At the end of 2009 I had something to say on this site about Hatcham Social‘s first album, the erratic, flawed yet still jaggedly brilliant You Dig The Tunnel, I’ll Hide The Soil. Produced by the Charlatan’s Tim Burgess and recorded while the band were on the verge of supporting Echo & The Bunnymen in what turned into a troubled US tour situation, they were very obviously a band with a future, despite or perhaps because of the combination of circumstances that were propelling them in slightly more directions than their own structure could then contend with. I predicted they were definitely ones to watch out for in 2010, and I was only very slightly wrong although it has in fact taken at least twice as long as I would have expected for their second album to appear. With two new members, brothers Toby and Finn Kidd obviously decided that for all its worth You Dig The Tunnel, I’ll Hide The Soil required a very carefully conceived follow up and while I would have very much liked to have heard About Girls eighteen months ago, I think I’m appreciating it more fully now, what with my copy of You Dig The Tunnel, I’ll Hide The Soil still maintaining a relatively prominent position on my music player.
Because it’s beyond question, About Girls is as perfectly realised a Britpop album as any of us will hear this year or perhaps indeed next. Give all of the best elements that made their debut notable – their wiry virtuosity as musicians, their confident excursions into songwriting that echoed Paul Weller and Ray Davies, their admitted indebtedness to the spectacular genius of Ian McCulloch, and their own ambition given free rein by Tim Burgess, Hatcham Social haven’t really much excuse for giving us anything less than an work of unalloyed near genius, an album that can comfortably hold its own alongside Crocodiles, Setting Sons, Village Green Preservation Society, and others less obviously of the same cast. About Girls is, within the terms of Brit guitar albums, at least a minor classic.
That isn’t to say that About Girls is a work of perfection though. Obviously recorded in something more than six weeks, there’s a varied sound to its 13 tracks that nearly unsettles their efforts. The album might’ve also benefited from its songs appearing in a slightly different order (perhaps they’re in recorded sequence), and About Girls is one you can set to shuffle mode on your music player without the songs seeming disconcertingly out of sync. Opener “NY Girl” kicks off like a vintage Aerosmith track then rapidly shakes off its stadium level intro as it transforms into a rawboned artrock floorshaker, the barbed guitar lines jibing at each other as the Hatchams set the tone of their event and much of About Girls shares this approach, a no frills verging upon frantic acceleration of their instrumentation and songwriting. I say most, but next track “Nicola Tells Me” runs in a very different direction, a (comparatively) softly played and keeningly produced ballad with a playfully surreal lyric: ‘black peppercorns make me sneeze / Nicola tells me to freeze’, it echoes first album highlight “Penelope (Under My Hat)” and exactly why its the second track on About Girls is known only to the Hatchams. “Like An Animal” also sounds as if it escaped from their first album sessions, with its horror (in this instance Werewolf) theme and sampled film dialogue, although it’s underscored with a wry humor in both its lyric and playing, with the Hatchams eerily resembling early 80s chart toppers Haircut 100 with their frenetically strummed backing track. Then, ‘Little Savage’ is the Hatchams at their most literate both musically and lyrically, a summery melody with a barbed lyric that recalls Elvis Costello or perhaps the Bunnymen in some of their more sardonic moods.
The tone of the album definitely alters around the halfway point, the later songs, “Dance With Me”, “Invention Of Air” and the nervily evocative “Escape From London” sound possessed of slightly more focus than the first half of the album although this is a very minor critique on my part. There are other influences to hear in the Hatchams music in these songs though, as they shift up a gear away from the artrock they’re already past masters of and towards more considered songwriting that contains echoes of both Blur and the Kinks, songs about London, about weekend hedonism, about their everyday lives. Last track ‘Stick Together’ is a hymn to domestic bliss ‘we could have a barbecue / invite your dad’ that’s as deceptively throwaway and as blessed with observational verities as any of their already mentioned significant influences ever recorded, and a fitting end to what’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride of competing ideas, styles and all-round indie pop brilliance.
Hatcham Social have finally given us the near masterpiece of songwriting and guitar mastery that I and others were predicting from them very nearly three years ago, and it’s been more than worth the wait. The one (or most notable) cloud on their horizon is that, unlike the Charlatans, Bunnymen, Jam and Kinks, they’re possibly stuck in the Indie box, where fewer people than should will hear their cleverly crafted tunes and acerbically worded lyrics. Those of us who do are in for a real treat though, About Girls is the sort of album that sets the bar just one notch higher at the songwriting games.