Testing Times

The latest ironic offering from Belfast band War Hole is a thing 'of rare and affecting beauty'

War Hole’s new album, Testing Times wears its influences like a slightly soiled truckers cap, like a buttoned up paisley shirt or work flannels with winkle-pickers. Their antecedents are sedimentary. Layer upon layer of Rickenbacker’s and super-fuzz pedals crushed ribbon-thin, striating the bejewelled rock that they quarry.

There are some lovely noises here, some awkward, clever words and moments where the band slough off their jangle-pop straitjacket and rush towards glory. Don’t tell them, though: they think they’re having a laugh.

Steven Rainey’s voice vacillates between a keening squawk and an elbow nudging bar room baritone, as though he were whispering in your ear, his burps tainted with sour mash and complimentary beer-nuts. It’s the Teenage Fanclub of A Catholic Education rather than Bandwagonesque – sloppier and more ramshackle, the guitars cresting like waves.

'Seconds (Working Title)' has the drollery and lyrical glibness of Silver Jews. Phrases are shoe-horned into short musical passages, and Rainey’s breathe control a thing of wonder as he relaxes into these garbled paragraphs, his American accent occasionally straying towards David Brent territory.

The chorus on this track is a huge, driving thing, a supercharged contrast to the plangent twanging of the verses. It’s the equal of any song on this, mostly covers, album – which has to make you wonder why this is mainly a covers album.

'Falling Out of Love With You', originally by the 6ths – Stephen Merrit of The Magnetic Field’s tribute band to himself – proving, if nothing else, that War Hole have impeccable taste – is next up. If I prefer the original (swoonsomely sung by Luna’s Dean Wareham) it’s pretty much a question of taste.

War Hole are up well up to the task of covering these songs. I prefer the mighty Hole’s version of 'Love Ballad for the Cold Robot' by Hooker’s Green No.1 mainly because of the plaintive quality of Rainey’s voice. Musically there’s little to choose between them. The opening curlicues of guitar practically indistinguishable.

Things get a lot better with their version of Spacemen 3’s 'Ode to Street Hassle'. Covering a song that is already a tribute to Lou Reed’s Philip Glass-inspired opus is so bewilderingly meta that all you can do is sit back and watch the ever decreasing circles ripple away.

The original features classical minimalism obliterated by Pete Kember’s hilariously portentous vocal. But War Hole turn the slavishness of this approach into something delicate and pretty, with a wash of reverb and a lighter, multi-tracked vocal rendering the ludicrous words almost poetical. Almost.

There is a different sense of dynamism here too – the original is linear, building to its bluesey fireworks conclusion. War Hole actually sustain interest throughout, with periodic choppy crescendos against a warm bath of shimmering synths.

'(I’ve Got) The Straight Edge' is a country polka jaunt through Fugazi’s statement of intent, neatly subverting it – a drunken jug-band clattering through Ian MacKaye’s ode to substance intolerance.

'This One’s For the Scene' is the second original in the set, and it is storming. War Hole try – it is their default setting – to take the Mickey, with clumsy 1980s hand claps, but swerve into dolorous, glorious Grandaddy territory, with minor scale piano stabs descending with the dignity of a society hostess joining her assembled guests.

The lyrics are barbed and funny, though my favourite line has no words at all. It’s a rasping mumble, as though Rainey has inadvertently got a rizla stuck to his tongue. Synth orchestration underscores the none-more anthemic chorus, with Rainey’s voice cracking appropriately to convey the conviction he tries to convince us he doesn’t feel.

Gilded slide guitar colours the second verse before it moves into an even bigger chorus, with massed Beach Boys harmonies breaking like sunlight through a crack in the clouds (though sadly it’s a Beach Boys comprised solely of Mike Loves).

What are we to make of all this? War Hole obviously don’t mean it, man. But equally they clearly love music and, when the mood takes them and with a following wind, they can produce music of rare and affecting beauty. If they could find a way to shift their collective tongues from Stephen Malkmus’ back passage and away from their own cheeks (upper), War Hole could be an utterly fantastic band. There has to be a third way.

Testing Times is available to download now from the War Hole Bandcamp page.

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