New Road’s debut wasn’t quite a towering achievement, but it did manage to showcase a new age in rock bands, unfettered by a lack of constraints and a wealth of confidence. Yes, there is a general shortage of refinement across the record; but they recorded it live in only a week, which if anything is more impressive. The second British Invasion might be upon us.
Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.