Here it is finally, the debut album from Birmingham indie four-piece Swim Deep and it brings with it a mixture of excitement and trepidation. It’s not hard to see why. The group’s first single, King City, included here, originally surfaced way back in May last year. It’s a hell of a tune and it understandably generated a lot of hype surrounding the group on blogs and in magazines as part of the fledgling B-Town scene. A tour supporting Spector soon followed with yet more critical notices for their next release, Honey, a near-perfect piece of pop ripped straight out of the ‘80s. That song, while less substantial lyrically than before looked set to be an album standout then and is, featuring the band expanding their palette, displaying a broader range of influences than first expected with gorgeous returns.
After all that, there came a fallow period. 2012 seems so long ago now. Of their fellow B-Town bands, Peace left the pack behind, being named on the longlist for the BBC’s Sound of 2013 poll though failing to win and JAWS and Superfood appear no closer to releasing anything more substantive than a couple of singles. The wheels appeared to be coming off the bandwagon. Perhaps it was for the best. After all, B-Town really was a quite tragic name wasn’t it?
Seeing the band perform in Birmingham back in February, the air of anticipation from the hometown crowd was conspicuous in its absent. Their set was below par. It revealed a band struggling to reproduce the sound of their records live, instead relying on a crutch of overdriven shoegaze guitars, hiding their best hooks behind a dense wall of noise. Those first U.K. headline dates reportedly interrupted Swim Deep putting the finishing touches to their album in the studio, possibly adding to the audience’s impatience and frustration. It didn’t help as well that the tour was in support of their weakest offering yet, The Sea, the poorest track on this collection. It’s a bland uninspired ditty too derivative of Sweet Home Alabama to merit inclusion among the rest of the band’s stronger works.
That appeared to be that. Final assessments were made even before the inevitable encore. While my friends of the fairer sex confirmed that the lads were prime candidates to be adorning teenage girls’ bedroom walls in years to come, the consensus was they were just not there yet. Returning to the stage, the band then proceeded to confound all expectations with a song of such striking shimmering beauty that in a mere matter of minutes all faith was restored, hype justified and sins forgiven by the time it ended. The opening line “I’ve seen it all but I’ve seen nothing yet” is one of the most elegant descriptors of adolescent suburban angst that singer Austin Williams has written yet. Its title wasn’t known then but that song was She Changes the Weather. It received an official release in May, accompanied by the album’s Intro track and set to a brooding, seductive video. It is the record to which all Swim Deep’s hopes are pinned and the reason for renewed enthusiasm and expectation for Where the Heaven Are We.
Broadly speaking Where the Heaven Are We has no right to be as good as it is. Rarely do indie bands actually succeed in creating a statement of intent on their first full-length outing yet Swim Deep have delivered a record as consistent in quality and sound to be counted among the very best of indie debuts. Judging by the influences heard clearly throughout, the pubs in Digbeth must have undoubtedly some of the best stocked jukeboxes in the land; chock full of the best British indie music from the past 30 years. Colour Your Ways has The Psychedelic Furs written all over it while Francisco finds the band at their poppiest, it really could be OMD or Ultravox. Most surprising is the synthesizer-led ballad Soul Trippin’. It’s pared back approach is reminiscent of ‘80s R&B acts like Sade, coupled counter intuitively with a chorus worthy of great ‘90s melodists like The Lightning Seeds or The Boo Radleys. It’s a combination that shouldn’t work but credit to them, they pull it off.
Each band member brings something different to Swim Deep’s sound. Tom ‘Higgy’ Higgins’ guitar playing at times recalls The Edge in its economy or as on Red Lips I Know, Echo & The Bunnymen’s Will Sergeant. The heartbeat rhythm section of Cavan McCarthy and Zach Robinson form an effective partnership with McCarthy’s bass taking the lead on Make My Sun Shine, channelling Simon Gallup from The Cure on their masterpiece Disintegration. The best trick they employ however is the instrumental passages of sublime layered keyboards and guitars behind Williams’ lazy vocals where they become more than just the sum of their individual parts.
Any other year Swim Deep’s romantic daydreams in the sun may well have seemed out of place soundtracking the typical English summer but not in 2013. Despite some of the highest temperatures ever recorded in this country, there’s still a degree of suspicion regarding a group of lads singing about sunshine and beaches, especially since they’re from Birmingham, where they will have had little experience of either. (I’m from Birmingham so I’m allowed to say that.) Any other nominal British band visiting similar themes will often do so with well-worn British pessimism, painfully aware of the powerful factor sun cream the average Brit requires to venture beneath even the mildest of rays so as to return not resembling a beetroot.
In truth, Swim Deep’s undying optimism wears a little. Indeed it’s really the only criticism to be levelled at the band on an otherwise superlative debut. They face a similar conundrum as The Thrills. You remember The Thrills don’t you? They were the Next Best Thing (©NME) circa 2003. On their breakthrough record the Irish five-piece told endearingly earnest tales dreaming of the American West Coast not dissimilar to Swim Deep, yet by their second album, that gimmick was old hat. The record-buying public soured on the notion of yet more songs about California recorded by a band successful enough to be living their dream, as opposed to merely singing about it. (By the way, the fact that Swim Deep have completed the career trajectory of a similar group from only 10 years ago before even releasing a single album is an extraordinary critique of the modern music industry.)
It’s an issue they should look to remedy as Swim Deep are at their most effective when the sunlight in their songs is less a mundane reality, more a metaphorical bliss, the kind other indie kids in British suburbs may well dream of, while plotting finding a Jenny Lee Lindberg of their own. Always in danger of repeating themselves, they will have to find some different subject matter or they face the same fate as The Thrills. Only time will tell. For now though it may not be heaven exactly, but it’s close enough for your first effort lads.