Edinburgh, Scotland post-punk quartet We Were Promised Jetpacks were unfairly saddled with the “Scottish emo” label a few times in reviews for their OK, but sonically scatter-shot 2009 debut, These Four Walls. On the emergent group’s accomplished sophomore effort, In the Pit of the Stomach, they dash that flimsy label to bits. And boy, do they come out swinging.
Opening track, “Circles and Squares,” is a damn near patented WWPJ glass-raiser. The cymbals wash over the growling guitars and the lead riff kicks you in the teeth. It’s a formula that they’ve employed before, but the group sounds more energized this time. The new songs were recorded at Sigur Rós’ Icelandic studio with These Four Walls co-producer/mixer Peter Katis (Frightened Rabbit, The National) and live sound engineer Andrew Bush. Both indie-rock professionals highlight the best parts of the band and downplay a few of lead singer/guitarist Adam Thompson’s more diarist lyrics. The instruments take center stage throughout.
Whereas These Four Walls‘ heart-tugging anthems split the difference between the panicked bloodletting of Frightened Rabbit and the Twilight Sad’s guitar doomsaying, this new 10-song suite creates an aesthetic home for the gloomy fellows. The anthems hit harder here due to the increased importance and sturdiness of WWPJ’s rythmn section (bassist Sean Smith and drummer Darren Lackie).
Thompson still delights ears with his fragile-yet-stentorian Scottish brogue and Michael Palmer (guitar) lays into the band’s frenetic melodies with a baneful vengeance. “Medicine” is the standout track on the album and is understandably the lead single. It’s can be a cacophonic tune at times, but manages to just glide along on a constantly burrowing guitar riff. It’s also the first instance of an intriguing psychosomatic theme in Thompson’s lyrics. (It also pops up on “Act on Impulse,” “Picture of Health,” “Hard to Remember,” “Sore Thumb.”)
Thompson sings of a delirious drug-like haze in many of these songs. Depression’s walls are crumbling on top of him as he staggers through life. It could be a failed relationship or deep-seated depression shooting out from another source. Thompson mentions broken bones, empty medicine bottles, or smell of sweat helping him get to sleep, with a bone chilling resonance. It almost flirts with gothic romanticism at times. The words are everyday colloquialisms, such as “higher than ever” or “back to the drawing board.” They’re not going to win Thompson any literary awards, but the sky-opening music sells the devastating scene.
“Through the Dirt and the Gravel” starts with an ominous guitar strum like a knock on the door. The bass opens the melody and we’re zooming off into the street. It’s one of the many examples where WWPJ’s gut instincts supplant any intellectualism you might bring to these songs. It’s better to just feel the thrum and pulse of the instruments between your ears and let go of previous preconceptions of what a post-punk band should or shouldn’t be.
Genre signifiers often sully a listener’s experience with an album. Hopefully, people take In the Pit of the Stomach‘s title as a clue and meet the songs on their terms. If one can do manage that mindset, slower alt-rock brooders, such as “Act on Impulse” and “Hard to Remember,” will seep into the skin much easier. Both build to well-deserved outros.
Acerbic rocker “Picture of Health” starts with Thompson circling the health-addled theme yet again, like that creepy kid from The Ring: “Sometimes there’s nothing worse than the beat of a struggling pulse/ In the pit of the stomach is where I can always tell.” The tune doesn’t quite hit you like the ton of bricks it should have, but the guitar parts are separated well for public transit listening. The sullen, Twilight Sad-esque crawler “Sore Thumb” fares much better. Thompson sounds like he’s singing from the other side of an empty hallway. It’s a haunting track that kicks in with just enough post-rock bombast about three quarters of the way through its run-time.
“Boy in the Backseat” and “Human Error” turn up WWPJ’s well-known theatrics tenfold. The fuzz and feedback are especially rousing on “Backseat.” Closer “Pear Tree” takes a long time to build to its din, but the payoff is explosive and cathartic. They cap a dark sophomore release that can be an emotional one-trick pony. If you’re in the mood for this type of sullen rock music, you’ll find something to grasp onto here. Besides, my doctor once told me a Scottish brogue is a good substitute for codeine. OK, maybe that’s a stretch.