Graded on a Curve:
The Hobbes Fanclub,
Up at Lagrange

The 11 songs found on Up at Lagrange, the full-length debut from the Bradford England based trio The Hobbes Fanclub, explore a decidedly ‘80s-into-’90s indie pop scenario with energetic precision. While they won’t win any ribbons for broken ground, the group could easily be awarded shelf-space in the collections of listeners predisposed to their twist on a well-defined style.

The scoop is that The Hobbes Fanclub began in 2008 as a project of a single man, specifically guitarist-songwriter Leon Carroll. Before morphing into a triangular orientation with bassist Louise Phelan and drummer Adam Theakston, the Fanclub underwent a long-distance duo collab phase with Sao Paulo Brazil native Fabiana Karpinski.

Surprisingly successful (Carroll and Karpinski reportedly never met in person), the pair managed to produce two split CDRs, the first in July ’10 for Cloudberry Records with outfit Young Michelin and the second the following February, this time as the inaugural entry on the Dufflecoat label with counterparts Leach Me Lemonade.

That partnership ended shortly thereafter, Carroll drafting his current bandmates and wasting no time getting down to work, the three playing their first gig in Bradford in November of ’11 and performing at the Glasgow Popfest a few weeks later. Amongst further live action the studio was not neglected, and by August of the next year a 7-inch was issued by the Portland, OR/San Francisco imprint Shelflife.

Searching out the music from those CDRs provided a pleasurable result, but to be frank the 45 did offer a substantial step forward. The Hobbes Fanclub benefits from at least the simulation of membership crafting songs in the same room simultaneously; the band dynamic tangibly increases the accumulated heft of the new LP.

But don’t misunderstand me; it’s not as if they’re the next AC/DC. Opener “Into the Night” is non-twee indie pop with a palpable but not overwrought sense of melancholy and a focus on guitars sporting a thread of shoegaze. It establishes an approximate template The Hobbes Fanclub adhere to pretty faithfully across Up at Lagrange, the generous running-time far from wearing out its welcome on the turntable.

Faithfully but not slavishly the Fanclub’s next track “Stay Gold” attains a succinctly catchy blend of guitar-pop classicism, rock ambiance and achingly anthemic emotional release (yet appropriately well-mannered in the Brit-post-punk/C86 tradition). There are many obvious sources for “Stay Gold,” but the well-worn vibrancy in the writing, the sturdiness of the execution and the relative brevity of the whole remind me just a bit of a less lo-fi Robert Pollard grown increasingly obsessed with his footwear.

In a not always advisable maneuver, the briskly paced “Your Doubting Heart” is reprised from the A-side of the 2012 short-player, and happily in a bolder recording. Not only is the production livelier on this occasion, but a clearly detectable rise in instrumental confidence (which shuns the slick fervor that often accompanies over-familiarity with a tune) helps to rescue this version from the potential victimization of redundancy.

The Britishness is frankly undeniable, but it ain’t exactly thick as London fog. The directness and modesty of scale apparent during much of Up at Lagrange is also reminiscent of the numerous ‘90s US acolytes of the aforementioned UK indie pop emergence; if some sly bird tried to pass off “The Boy from Outer Space” as an unheralded 45 issued by the Slumberland or Pop Narcotic labels, the only snafu in the hoodwinking might be the timbre of those Hobbesian accents.

And short of halfway in, it becomes plain the Fanclub has a real knack for knocking out forceful melodies possessing qualities of euphoric lushness; it can feel like an instant mainline rush of welcome if bittersweet memories. This insures a certain level of success through consistency of craft, but the danger lays in providing a momentary surge that leads directly to a remembrance and/or discovery of other records; ultimately, nobody wants to be cast aside.

By tackling a trim sound that harbors a fairly wide base of appeal, “I Knew You’d Understand” tilts the situation firmly in the trio’s favor. It’s adequately heavy so to not alienate the rockers (the guitar solo could even sway a few Dinosaur Jr fans) as its tunefulness is built to deliver swell strokes to members of the International Pop Underground, and that shoegazey aura works both as an adhesive and a defining characteristic.

“Run into the Sea” maybe overplays that hand a smidge to actually flirt with succumbing to sheer calculation (the hugeness of the opening bass line positively screams “I love the ‘90s!”). But then again, the vaguely Spector-esque drum beat and Jesus and Mary Chain-like string distortion/echo-laden vocal combo clarifies them as being fond of other eras; the ‘60’s-ish Ba-Ba-Bas toward the end head right into another nice, if too brief, guitar break.

It should be added that The Hobbes Fanclub are not just a cohesive unit, they also steer clear of flashiness. In turn, “How Could You Leave Me Like This” strikes my ear as a little Galaxie 500-ish from around the point of This is Our Music but shorn of the post-Velvets string virtuosity (not to infer that Dean Wareham’s a showboat); it’s a lack replaced with an ample helping of unabashed indie rock gush a la partial namesake Teenage Fanclub and a sprinkling of Flying Nun (Straightjacket Fits, anyone?) mixed in for good measure.

Kicking the tempo back up is “Outside Myself,” the cut transcending the predictable by bearing down on the strings and delivering some soaring leads, and while they once more revel in the anthemic (the song could effortlessly spurt forth at the denouement of abundant indie-tinged coming-of-age movies) it’s far from the only car in their garage.

From there, the dual-gender vox in “Why Should You Tell the Truth” scored a pleasant surprise and brought additional satisfying thoughts of Sub Pop-era Velocity Girl. Surely originality is not the forte of The Hobbes Fanclub, but they are broad enough in their assorted gleanings to effectively curtail getting diminished as derivative.

To elaborate, the beginning of the title track had me fleetingly thinking of the Blake Babies’ killer early single “Cesspool” except a tad more shoegaze situated. It proceeds to introduce one of the disc’s heavier numbers, and yes a somewhat expected late-album outcome. But as informed once by a greeting card well-sent, it’s really the little things that matter. Ah, the memories.

Up at Lagrange falls short of masterpiece level but it’s still a very strong showing for a first LP, even as the group doesn’t seem to be in a particular hurry. And closer “Sometimes” definitely bodes well for the future, smartly focusing upon the creation of a weighty instrumental weave; when the vocals do kick in, the impact is significantly increased.

In the end, Up at Lagrange is best recommended for aficionados of the style, though it’s admittedly a spacious field, and bestowing gratification to genre-lovers is by no means the simple fate of The Hobbes Fanclub.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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