I first heard Vital Idles about 18 months ago when they stormed the DIY scene with the brilliant double A sided 7” ‘My Sentiments’/‘The Garden’, and one of the things which stood out about it was that singer Jessica Higgins was clearly a born star. Her brattish vocals on the first song, basically a long list of insincere expressions of gratitude shouted over a unremitting punk racket, gave the sense of an excitable, highly literate head girl whose pride in showing off all her best words is never quite allowed to get in the way of her desire to throw some vicious shade at her peers. Conversely, ‘The Garden” also showed that they could bare all (quite literally) if necessary, fashioning something far more reminiscent of Belle and Sebastian at their understated and slightly filthy best.
Anyway, just when I was beginning to think that they’d vanished into the one single vortex, up they popped again last month with Left Hand, which in fact contains nothing quite as scabrous as “My Sentiments” or as gently beguiling as “The Garden”. Instead, Left Hand plots a musical path that is very much in the direction of The Raincoats first LP, and The Fall circa Dragnet and Hex Enduction Hour. Pounding, primitive rhythms and a grinding, spindly guitar sound are the bedrock of this album, but it’s Higgins’s spellbinding delivery and the band’s general ability to carry a tune without requiring a bucket that gives them an edge over their run of the mill post-punk competitors. Vital Idles have been likened in some quarters to Life Without Buildings, but my own take is that Higgins’s sharp, wordy diatribes punctuated by endearing yelps are more reminiscent of Helen King from the sorely missed Shrag.
That said, the stately garage pop of “Chains” does take something from LWB, with its skipping vocal rhythm and gentle sunny disposition, whilst “Waxes Colder” builds tension on the back of a nagging riff and Higgins’s irresistible melody, before the song lets rip with a welter of harsh serrated guitar. The epic “Cave Raised” forms the centrepiece of the LP; its looped verse rambles along relatively calmly as Higgins savours the twisting, enigmatic lyrics, but the song subtly builds to a slow burning, intense finale, as the tinny guitars crash and bluster and the vocal slips into an insistent, hypnotic mantra: ‘steal away, steal away, steal away…”
In contrast, the rest of the album rattles along at a furious pace, with an average song time of under two and a half minutes. This works a bit like the London bus service, meaning that when the odd song turns up that isn’t going where you want to go (especially in the third quarter), there’s never too much hanging around before something arrives that is. All in all, despite the relatively one dimensional sound here, there are enough ideas at work, especially in Higgins’s oblique lyrics, to keep the close listener on board right to the end. And indeed, her rallying cry of ‘not enough, we want more” on the album’s snarling 80 second closer “The Scenery” is of a piece with the rest of Left Hand, a brash, urgent record that, though firmly rooted in the past, has enough of an idiosyncratic take on those ideas to still sound pretty fresh even now.