Chloë Edwards takes us track-by-track through 2001, the latest album from Cardiff duo The Vanities – a record exploring themes of love and war, madness and mortality.
Forming at the dawn of the twenty-first century, Cardiff electro-rock duo The Vanities return after a period of hiatus with the heady, slickly-produced 2001. Rhys Bradley offers vocals that nod to Bono, Jim Kerr, and Ian McCulloch, as well as guitars and production credits, whilst Adam Hill on bass and keyboards completes the duo, whose skilful blend of atmospheric indie instrumentals makes for energetic listening.
The group’s preference for sharp synthesisers serves as a gesture to their love for 80s synth-pop, which they masterfully blend with their love for 90s grunge. This could be a daunting contradictory combination for some; The Vanities, however, take on this challenge with seemingly effortless results.
2001’s opener ‘Dropping a Bomb’ is an ambitious but welcoming number, with an undercurrent of a synth scale running throughout and a glorious saxophone solo midway.
The influence of David Bowie is evident on follow-up number ‘Love is the News’; the paced melody of the track taking a deeper dive into some of the album’s key themes of love and madness. Backing vocals from Jessica & Bambam complement Bradley’s lead and elevate the track’s evocative indie character.
The Vanities are adept at putting the group’s trademark on each song on the album, something which is cemented early on. ‘The Ballad of Orla Joan’ is a lament dedicated to its eponymous figure, which builds to a layered and impassioned crescendo before its fade out.
‘Addicted’ picks up the pace, with a pulsing guitar pairing nicely with the funk tones of the bassline. Over cinematic soundbites outlining the effects of addiction, the group demonstrate once again their knack for allowing themes of love and its consequences to soar through a song and reflect in its swelling instrumentals. Nestled within the halfway point of the record, ‘Stars’ appears to reflect on lost love with excerpts from Churchill’s “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” speech.
Intermission track ‘Hollywood Hills’ takes to the West Coast in a narrative filled with American Dream-esque lyrics and silver screen aspirations of living and loving where “skies are blue, and dreams come true”, which for some, could be safe ground for indie lyricism. Boasting one of the record’s strongest hooks and choruses however is ‘Animal’, a stand out on 2001 that sees The Vanities at their cinematic best as they navigate the pressures of life in the twenty-first century. On a record named to honour the group’s twentieth anniversary, ‘Animal’ takes a look at mortality and maturity from a group whose two-decade existence has likely seen them through similar personal reflections.
Jack McDougal’s saxophone skills shine through on subsequent tracks. ‘This Ain’t Love’ explores the physical and mental effects of being in love, whilst Bradley’s dexterity with production is demonstrated by the bucking of conventional song structures that allow each element to take centre stage.
Bradley’s vocal potentials are arguably best illustrated on ‘London’, and its aching desire to revisit the past and personal history woven into the capital’s tapestry. It’s a song that flies by but one that leaves a mark, its rising climax cleverly contrasting the busking and whistling that respectively open and close the track, its slick final vivid sonic landscape worlds away from the rawness of these sampled urban street performances that occur in the districts namechecked in the lyrics.
Penultimate and title track ‘2001’ returns to an indie nature and stadium-rock naturally suited to live performance – an intriguing look back in the year of 2001. Unlike the futuristic 2001: A Space Odyssey its name may evoke, and even the rosy nostalgia of the previous track, this song instead reflects on the year and takes a different approach to viewing the last twenty years by alternatively highlighting the devastation of 9/11 two decades on, with extracts from the reports that broke the news.
Album closer ‘Autumn Leaves’ is a darker exploration of the season’s association with mortality, and sees The Vanities leave off where they are at their most familiar. It certainly makes for a poignant culmination to the record, intensified by a ringing guitar backdrop that evokes the style of U2’s The Edge. A hidden track at the end offers contemporary warnings and commentary on war – a moment that compounds the album’s musings on mortality and twenty-first century anxieties. 2001 is a clear signifier of personal growth and maturity with reflections on universal themes, and one that deserves to be heard.
2001 is available via Bandcamp.
Chloë Edwards is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.
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