Graded on a Curve:
Black Country,
New Road,
For the first time

Initially from Cambridge and now based in London, Black Country, New Road is a seven-member outfit honing a sound that draws from Louisville post-rock, UK post-punk, Krautrock, and even klezmer. In 2019 the band’s songs “Athens, France” and “Sunglasses” made a bit of a splash, with both included in new versions on their debut full-length, as the promise travels nearer to a fully realized collective vision. All the while, they retain a youthful verve and a seriousness of intent that is refreshing. For the first time is out February 5 on vinyl (black and limited white), CD, cassette and digital via Ninja Tune.

To be both young and musically serious can result in ambitiousness that flounders as often as it succeeds. Happily, this is not an issue for Black Country, New Road, in part because, at least if the group photo for their Bandcamp profile is a proper indication, they are more interested in enjoying themselves than making others miserable.

That is to say, smiles abound. However, listening to the half-dozen tracks that shape For the first time drives home an earnestness that this Yank absorbs as significantly British, though hearing “Sunglasses” back in 2019 (a nearly nine-minute track split across the sides of a 7-inch) made clear that Black Country, New Road had been influenced by the sound pioneered by Slint of Kentucky, USA.

It’s heavy, tight, intricate business that came to be defined as one branch of the fertile tree of post-rock (one connected to post-hardcore prior and math rock a little later), a sound that’s also discernible in Black Country, New Road’s other pre-album single “Athens, France” (that track split across two sides of a 7-inch, as well) and throughout For the first time, though where they are taking it is increasingly inspiring.

Black Country, New Road is saxophonist Lewis Evans, keyboardist May Kershaw, drummer Charlie Wayne, guitarist Luke Mark, vocalist and guitarist Isaac Wood, bassist Tyler Hyde, and violinist Georgia Ellery. I retain the order as found on that Bandcamp profile, which I suspect is a way of democratizing an ensemble that is at risk of being predominantly discussed through the prism of Wood’s vocals.

Indeed, in my short review of the “Sunglasses” 7-inch, Wood was the only member I mentioned by name. You might think I feel like a schmuck for doing that, but not really; once you hear Wood, you’ll understand. In 2019, I assessed him as having a young litterateur quality, and after soaking up the whole of For the first time I stand by that claim, as the title’s capitalization strategy insinuates a sentence left incomplete (pointedly, without an ellipsis).

Wood definitely bleeds the brassiness of youth, and he pushes it, but never too far, at least from my perspective. I also admire that the band has chosen to re-record both pre-album songs for the new record, a move described in Ninja Tune’s PR as reinterpretations, with the desire to sound, in the words of Evans, “exactly how we love to sound live.” In doing so, Wood is revealed as becoming more of a singer, though he hasn’t left that beautifully agitated speak-sing approach behind.

And the whole outfit has gotten sharper as players, both in technique (sans any unnecessary flash) and in working up potent group grooves as best displayed in the klezmer-influenced opening instrumental (titled “Instrumental”) and closer “Opus.” The first track in particular dishes precise forward motion, lean and tough and with edge, that’s destined to get festival crowds worked up into masses of writhing mayhem in the hopefully not too distant future.

Regarding post-punk, Black Country, New Road has been compared to The Fall, which isn’t surprising, but I’ll confess to not really hearing it. Instead, the use of saxophone, and more to the point sax that is legitimately played, reminds me of the expansive nature of the early Rough Trade bands, and also The Pop Group a little bit, though the hint of dub in “Science Fair” leads me to wonder what a Black Country, New Road collab with Adrian Sherwood would sound like.

“Science Fair” also dishes some wicked guitar shrapnel and horn skronk across a structurally multifaceted landscape. After the power thrust in the second half of “Sunglasses,” they take it down a notch, but in doing so it’s like Arthur Russell and Dickie Landry brought their cello and sax to the afterparty. That’s fab. So are the expertly navigated tempo changes in “Opus.”

If I am perhaps holding back just a smidgeon in the grading of this album, it is because the building blocks of precedent in For the first time are still pretty easily discernible. When it’s done this well, the appeal is substantial, but there are flashes on this debut album that indicate that Black Country, New Road could blur the construction blueprint even more and deliver a full-on masterpiece.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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