Foals are currently being touted as one of the most promising bands of the moment, and deservedly so. The NME’s decision this week to feature them as their ‘most likely to’ for 2008 represents something of an Olympian leap forward for the increasingly infantile paper from last year’s choice, which was none other than latter-day visionaries The View (oh, the New Musical Express of the twenty-first century - sometimes words fail me!).
In the attendant interview the band make some very pertinent comments regarding the present state of the UK music scene and the unhelpfulness for new bands of the ‘new rock’n’roll saviour tag’, thereby nicely subverting a feature evoked with Bruce Forsythe-style inanity by Conor ‘Ultimate Cunt’ McNicholas in his (gratefully) brief editorial as ‘us putting our money where our mouth is’ (adding, with a showbiz flourish worthy of one of those gravel-toned American movie trailer voiceovers: ‘And one thing we’re never short of is mouth’).
If they deliver, Foals could be something very special indeed. Their sound is truly innovative, adventurous and sophisticated, which is obviously everything a band’s sound should be in 2008. However, it must be noted that they are criminally let down by their vocals, which seem disappointingly lacklustre and derivative compared to the exhilarating experimentalism of the music itself. Put simply, the melodic line just does not seem to contain much melody, which is well and good if you compensate by excelling in other ways – eg. lyrics, phrasing, stylistic weirdness etc – but not so much if you’re merely retreading rather tired post-punk clichés, hoping that affected shouting will make up for a lack of real formal proficiency and imaginativeness in this particular area of composition.
This does seem to be a problem that has in recent years plagued artists from London and its environs (and I include Oxford here: it's less than an hour on the train). Bloc Party spring immediately to mind as another band content to recycle the same feeble, stylised phrases based on the same limited intervals time and time again, a fact that has continually undermined their otherwise superlative music; The Libertines would have been a much better band if Barat and Doherty had let the Smithsian colour of their melodies predominate over the quasi-Joe Strummer posturing of the vocal delivery (likewise Babyshambles and Dirty Pretty Things, holders of NME’s ‘most likely to’ title in 2006).
I can’t help feeling that this has something to do with being part of a metropolitan ‘scene’, being close to the centre of hype, which as Foals frontman Yannis Philippakis so eloquently puts it in the NME piece, creates a climate characterised above all by the ‘ephemerality of success’, a climate in which fashion and short-lived trends seem to have an inordinate bearing on the shaping of a band’s sound. There seems to be something about this kind of atmosphere which favours poseurish charisma in a frontman over and above a focus on melody, a fact that has meant that, historically, the most melodically attentive, melodically original bands have hailed from the British margins where such conditions do not hold sway: The Beatles from Liverpool, the Buzzcocks, Smiths, and Stone Roses from Manchester, Super Furry Animals from Wales, Teenage Fanclub from Scotland (into the present day, it is possible to detect this trend at work by comparing north-western bands like Doves and north-eastern bands like The Futureheads and Field Music with south-eastern contemporaries such as Bloc Party, The Horrors, The Rakes etc). When south-eastern bands do throw melody into relief – the worst of Blur, The Hoosiers etc - they do so with a degree of superficiality, jauntiness, and irony that is funny for about five minutes and then quickly becomes tiresome.
Of course, there is something absurd about such sweeping regional generalisations. XTC represent one of many notable southern bands to buck the trend (other examples on the list might include Kate Bush, The Zombies, Radiohead of course, and on the other side, neither Joy Division nor the Happy Mondays were particularly inventive when it came to writing melodic vocal lines). Nevertheless, it does seem to be the case that, when artists are allowed to develop away from the centre of commerce and the ‘ephemerality of success’, they are likely to dedicate the greater portion of their labours to creating private worlds in which the minutiae of form counts for far more than the latest voguish vocal pose. Maintaining independence from the centralised ‘industry’ side of music in this country is an essential precondition for allowing melody to grow independent of formulaic, commercially-oriented vocal mannerisms and an ego-driven emphasis on style, a fact that Foals seem to be fully aware of, but do not yet seem to have applied with comprehensiveness to all areas of their otherwise encouragingly inventive sound.