by Adam Goldsmith
Drawing on the spirit of Sgt. Pepper himself, the four-piece have produced a bombastic exploration of what it means to find your place in this world
The tale of how Tugboat Captain set about recording their debut studio album, Rut, is a familiar one for any sitcom fans. You can imagine the episode. A ragtag bunch of friends from London, tireless workers on the independent scene, find themselves in the fabled Abbey Road studios. Do they fine-tune their sound, embodying a subtle transformation of identity sure to satisfy the critics? Do they heck.
A tone of exuberant melancholy reigns from the first spiralling chorus of Check Ur Health, as vocalist, Alexander Sokolow, wonders ‘is it only up from here?’ But with the album written over a year ago, the knowing wink of hindsight prevents the doom from enclosing. In tracks like If Tomorrow’s Like Today, Sokolow’s gloom is displaced by a skippy piano rhythm. While Everything About You, the band’s most recent single, dwells on that excruciating feeling of not being interesting enough in a crowded room – this awkwardness offset by the instrumental antics in the background.
Recently signed to Glaswegian label Double A-Side Records, the group were on an upwards trajectory before the virus put life on hold. A nationwide tour had been coupled with the considerable recognition of an (inevitably cancelled) SXSW booking. Not ones to be deterred, the Londoners have pressed on with an album launch night, proving so popular that a second socially distanced gig has sold-out. Of course, with the whole world at a standstill, there’s an aching relevance to Sokolow’s struggles in matching his progress against those around him. In Figure It Out, there’s a real desire to understand: ‘How did you get so comfortable / how come you look so pleased with yourself?’ With the fortune to have titled a track No Plans (For This Year) just before a global pandemic (ask them for lottery numbers), the group’s searching comparisons don’t fail to cut deep in the contemporary global malaise.
Indeed, Sokolow is the story’s everyman – his struggles so mundane as to be relatable. Everyday efforts such as deciding ‘whose name I should write’ on the bus window – in Downward Slope – are excruciatingly drawn out. That said, the album is far from depressing. Voyaging from the sublime to the ridiculous within a 30-minute indie pop package, Tugboat Captain have a knack for matching despair with euphoria. No clearer is this than in album closer Day to Day. A baroque-pop symphony, there’s a wonderful mismatch as the orchestra reaches its peak, while, at the same time, Sokolow wails that he is ‘not designed for hope’. The album’s unfortunate protagonist, his struggles are an embodiment of the mantra that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
In its vast collections of ideas and sound, Rut takes inspiration from the Beatles’ propensity to experiment. Leaning towards I am the Walrus rather than Let it Be, the noisy instrumental backing draws on the diversity offered by the likes of Buddy Caderni on keys and bassoon. True, there are moments when this orchestral chaos threatens to descend into silliness. The slapstick humour of C’mon! Haribo? with its imagery of a forlorn Sokolow, dressing-gowned in bed and surrounded by sweet wrappers, is at times overwhelming in its chaos. Yet, it’s difficult not to smirk as a choir sings ‘I’m not worth employing / and I’m barely enjoying my time spent at home’ in Damned Right. These tropes just shouldn’t appear in an indie-pop album, yet hardly registers in the context of Rut.
For long-standing fans of Tugboat Captain, their debut studio album is certainly a different life form from previous more low-key offerings such as Don’t Want to Wake Up On My Own. Still, the band’s home-made feel persists despite the notable upgrade in workspace. There’s a real sense that familiar tropes and characters, only previously unleashed at live shows, have been able to finally have their say on the big stage. There’s so much soul and heart to the soap opera of Rut that you can’t help but smirk along and wish Tugboat Captain the very best as they set sail for the big wide world.
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