The past few years have seen the "grower" album come increasingly into vogue. More than ever, the arty and the arcane have dominated critical opinion and concert halls alike — even well-established outfits like the White Stripes and New Pornographers have crafted their slow-burners and view-turners as well. Growers, it seems, are growing on us.
That’s why the debut LP of England’s Pete and the Pirates comes as such a relief: Little Death comes roaring out of the gate. Despite their topsy-turvy chord progressions, scruffy production, and awkward name, Pete and the Pirates come off as one of the most accessible bands in recent memory.
Vocalist Tommy Sanders opens the album in his thin, reedy voice: "I’m not scared of you, darling/ I’m in love with you, darling." As these words float past over jangling guitars and giddy drums, we realize this won’t be a record of complex relationships and aloof observations. Sanders and company are in it for good times and fond memories, and their joy is infectious.
It’s not that Little Death is a shallow or simplistic album, but that the boys have turned simplicity into an art. No matter how off-kilter the melodies and instrumentation, Pete and the Pirates manage to drive home the sentiment with facility in each song. Where Sanders’s solo project, Tap Tap, comes off a bit wilder and more vulgar (like a less goofy Fire Engines), the Pirates display more polish and emotional subtlety, flirting with a mainstream sound while retaining a pure heart: "Mr. Understanding" strikes somewhere between the dissociated pathos of the Killers and the swagger of groups like the Kaiser Chiefs or Razorlight, but it’s more genuine than both; "Lost in the Woods" lays down a catchy Strokes riff and then overturns it with a rising, reeling chorus that can’t fail to evoke a grin.
Though Tap Tap’s Lanzafame taps higher heights, Pete and the Pirates succeed in crafting a more versatile sound. I would be happy with an album full of scruffy gems like the guileless rallying cry of "Come on Feet" or the plodding "She Doesn’t Belong to Me" (which appeared in a different guise on Lanzafame), but Sanders’s larger band accommodates more daring songwriting. It’s amazing to see "Song for Today," a ballad reminiscent of Bends-era Radiohead if Radiohead were a band of heart-scuffed romantics, give way to "Bright Lights," which practically sets the CD off its hinges. Dueling guitars strike with a succession of explosive post-punk riffs that sound more like Franz Ferdinand than anything the Glaswegians have ever put out, interspersed with overlapping and darkly suave voices crooning about some fateful party.
It’s almost impossible to pick favorites off an album that doesn’t have a weak track. But the more I write, the less time you have to pick up the album and wrap yourself in its stringy sweetness. And if this album isn’t a grower, it’s certainly not a shrinker: Pete and the Pirates have emerged as champions of the no-man’s-land between the U.K.’s throwaway Top 40 and band’s whose catchiest hooks are suffocated in irony and intricate production.